As writers, we have many tools (or devices) available to us. These devices allow us to do things a normal human cannot do, such as travel in time, know what characters are thinking, and hop from one location to another. However, if we indiscriminately used all the tools all the time, our readers would be so confused they wouldn’t be able to follow the story. Therefore, we try very hard to follow the action line of our story chronologically, revealing what happens in the sequence in which it occurred. We also try to stay with just one character’s thoughts at a time (our viewpoint character), and we limit each scene to one location (unless the viewpoint character is in motion, in which we move with the viewpoint character).
However, there are times when we need to give background information about a character—and there are times when we need to act out that background information. This acting out of something that happened in the past is called a flashback. Since flashbacks interrupt the current action of the story, we must always weigh the advantages against the disadvantages. Are the benefits we receive (a glimpse into a character’s past) worth leaving our characters dangling in time while we go into the past? If so, don’t hesitate to use a flashback. If not, continue with your storyline and find other ways, such as exposition, discussion, etc., to entwine the past with the present.
If you choose to use a flashback, you must follow the secret, unwritten rules by doing two things that will tip the reader that you are leaving the present. First, you must provide a transition statement, such as, “John remembered the day his father died.” Second, you must shift your current story tense to a more distant tense. For example, if your main storyline is in present tense, you’ll need to slip into past tense for the flashback. However, if your main storyline is already in past tense, you’ll need to use past perfect tense (“had”) once or twice. Do note that if your main storyline is in present tense, you should present the entire flashback in past tense. However, if your main storyline is in past tense, you should only use past perfect once or twice. That’s enough to clue your reader that you’re going further in the past, and, by then reverting back to simple past tense, you avoid the clumsiness of remaining in past perfect.
This combination of transition and tense switch is what lets the reader know they have stepped into the past. So, your job now is to act out the flashback scene with action and dialogue, and, when you are finished, clue the reader that you are returning to the present by using past perfect once or twice (if your main storyline is in past tense). Then, revert to your normal tense, and, if necessary, include another transition sentence (“But that was then and this was now, and John had to let the past stay in the past.”) that further clues the reader the flashback has ended. Here is an example:
Danny remembered more about his mother’s death than he’d ever told anyone. The day she had died, she had called each of her sons to her bedside individually.
“Pour me a cup of fresh water, please,” she said, her voice thick with the Polish accent that decorated her words when she was tired or sick.
Danny filled the cup, careful not to splash it on the bedside table.
“Now, hand me my lipstick.”
“Be good,” she finally whispered, her voice raspy.
He went to the door, started out, then stopped and turned around. His mother tapped several tiny white pills from the lipstick case and shoved them into her mouth. She gulped water, then dumped more pills into her palm and swallowed them. Three more times, she had repeated the process.
Even now, Danny felt responsible for her death. He looked at his father and swallowed hard . . .
As with all devices, it’s imperative you don’t overuse flashbacks. They are spices to be sprinkled lightly, used only when absolutely needed.
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