Thursday, February 4

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, February 04, 2010 16 comments
Flashbacks. They're a common tool we use, particularly in the middle of a book, to flesh out characters and add dimension to current plot events.

My current headache of the moment is how to effectively portray flashback material. My novel is about grief, particularly the denial stage of grief, and flashbacks drive my emotionally tormented character to undertake many of her mid-story actions. My fabulous gammas pointed out at our meeting last night that some of my flashbacks are perhaps TOO seamlessly integrated in the real-time action. When adult readers have to go back and re-read several times to grasp that "oh, this is flashback," you know it's not going to fly with younger readers. Switching verb tense (from present to past) was apparently not enough of a clue that time slips are occurring. I need some additional techniques to improve the clarity of what's happening when.

So, help me out here. I need some good examples of well-done flashback use from literature to study, or some writing resources you can recommend. I especially need some narrative technique options I can try out to see what works best.

What books have you read that elegantly insert memory into the narrative, yet clearly delineate the then from the now? What writing resources can you recommend? What techniques have you used for portraying flashback that worked well?


  1. Hmm, Amy Tann's books maybe? I'm totally drawing a blank. I don't use much flashback in my writing so I've never thought about it before.

  2. Alright. I'm also writing for YA. I think flash-backs need to be short. So far, I'm using the remembering words. Kathryn felt a pang of sadness as she baked the cake, remembering how she and her mother used to bake together. Then, I spent only about a paragraph or two on the past. All readers get lost when we jump around in time. I met with adults last night to discuss Out Stealing Horses and they were all confused with the time sequences. If the flashback needs to be longer, I appreciate seeing it in a new chapter with the date at the top. Really, I also love Sue Grafton's alphabet murder-mystery series. ALL of her novels are about solving cold cases, and she writes the past as separate chapters.

    Just a few thoughts!

  3. The technique I prefer, as you know, is the stream-of-consciousness flashback--beer bottle by my elbow manuscript in my hand scratching with pencil on page stretching reaching for the right words to bring story to light.

    Y'know, that kind of thing. Italics, perhaps. Sentence fragments. Recollection is fragmentary, so why not the writing?

  4. This is a tough one, Laurel. There's a reason flashbacks are often clunky and that's the jerking of the reader from the present action and storyline. You might need to use italics for short bursts of memory. Or if these are long passages of memory, you might need alternating chapters in different font or POV. I can't think of any examples at the moment, but if I do, I'll come back with them.

  5. I can't think of any books that use flashbacks off the top of my head. When I do one, I place the character in a place that is vastly different than the place that they're remembering. That may not work for you though, if your character sees something that sparks a flashback.

  6. This is hard! I can't think of an example off hand, but I'll put some thought into it. I think the format of the section is often changed (different margins, italics, different font...). I'll flip through some books...

  7. I strongly suggest you read If I Stay by Gayle Forman. Excellent book that's pretty much over 50% flashbacks. And it works. I don't know how she did it, but it's something I'm going to learn how to do!

    It's short, too. Now go read!

  8. A novel I like that goes back and forth in time is Sue Miller's LOST IN THE FOREST.

    She does it with chapter divisions.

    I am probably going to be dealing with this same issue once I complete my ms. I'm writing it chronologically, but I may want to organize it differently. Ohh, I think I had a bit of a chest pain just thinking about doing that.

  9. i use dreams and am currently using journal entries to get information into the story. i like the way it's turning out, but that's just me.

  10. Natalie: If I remember correctly, Tann used parallel stories contrasting two generations in Joy Luck Club. I'll have to take a look at some of her other stuff.

    Mary: While I do use recollections occuring in real time, woven in as you describe with narrative summary, my real issue is how to present dramatized miniscenes that happen in the past--a showing rather than telling a pivotal event.

  11. Simon: for brief, real-time recollections, I think the stream of conscious method is good. It's the fully dramatized in-the-past moments that run for a half page or more that I'm wrestling with. Another is coming up in chap 7.

    Tricia: tricky, yes. I want to dramatize the grieving mind, which tends to slip between the happy past and painful now very easily. The chapter separation would compartmentalize a bit much. Any examples you come across would be great!

  12. Bethany: Your technique sounds fascinating! But, yes, it's particular environments that tend to trigger my character's jolts into memory.

    Jemi: I'm liking the margin change idea. That just might work. Thanks!

    I already have some typographical variation with letters and e-mail and tend to use italics for unspoken speaking, like prayer.

  13. Glam: Yes, ma'am! *salutes* I'll check that one out. I'd heard mixed reviews about the content, but it sounds like Forman's narrative techniques are worth a look. Thanks!

    Amber: I have the added fun of trying to deal with repressed memories, which don't tend to become unlocked unless triggered. Whee!

    And good luck with organizing your material.
    One of my crit partners is wrestling with the same issue. If I hear any good tips, I'll pass them along.

    Michelle: my MC is an artist who uses her sketchbook as a journal of sorts. That might be a really effective way to open some of the repressed memory material. Yeah. I'm liking that a lot. Thank you!

  14. Hi Laurel~ This conversation is interesting. My knee-jerk answer was the same as Simon's, use italics. Also, I just finished reading The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold. The entire novel takes place within a twenty-four hour period, but about half the book is flashback. I didn't have trouble following because the front story was so immediate and distinctly different from her memories of the past.

    Best of luck with your project. You're so much farther into the process than I am with my WIP -- you're inspiring me to get there! Thanks for following me; I'm off to join you as well :)

  15. I don't do flashbacks, I can't. Is there something wrong with me? Are they over done?

  16. Nicole: Now I have to go pick up that Sebold book! You've convinced me. :-) And thanks for following.

    My crit group was dubious about my writing flashbacks in the voice of my proganist's younger self, though I thought it helped make clear it was past rather than present material. I'm thinking if I could dumb down the vocabulary just a bit more in that scene(to sound like a 5-6 yo), it would fly.

    GWOE: You're not strange at all. If your story doesn't need 'em, don't use 'em.

    My story is about the grieving experience, and it would be mighty strange to never have full-blown memories of the deceased. It's a huge part of processing loss.