Sunday, March 1, 2015

Five Techniques for Effective Flashbacks

In a long work of fiction, what’s the best way to insert crucial background information without boring or confusing your readers? This common writing problem is especially acute when you are writing a sequel or a series. There is no one right answer for every scene, but each of the following techniques can be effective.

1. Use a straightforward flashback. In old movies, flashbacks were fairly common, and were usually introduced with a musical crescendo and a wavy dissolve to the scene being revisited. In fiction, the transition is often made with a character musing about something that happened in the past: “Jeb couldn’t help thinking about his brother, and how the two of them had often arm-wrestled to decide who would go first in a game of Risk….” [Seque to flashback scene.] The problem here is making the introduction to the flashback seem natural. I have found that a straightforward flashback works best if the transition itself has emotional resonance that the reader is aware of. For example, in my latest novel, Pandora’s Promise, Zach has been conscripted to fight a battle, and he doesn’t know what to expect. As he waits nervously in the pre-dawn with his fellow warriors,
Zach had a few bites of the porridge. He knew from experience that he fought better on an empty belly. After eating he sat on a rock just outside the tent, drawing on a pipe of newsmoke as he watched the early morning sky and thought of the battles he had fought.
The fights against the President’s men had been the easiest, in a sense, because he and Will had been so certain they were in the right. He still remembered his first battle—a skirmish, really—a carefully-planned assault by Will on one of the President’s more remote, but strategically located, outposts to the west by the river.
The plan had been for Will’s men to surround the installation before dawn, then storm it before the defenders were fully awake…. [Seque to the scene, which is crucial to understanding Zach’s attitude toward fighting as well as his relationship with his brother Will.]
    This simple technique can work well, as long as it isn’t overused.

2. Reveal crucial information in a conversation. This technique is very common, both in printed fiction and in movies and television, and the temptation to use it is often overwhelming. However… and it’s a big however, it must be used with care. If you want to impart background information by having two (or more) characters talk about it, don’t have one character tell another something they both know. Ever. Under any circumstances. This elementary rule of good writing technique is frequently violated,  especially in television shows, and especially in soap operas, to often ludicrous effect. For more on what I call “The Soap Opera Rule,” see How to insert background information in dialogue.

If you want to reveal information in a conversation, it’s essential to have one character remind or reveal information that he and we, the readers, know is new to the other character.

3. Write a prologue. A lot of writers use prologues, and I have done so myself, most notably in Pandora’s Children, the second novel in my Pandora’s Trilogy. At first glance, a prologue--incorporating a summary of what came before the new book begins--seems like the perfect way to join the previous book with the new one. Soon after Pandora’s Children was published, however, I read that most readers do not like prologues and simply skip them. (You mean to tell me that all the care I lavished on that prologue was wasted?) With some distance, I re-read the beginning of the novel and realized that the prologue hadn’t been necessary after all; that the bits of crucial info were few and could have been done another way that was more organic to the story.

I wrote a prologue to my new novel, Pandora’s Promise, but no matter how carefully I tried to craft it, I realized that it was simply slowing the story down. Yet the information--an event that takes place between the end of the previous book and the beginning of the new one--was crucial to the entire plot and had to be imparted somehow. But how?

4. Use a physical object to connect two points in time. The more I thought about the information I had to get across, the more I realized that Zach didn’t need to be present for its revelation. The information, that an important character from the previous two books, had committed suicide, rocks Zach and sends him on what turns out to be a life-changing quest. But though we readers know that something emotionally wrenching has happened to Zach, we don’t find out what until a scene that takes place six months later, between the other two lead protagonists, Will and Evvy. The physical object that ties the two points in time together is the suicide note the dead man left for Zach, which is reproduced in full in this scene. In the note, he talks about a “trinket” he had found that he left for Zach. That trinket proves to be key to the book’s most important plot point.

Toward the end of the book I used another, more startling, physical object to lead to an important flashback. In this scene, the Principal (Will) is sitting alone in his office, awaiting an important meeting:
On his lap, where he could easily drop it into a desk drawer in the unlikely event that someone should enter without knocking, was a long, soft coil of hair... Evvy’s hair, which was all that remained of her.
This hank of hair, which (erroneously) has convinced him that Evvy is dead, is the gateway for a lengthy flashback that ties up all the plot points that are not directly connected with the ultimate conclusion of the story.

5. Find a unique way to bring the past into your story.
Since Pandora’s Promise is the third of three novels, there was a great deal of earlier information that I felt had to be included sooner or later in the new book. But I didn’t want to stupefy my readers with flashback after flashback. And then I hit upon the idea of the empathic elephants, who are able to read the “sense-images” in Zach’s mind and project them to other humans who are present. This perfectly solved my problem, because not only was I able to incorporate several scenes that would otherwise have seemed out of place, but because the elephants themselves turned out to be warm and believable companions--several readers have told me their chapters are their favorite parts of the book. Here’s an example of how I used this technique. In this scene, [Rushing River], the elephant, expresses curiosity about how Zach and Evvy first met.
Zach had never before shared the story with anyone. He paused to set his thoughts in order, then began to tell [Rushing River] how the Principal had sent him to procure Evvy from her parents, nearly seven years ago, when Evvy had still been a very young girl. At first Zach simply spoke aloud, so that Jonna and Billy could hear him too, but as soon as he formed words, [Rushing River]’s curiosity opened a series of vivid sense-memories, as if his words had created a library of images for [Rushing River] to peer into. Though he had participated in the events, he was shocked at how detailed the memories were; not only could he see all that had happened, he could hear and taste and smell as he had done at the time. He realized that his memories must have been formed in far more detail than he was consciously aware of. Next to him Jonna gasped. “I can see it, Zach! I can see everything you remember!”
Throughout the rest of the elephant scenes, the humans and elephants continue to exchange thoughts and memories and even philosophical musings.

As for what the elephants are doing on the Great Plains and how they became empathic, you will have to read Pandora’s Promise to find out.


  1. You've made some great points Kathryn. As a series author also, I find myself struggling with this. I want my books to stand alone and not be like sequels where you must read one to have a clue what's going on in the next one.Since I'm carrying a blossoming relationship through with my two leads, there has to be a little back story in each book if they're to stand alone. I've been working with flashbacks after receiving complaints about my prologue.

    I'm finding that the technique that works best for me is to put my characters into situations that are resultant of things that happened in the past and to use that to impart information that needs to be told. For example, one of my characters was severely injured in book 1 and, of course book 2, that picks up where that left off has her barely mobile and possibly that way for a while. I explain the injury briefly when I have her going to physical therapy as part of her healing process but I do it in a way that those who have read the first book won't be saying, "well duh, I knew that!"

    1. I really appreciate your comments, Anne, especially since we are on similar journeys. Interesting that you received complaints about your prologues. I'm pretty sure I will never even attempt another one. I like the way you solved your problem with explaining the injury and healing. I guess that would be technique number five: find a unique way to bring the past into your story. That is, of course, harder and requires more thought, but it seems to be the best.