Join Jessica Brody for an in-depth discussion in this video Flashbacks (advanced), part of The Foundations of Fiction.
(gentle electronic music) - Hey Jess, remember the other night when we were watching that movie, and that guy just came in and gave us popcorn? - Yes, that was so awesome, but kind of strange. (dramatic orchestral music) - It was so bizarre, wasn't it? - I know, how did he know that we wanted popcorn right at that minute? - I have no idea, but you know what was really cool? - What? - The way we did that wavy line at it, just like in those old TV shows and movies, when they wanted to signal a flashback.
- I know, that was awesome. - It'd be amazing if we could use it in writing fiction, too. - Yeah, it's too bad we can't, because flashbacks can be a really great device in fiction, but they can be tricky to do well. - So this is why this advanced lecture is devoted to flashbacks. - But if you're not ready or interested in covering flashbacks right now, just skip over this lecture and continue with the rest of the course. - [Jo] Flashbacks are pretty magical things, and if done well, they can be really useful in telling your story and adding a whole other level of depth and intrigue to your writing.
- Even though in fiction writing we don't have the luxury of those wavy transition lines like they use in TV and film to signal flashbacks, we actually have something a little more powerful. - Our reader's imagination. As the writing teachers Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey French point out, the reader's mind is a swifter mechanism for getting into the past than anything that has been devised for stage or even film. In fiction, you can give the reader a smoothly worded transition into the past, and the force of the story will be time-warped to whenever and wherever you want it.
- [Jess] So true, you can write in your story, eight years earlier, when she was working on the cruise ship, and then suddenly, you're taking your reader back in time, just like that. - [Jo] Flashbacks in fiction can vary in length. Sometimes they are just fleeting memories and detours into the past. - [Jess] And in some novels, flashbacks can be whole scenes or even chapters, take, for example, Liane Moriarty's novel, Truly Madly Guilty. The story is told in two different time periods, the day of a very important barbeque where something big happens to change the lives of six people, and a few months after the barbeque.
- [Jo] The author alternates chapters from present day, a few months after the barbeque, to flashbacks of the day of the barbeque, which she labels at the start of each chapter so the reader doesn't get confused. - In this lecture, we are going to focus on the more common short flashbacks that occur here and there throughout a narrative. These flashbacks are usually used to flesh out a character, or fill in some of the history of events. - [Jo] Here's a nice use of flashback, from Tim O'Brien's short story, The Things They Carried.
The story takes place in Vietnam, but here, the protagonist looks at a photograph of a young woman he carries with him, and it triggers a flashback. Lieutenant Cross remembered touching that left knee. A dark theater, he remembered, and the movie was Bonnie and Clyde, and Martha wore a tweed skirt, and during the final scene, when he touched her knee, she turned and looked at him in a sad, sober way that made him pull his hand back, but he would always remember the feel of the tweed skirt and the knee beneath it and the sound of the gunfire that killed Bonnie and Clyde, how embarrassing it was, how slow and oppressive.
He remembered kissing her good night at the dorm door. - [Jess] Suddenly we've gone from Vietnam to the character's hometown and to a movie theater. We've traveled back in time with Lieutenant Cross, and can really see and feel this sweet memory of the girl he liked and their day at the movies. - [Jo] And it really adds to the present story, making it all the more poignant that this regular young man is now in a dangerous and difficult battle in Vietnam. - The flashback doesn't last long, so it doesn't distract too much from the main story, but it adds to the backstory and characterization of Lieutenant Cross.
Here is another example of an effective use of flashback. This is from The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. In this scene, toward the beginning of the novel, Katniss has just volunteered as tribute at the reaping, and Peeta Mellark's name has been randomly selected. The author uses a flashback to give the reader a little insight into the history of Peeta and Katniss' relationship, or lack thereof. Why him, I think. Then I try to convince myself it doesn't matter. Peeta Mellark and I are not friends. Not even neighbors, we don't speak.
Our only real interaction happened years ago. He's probably forgotten it, but I haven't and now I never will. It was during the worst time, my father has been killed in the mine accident three months earlier in the bitterest January anyone could remember. The flashback continues on for six pages, in which Katniss describes how hungry and desperate her family had become, and how Peeta had tossed her a loaf of bread when she was starving outside in the rain. Then, to bring us pack to the present, Katniss says this: To this day, I can never shake the connection between this boy, Peeta Mellark, and the bread that gave me hope, and the dandelion that reminded me that I was not doomed.
