Writing Flashbacks

One of the the issues with Heart Scarab, the second Taking Shield novel, is that it isn’t entirely linear.

Joss, Bennet’s older, long term lover, makes his entrance in a long flashback in chapters three and four. I won’t give away the plot, but he’s just back from a night on the tiles to be greeted with unwelcome news. The flashback takes the reader back more than eight years, to when Joss is teaching a seventeen-year-old Bennet about life and love. And, of course, mummification. 🙂

I’ve weighed all the pros and cons about using flashbacks. I know that they can be a distraction from the story ‘time flow’ and there are decisions to be made about leaving the characters dangling while we take a look at the past. And yes, they can lack immediacy because it’s old stuff, already done and dusted, and the readers know the characters as they are now—will they care about what the characters were like and what they were doing eight years previously? Will I confuse the reader, jumping about in time like this? Will they end up thinking I’m just dicking about to be clever? And can I pull it off so it *works*?

But I also think the benefits can be enormous. A flashback, done well, can take us into a character’s past in real time, rather than trying to deliver important back story through boring blah blah blah exposition that has your reader glazing over. A flashback can add tension to the narrative and real depth to the characters. It can make the readers attitude to them change, get them more and better invested.

So while I seriously considered ditching the chapter, it’s an important look at their relationship as it was (passionate and vital) compared to the relationship as it is now (fragile and crumbling). As a bonus, it also contains one of the lines I love the most in the entire story. But it’s long enough that I split it into two chapters of several little scenes in which Joss remembers the past. Joss’s other big chapter, later in the story, is another retrospective one, where he’s marrying up the past and the present.

Indeed, that’s Joss’s function in this story. He’s the mechanism for the reader to find out about Bennet’s first (and long lasting) love, the one that sets his second great love into context. And while Joss is about the past and has a share in the present, it’s Flynn that represents the future. So this is an important, can’t-really-be-ditched couple of chapters that put Flynn into context in Bennet’s life. By seeing the depth of Bennet’s love for Joss, the reader realises what he’s sacrificed for what he can get of Flynn.

For that reason, I’m sticking with at least trying to keep the flashbacks. So, how to write them in a way that’s coherent, that flows well, but which is clearly back in the past and not in the story’s linear time? Without writing clunky subtitles “Flashback”  or “Eight Years Earlier…”

The first thing I’ve done is keep the non-linearity. The story just wouldn’t work by starting with the flashback. It’s too retrospective, too far back in the past and the leap forward to the present would be too jarring. Instead, I’ve got two opening chapters that are strong (I think!), full of action and ending on a dramatic high. That makes Joss’s two chapters a real change of pace. And in some ways, yes the reader is going to be left hanging wondering what’s happened to Bennet. I can only hope it keeps them reading, desperate to find out more.

On a purely technical note, I’ve tried to orient the reader and signal it’s a flashback. I’ve started the retrospective in the past perfect tense for line or two, to let the reader know that this is a move back into the past. I hope that it’s smooth enough that most readers won’t consciously see what the verb tenses are doing, but unconsciously they’ll realise what’s going on. Of course, maintaining past-perfect for the long period of this retrospective would not only be hard, but has the potential to stop hovering in that unconscious zone—I think the reader will start to notice it’s an unusual tense if it’s sustained for more than a few easing-them-into-it lines. So after those few lines, I’ve switched to ordinary past tense (I’ll reverse that process at the end of the flashback to signal we’re back in proper story time):

A scarab, a long-dead mummy and a shared love for archaeology had brought them together in the first place. Joss’s laboratory in the first sub-basement at the Thebaid Institute had been cool, keeping the mummy at the optimum temperature to prevent damage. Joss had set the spotlights on their stands to bathe the mummy with unshadowed light.

“Here,” Joss said. “Can you feel it?”

The boy’s slender hands, smooth inside the skin-tight protective gloves, had moved tentatively over the mummy’s intricately bandaged chest. “I think so.”

Joss put his own hand over the boy’s. Bennet stilled for a second, letting Joss move his hand into place.

“Here. Just here.” Joss pressed lightly down, letting the boy feel the amulet where it lay on the mummy’s rib cage. “Got it now?”

Enough, do you think? That opening sentence should set the scene and tell the reader we’ve moved back in time. I think it works, but I’d welcome views and comments.

