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Using Flashbacks

Using Flashbacks

A Session with Tanya Anne Crosby

“Show, don’t tell!”

Any writer whose been at the craft for any length of time has heard this edict time and again. It sounds easy enough; it’s harder than it seems. But I didn’t learn to recognize this literary sin until I abandoned fiction for a few years and took a job as the editorial director for a stable of parenting magazines in Dallas, Texas. Writing for magazines taught me to write short and to weigh the preciousness of each and every word. In magazines even your white space is orchestrated and the passive voice becomes a deadly sin. Once I became conscious of writing in the active voice vs. the passive voice, this is when I began to naturally “show, not tell.” The instinct to relay information as a flashback was a bit more instinctive.

So let’s flash back! Very early in my career, like most authors, I discovered the dreaded “info dump”—you’ve met these and no doubt given birth to them. They are long stretches of information supplied all at once and usually in narrative form. These are often easy to locate in your story, especially for new writers. An editor once told me, “You can easily lop off your first three chapters and never miss it.” Alas, this was true. When we first sit down to write, long before we open our literary vein, we’re looking for ways to set the stage for the magical tale we’re about to tell. Because we are in love with our story (and I believe we have to be) we need readers to understand why it’s worthy of their attention and why our characters should matter to them. It seems that the only way to do this is to convey all the truly interesting tidbits we’ve pored over in our heads—the hardships of their childhoods, the quandaries they are facing, the sacrifices they have made, etc. Unfortunately, and almost inevitably, this telling happens almost right away in the form of the “info dump.” But, beware, info dumps are not always in the beginning of your story. They can be anywhere, but we also often seen them at the end, where suddenly you need to tie up loose ends. We’ve all seen those B movies (and read the books), where villains suddenly need to unburden themselves to the person they are about to destroy. Of course, they have to confess themselves, because if they don’t, the reader won’t have a clue why they did what they did. It goes something like this: “Let me tell you why I’m going to kill you. It all started way back when, and now you must understand why you have to pay!” So, yes, info dumps can disguise themselves in dialogue as well.

Exercise 1

There are many ways to determine whether or not something belongs in your story and in particular in your first three chapters. Ideally, you want to start a story in the middle of an action, or crossroad. (e.g. They are going somewhere; their lives are changing, they are facing the greatest challenge of their lives.) Something big is happening to this character, or else there wouldn’t be any story at all, right? But if you started your story exactly where you should have and still you suspect the presence of an info dump, this is an easy exercise to exorcise it. Start with your first chapter, read it to yourself (out loud, because this forces you to acknowledge what you’ve written in a far less worshipful mode). As you go along, underline all background information you encounter and write down what question about the story or character it is intended to answer. Once you’ve finished, go through each of the questions. How many times have you repeated the same thing? Remove these. Keep your favorite. Readers get it, usually after the first time, especially in the beginning, so don’t belabor points. Also ask yourself: Is this information necessary for readers to know? If the answer is yes, do they need to know it right now? Or is it something better doled out later in your story? Think of this rich background information as story bait, to be dispensed gently over time, reeling your reader along, with the finesse of an expert fisherman hooking a big fish on the line.

But enough about info dumps. Although they are related to our subject, this article isn’t about info dumps, so once you’ve determined that you’ve started your book in the right place, you might find you have a list of background info that must now be inserted into your story. You can do this with the use of flashbacks and/or foreshadowing, both equally effective tools to accomplish the same task: introducing events that are not actually happening in the present moment. But these two devices have distinctively different uses. Flashback’s cousin foreshadowing is more often used to build suspense toward a major event, like this:

Down at the baseboards, Zoe thought she detected a hint of pluff mud, even after all these years. The sulfurous scent of Charleston’s swamp mud was distinct and unsettling. If you were unused to the smell, it was enough to pucker the nose. It stank of death and decay. Thanks to Nana’s Gullah stories, there was a time Zoe had attributed a far more sinister meaning to that sulfurous scent.

Sometimes—especially as a child—she’d suffered night terrors—dreams that played stubbornly, even after her eyes were wide open. Zoe learned to control them, a bit like counting sheep. As shadows in the room played havoc with her imagination, she corralled her dreams, playing out the scenes in her head.

But worse than the dreams was the occasional sleep paralysis—a transitional state between wakefulness and sleep, where Zoe’s limbs felt paralyzed. It didn’t happen often but in those moments she understood she was asleep. She could see the room as it was, as though she were wide awake. Always, beyond her peripheral, there was a dark figure lurking and Zoe couldn’t get away. She couldn’t scream. Couldn’t move.