- Notice how, in both of these examples of flashbacks, the author transitions smoothly and clearly from the present story to the past. Tim O'Brien signaled the flashback with the words, Lieutenant Cross remembered, and by repeating he remembered again in the next sentence. - [Jess] And in The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins used a similar device of memory when she wrote, our only real interaction happened years ago. He's probably forgotten it, but I haven't and now I never will. Then she actually uses ellipses, the dot, dot, dot, to let us know we were traveling into the past.
- [Jo] Then, to bring us out of the flashback, Suzanne Collins uses the words, to this day, reminding the reader that we're back in the present, and this six-page journey was just a memory. - It's good to look at how other writers shift in and out of flashbacks. In your own writing, try to avoid cliche transition phrases such as, Charles thought back in time, or, she drifted back in memory. - [Jo] Then when the flashback comes to an end, you want to be clear you're coming back into the present story. One way to do this is to repeat an image or an action that the reader will remember from the present-day storyline.
For example, if your character is at a fun fair in the present story, after a flashback, it could be the rumble of a rollercoaster that brings us back to the present story. - [Jess] One really important rule with flashbacks is to avoid telling flashbacks within flashbacks. - [Jo] That would just be over-egging the pudding, as they say in England. - [Jess] Yes, and it could really confuse the reader. - The other big rule with flashbacks is not to overuse them. Spread your flashbacks out so they're not right on top of each other, otherwise, you risk your readers getting completely confused.
- You should definitely avoid unnecessary flashbacks as well, if you want to get across some useful background information about characters or the history of events, it's good to remember there are ways to do this, instead of using flashbacks all the time. - [Jo] For example, you could use dialogue. If you simply want to get across the details of where your character was born and grew up, then at some point, that character could say something like, I was born in Philadelphia, but grew up in New York City. We don't need a flashback to show this. - [Jess] In addition to using dialogue, you can also use brief summary to convey backstory.
So for example, it's okay to simply write something like, Anna was born in Philadelphia, but it was New York City that really shaped her childhood. - [Jo] If you're tempted to use flashback to fill in backstory or history about a character, try this exercise first. Write down everything you know about the history or backstory of the character in a notebook or on a separate computer document. - [Jess] Then take a look over what you've written and see how little of it you can get away with using. In other words, how much will your reader be able to figure out for themselves? And also ask yourself, how can you condense parts of the backstory into quick summaries or pieces of dialogue? - So to sum up, flashbacks can be useful when used sparingly, and when reserved for just the right moments.
In general, however, the less you interrupt the main story by inserting a flashback, the better the flow of the narrative will be. (energetic rock music) - So why don't we give these flashbacks a try? - Sure, I'm excited about this prompt. It's going to be very surprising and fun, and it's called I Remember When. - [Jess] First, pick a number between one and 10.
Now, on this screen, match your number to the corresponding scene. - [Jo] Now, pick another number between one and 10. And then on this screen, match your number to one of the 10 possible flashbacks.
- [Jess] When the lecture is over, set the timer for 10 minutes and write the scene you were assigned. Try to incorporate the random flashback you got as smoothly as possible. - [Jo] This may be tricky, depending on your combination, but we know it's going to be a lot of fun, and a great way to practice incorporating flashbacks. - So what did you get, Jo? - Well, I got the doctor who's giving bad news to a patient, but he's also having it, or, he or she is also having a flashback about their family vacation. (both laughing) - Oh gosh, how awkward. - And what did you get? - So I got the person standing in line, having a flashback about the time they were chased.
Pretty intriguing. - Pretty intriguing. Have fun with the flashback and scenes you came up with. - If you want to hear how ours turned out, go ahead and watch the next mini-lecture, or just skip along to the next advanced lecture on narrative style.
- Creating memorable characters
- Writing dialogue
- Selecting a point of view
- Using an unreliable narrator
- Narrative style
- Building a setting
- Mood, atmosphere, and emotion
- Crafting a plot, from the setup to the resolution