Join Lisa Cron for an in-depth discussion in this video Example (Flashbacks, subplots, and foreshadowing), part of Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story.
The goal is to slip into the flashback or subplot at the precise moment we need to know the information it conveys so that when a scene ends and we re-enter the story, we have a new insight into what's happening and often into what's actually at stake. With that in mind, let's take a look at this passage from the novel about Emma, a violinist about to give her very first recital. (female speaker: As soon as they announced my name, I walked to center stage.
I couldn't see past the brightness of the footlights, but I knew there were hundreds of Paganini devotees waiting to hear me play, to hear precisely how I would interpret one of the greatest works ever written for violin. I paused and an image flashed through my mind. It was my eighth birthday, and I'd just started taking violin lessons. I was at school, hoping no one knew it was my birthday, because most kids' moms brought in cupcakes, and I knew mine wouldn't.
I was mortified when the teacher announced to the whole class that it was my birthday, but before I could take cover in the cloakroom, my best friend's mom came in carrying the most beautiful homemade birthday cake I'd ever seen. She told the teacher my mom had made it and asked her to deliver it. I was so relieved I wanted to hug her, especially since I knew she'd baked it herself-- my mom couldn't even boil water. I shook off the memory, glanced at my mom in the audience, lifted my instrument, and began to play.) My guess is you're wondering what the birthday flashback has to do with violin concert.
The story is at such a crucial moment, we figure the writer wouldn't interrupt it unless there is something we really need to know before Emma begins playing. So we're busily trying to find something that isn't there, a connection between the two events. There are two reasons a writer would do this. One, since the recital is such a big moment, she wanted to milk it for all its worth so she decided to prolong it by hitting the pause button, which isn't a bad idea.
Two, since at some point we'll need to know about the birthday cake incident, she figured now was as good a time as any--which is a bad idea-- and that's where her story went off the rails. Introducing information before readers have any idea that will have significance, let alone what that significance might be, only confuses them. Ironically, these transform information that would shed light on something important if it appeared at the right time into something that stops the story cold instead.
The key to writing a good flashback is to make sure it conveys information necessary in the moment. So let's imagine the same opening paragraph as we slip into a flashback that does tell us something we need to know before Emma begins to play. (female speaker: I paused, recalling the first time my parents brought me to this theater. I was eight years old. I sat on the edge of my velvet seat, and when the violinist appeared, I felt the energy in the room change.
It was as if everyone opened a little door in their hearts for her, even my parents. As she started to play, I glanced at my mother, her eyes were closed and she was smiling. I'd never seen her smile before. I didn't know she could. I ached to be able to make her smile like that. Maybe if I mastered the violin, she'd open her heart to me. I knew one thing: I had to try. Now, just nine years later, I was the musician on that stage.
I was the one the audience was opening their hearts to. Still, I didn't dare glance at my mother as I lifted my instrument, tucked it under my chin and began to play.) This time the flashback informs what's happening in the moment by giving us a glimpse of what underlies Emma's desire to play and what she hopes the concert will bring her. She doesn't want into everyone's heart, she wants her mother's smile, and knowing that changes everything.
- What is a story?
- Hooking your reader
- Feeling what the protagonist feels
- Being specific
- Creating suspense and conflict
- Writing flashbacks and subplots