Now, it so happens I used a flashback here to foreshadow. But flashbacks are simply meant to take readers into the past. They don’t have to hint at anything yet to come. They might simply reveal information your reader needs to know. There is a time and place for all literary devices and it’s our job as writers to determine how best to tell the story. Some things are better revealed through dialogue, some through action, and sometimes, like cardboard characters, it’s less invasive to use a “shortcut” and simply tell the reader with a straightforward flashback. Ultimately, we want them to keep reading, and part of how we do that is to never to allow them to be pulled out of the story, something time-switching devices can sometimes do. However, done properly, a flashback can reveal emotional and physical information that might better be noted by the reader though not yet by the character. They might help to benchmark your character’s growth along his story path in a way the reader can be present for, even when the character is not. So flashback info can be conveyed in one of three ways: a straightforward flashback like the one above where you simply tell the reader it’s a flashback. Or you might treat it as a dream sequence, or a memory.

To better understand when to use a dream sequence or a memory, you might think of them as “flashpresents” – a term I encountered that, for me, clearly defines when and where to use them. Triggered by something in your story, the flashpresent can reveal what a character is thinking or feeling in a way that has far more impact than simply telling. For Zoe in my novel The Girl who Stayed, a moment arises when she’s forced to contemplate whether or not she should have a gun. Guns make her uncomfortable, and this is clearly conveyed in the scene that arises, but rather than say: “Zoe’s father once held a gun to her head,” I opted for a flashback. The image of a father pointing a gun at a daughter is a horrifying prospect, no matter how I say it, but if I use a more straightforward device, this is a lost opportunity for the reader to relate to Zoe, and this is where the dramatic use of a flashback excels:

“Zoe,” her dad said, his tone stern, low. And sad. So achingly sad.

She froze, terrified by the tenor of his voice. Attention from her father rarely boded well, but his voice sounded particularly ominous today.

“Come here, Zoe.”

Standing alone in the hallway, Zoe wanted to scream no. She wanted to yell for her mother. She wanted to race outside into the light of day, where secrets were impossible to keep. But she did none of those things. With a heart that beat too hard for her not-yet-mature breast, she slowly turned toward her parents’ bedroom door, a portal to hell right there in their Middle American home, complete with glowing red light projected by the oversized orange lampshades, one on either side of the master bed.

Rob Rutherford was seated on the edge of his bed, made military style—the sheets folded into hospital corners, and then tucked under the mattress, all the way up to the head of the bed. In spite of the fact that he was seated on the bedspread, the covers were stretched so tight there wasn’t a single crease. He was polishing his gun. It lay in pieces all shiny on the flowered spread. Her father said nothing as Zoe came to stand in the doorway, watching him pluck up sections of polished metal, one by one, to re-assemble his gun.

Zoe had no idea how long she stood there. She recognized a fathomless sadness in her dad’s eyes, coupled with an inexplicable anger. She couldn’t quite determine which of these things she was more afraid of—his anger that was so often directed toward her, or the broken man, who truly had no one responsible left to fix him.

That someone like her father—the tall, handsome, larger-than-life soldier he had once been—could snap like a twig beneath bare feet was inconceivable. That her mother, the gentle ally she had once seemed to be, could turn all her grief and loss into silence was implausible.

Zoe had little knowledge about guns back then. She had no idea what sort it was her father held in those hands that presumably had once changed her diapers. It was a handgun, that’s all she knew—one with a barrel that looked large enough to a teen’s wide, fearful eyes to shoot a cannonball through, like the big black iron balls that sat mounted in pyramids at Battery in Charleston; Civil War era projectiles that were monuments to hate and fear. The gun, was a testament to these things too, but it was held by someone she’d once looked at through a child’s innocent eyes. The broken soldier had once been her hero.

“Where’s your mother?”

He already knew where her mom was.

Something about the look in his eyes gave Zoe pause. She knew to watch her mouth. He wanted her to smart off to him right now. In fact, he often baited her that way, because he wanted Nicky to hear his only remaining sister be the smart-mouthed little bitch he often referred to her as. He wanted her mom to see that he was well within the rights of his parental duties when disciplining Zoe. But this moment, they both understood Zoe would keep her mouth shut. They both knew she only ever took the bait whenever her mother was near.

Right now, there was no one around to save her. The house felt like that tomb her mom feared it would become.

Clear, sparkling liquid formed in her father’s eyes. Zoe would have called them tears, but it didn’t seem possible that he could be subject to these signs of human frailty.

More than that, Zoe didn’t want to need to comfort him.