Now all I have to worry about is that chapter four involves both a graphic sex scene where Bennet is technically (if only just!) below the age of consent (sigh) and a scene that *insisted* on being written on second person PoV, and which works so well for me that I’m truly reluctant to change it. Not to mention that’s where my favourite line is sitting.

Any views on using flashbacks? What works for you? And most important, what doesn’t? Would you do it? Would you say, get the hell out, Anna and ditch the retros for more damn action already?  Tell me.

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4 thoughts on “Writing Flashbacks

  1. I think you’ve tackled one of my main issues with flashbacks in a way I’d never considered before–the problem of the past perfect tense. I know that wanting to avoid grappling with the past perfect is one reason some people choose to write in the present tense–but I can’t do that. I’ve tried. 🙂 I also suspect there is cultural component to that as well, as I have read many more British novels written in the present tense than not.

    But it never occurred to me to voluntarily change tense in a flashback (inadvertently, I’ve got down cold 😉 ) and to do so specifically for the reasons you name make perfect sense to me. Awesome!

    But I also think the benefits can be enormous. A flashback, done well, can take us into a character’s past in real time, rather than trying to deliver important back story through boring blah blah blah exposition that has your reader glazing over. A flashback can add tension to the narrative and real depth to the characters. It can make the readers attitude to them change, get them more and better invested.

    This is my reason for using flashbacks–particularly if without them, one of your pivotal characters would otherwise never make an appearance or go too long without being seen. But it’s tricky–it has to be well-written, and even then some people won’t care for it. I ran into that with the long dream sequence in The Boys of Summer–felt it was absolutely critical to the story–and yet there were a handful of readers who felt it didn’t work for them. Fortunately, most of the feedback indicates that I made the right call by including it.

    One of my problems with flashbacks is stories that whip back and forth in time. I think of these scenes as the equivalent of head-hopping. I’ve read one very good story in which the entire structure of the book was based around a progression of flashbacks leading up to the current moment in time–that was very well done! Much like a television show that starts with “Fourteen Hours Ago…” But sometimes the flashbacks feel like a cheap way of telling your story without going back and showing it from the beginning.

    I tried to rework a novella into a novel recently. In order to retain the original novella intact, I had to be *very* creative adding the backstory without rehashing the events in the novella too much. In the end, I gave up. 🙂 I’ll be re-writing this story from scratch, eliminating one secondary character and swapping genders on the leads. I just couldn’t make it work as written.

    Having had the benefit of reading the first book in this series, I can say that I have confidence that these flashbacks will be an integral part of the story–and that they will appear seamless.

    • I don’t claim any great insight into the verb tense shifts to signal a change and then morph into something less obtrusive. I’ll have picked that up somewhere over the last few years, but heaven alone knows where. It makes sense, though, that long sections of past perfect tense will be difficult to read just because we’re conditioned to the standard being simple past tense. Since we want our readers to be comfortable and receptive, then its best we ease them back into their comfort zone quickly.

      Which explains your discomfort with present tense writing. We’re conditioned into expecting simple past and everything else feels a bit contrived, doesn’t it? I’ll admit I do use present tense in shorter things – and once wrote an entire novel in present tense – The Lords’ Anointed – but wouldn’t do that again. Too difficult!

      I have played around with time stuff. Heart of Glass (the precursor to the present tense novel) had three time strands, but my personal best has to be a BSG story that was both non-linear and written in four tenses as it shifted from section to section What can I say? I went through an experimental phase.

      I’ll be very interested to see what happens with your novella, particularly the impact of the gender change. Are you finding it’s working easier now? What makes it that way?

      And (cough) too kind! (cough)

  2. I personally like flashbacks, it gives the author a chance to let the reader know what’s helped to show the development of the characters, how they gotten to where they are now. I really like your use of flashbacks in your previous works, so keep them. Thanks, Monica

    • I think that flashbacks can be a good way of making back story feel more real and alive, rather than just through dialogue, say. Showing the entire scenario and treating it in the same way and style as the main narrative has to feel more realistic than a lot of “Hey, Fred, remember when we blah blah blah…”

      I’m glad that when I’ve used them before, it’s worked for you. That’s very reassuring!

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