The power of the flashback

About writing

You know how it goes. You’re watching a TV show, and all-of-a-sudden the scene changes. Flashback to five years earlier. If there’s one thing to be said for binge watching in the Netflix age, it’s that I’ve thought again about how I tell a story.

I’ve always known that a strict chronological timeline turns off the reader. Unless you’re an absolute master with a truly gripping story that evolves with every tick of the clock, you need to jump about a little when it comes to delivering back story. But, nearly every show I’ve watched this year employs flashback. Be it in the form of standalone episodes that focus on the motivation for one character, or juxtaposing scenes that find characters in better or worse situations in the past (or sometimes the future). 

Writers have often used prologues to expose a key event in the past or future before diving into their story, and whatever you think of them, done right, they serve the reader well. In my latest book, I’ve taken the decision to cut up the story with flashbacks. They’ve appeared in a late edit. Until now, back story was delivered in discrete chunks, where the first person narrator recounted their logic to the reader. The temptation was always there to make these more detailed, but I knew it would damage the pace and flow.

Bite-size back story

I tried to slice motivation into bite-size pieces, but the natural story began to feel too much like a book, taking the reader out of the action. Early on in this edit, I experimented with a prologue, and then with a first flashback. I read it all back, and to my surprise found it worked. What I’d tried to do was tell the story as it unfolded, planted small, but non intrusive questions in the mind of the reader. Each flashback picked these up and allowed me to explain things. Free of the five-line limit that I self-impose on back story, I could go to town. Explain why someone might act as they do and inform their future motives.

I’m not sure I could have done this in the first or second draft. It takes a few goes before I feel I understand my characters enough to explore their past. My real worry was would I be hurting the pace by taking people out of the story. By keeping the chapter numbering for the present tale, and labelling each flashback as ‘Six years earlier’ or ‘Five years ago’, the sense of the story remained. 

An early reviewer described my story-telling as episodic, and this feels like the next logical step to delivering on this.

How do you feel? Are you a chunk-feeder or ready to go the full flashback?

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