Once her dad’s gun was fully reassembled, he looked up at her, water glistening in his eyes, and he said something entirely inconceivable. He said, “Do you know how easy it would be for me to pull the trigger, Zoe?”

Bam. 

Zoe felt the question like a blow to her gut. She said nothing in response, but her head grew dizzy and her heart hurled itself into her throat, lodging there. Her pulse ticked throughout her face, until she could feel it clear into her jaw, even through her teeth.

She didn’t dare move.

Daren’t respond.

Even the notion of speaking made Zoe’s heart pound harder. “I should put both of us out of our misery,” he said quietly, as though he were weighing options.

Zoe stared at him with a sense of horror, understanding that he meant every word—that he could do it. And just to prove it, he leveled the gun at her. That’s when Zoe looked straight down the bar- rel. Her legs turned to jelly. Her palms began to sweat. Her throat grew thick with fear, as she stared down the barrel of her father’s gun, and then she lifted her gaze to his sad, sad hazel eyes, wanting inexplicably to go to him, to comfort him, because it seemed to Zoe that her dad had never needed comfort more than he did in that instant.

But he had the gun.

One wrong move would see her brain matter splattered all over the wall behind her. She had no clue where her backbone came from—or even how the words escaped her tight throat. Despite feeling woozy, she let go of the threshold and said, devoid of emotion, “If you shoot me, Daddy, you’ll have to shoot me in the back.”

Daddy. She said it like a five-year-old child. Daddy, as though there could be love.

She waited a moment, praying there was something left of the senior chief petty officer that would prevent him from plugging an innocent kid in the back—never mind that Zoe was his daughter. Her feet seemed glued to the floor, but she pulled one free and turned and walked away, slowly at first, and then, as she realized he wouldn’t pull the trigger, she slid around the hall, out of his line of sight. She went straight back to her room, closing the door. Why she didn’t leave the house, Zoe would never know, but she sat on her bed for who knew how long, listening to her father cry in his bedroom, half expecting to hear the boom of his gun go off, and thereafter walk inside to spy the mess he’d made.

Maybe that’s why she stayed?

To clean up the mess.

Because that’s what Zoe was most inclined to do.

At its core, a flashback is merely a device that bridges time, place, and action to reveal insights about your characters or move your story forward. Sliding in and out of flashbacks can be tricky, but they don’t have to be. I often use an element in the story to trigger them. Here are a few brief examples:

Excerpt 1

On the front side of the screened-in porch remained a baseball-sized hole in the mesh. Zoe remembered when it happened. She and Nick had been throwing the baseball out in the yard, just the two of them. Wearing her dad’s stiff glove, she’d made a sad attempt to help her brother improve his game.

Standing in the front yard, her brother had looked sullen, ready to give up. “Come on,” Zoe had said. “You’re so much better than me.”

Excerpt 2

At her back, on the counter, the cell phone rang again. Shoving off the counter, she made her way into the living room, without bothering to check the caller ID. If he wanted to play hide ’n seek, she didn’t intend to give him the first clue.

“You can’t find me!” a child’s voice sang from Zoe’s past.

Barely perceptible, after years of mental erosion, her sister’s ghost sat huddled behind the living room door.

The screen door had been closed and locked, possibly to keep two-year-old Nicky from wandering outside. The heavy white door was left ajar to lure in a sweet ocean breeze. This was before they’d built the screened-in front porch.

Hannah’s skinny body had scarcely fit behind the door so that the door remained halfway shut, or halfway open, however you chose to view it. An orchestral rendition of the Beatles “The Fool on the Hill” had drifted out from under the closed door of her father’s office down the hall.

“Na, na, na,” Hannah had called out, giggling.

Use flashbacks anywhere you want to enrich your story, with one caveat: Beware of tenses while using flashbacks. Like music, your words must be finessed to give the illusion of the active voice, without confusing the reader as to where the character is presently—past or present. Inasmuch as flashbacks feel like second nature to me, this is when a great editor is indispensable. He or she can also help you locate lost opportunities to create a richer story through the use of flashbacks. But with practice this is also something you can do for yourself. Try these exercises:

Exercise 2

Read each of the sentences below and then create a flashback scene that better illustrates these lost opportunities to give character insight:

He felt now the way he had that day when he saw his first love in the grocery store after more than ten years.

She once saw a dead body.

Sadly, Sarah moved her hand over the cracks in the vase, remembering the day it broke.

About the Author…

Tanya Anne Crosby is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of twenty-five novels. She has been featured in magazines, such as People, Romantic Times and Publisher’s Weekly, and her books have been translated into eight languages. Her first novel was published in 1992 by Avon Books, where Tanya was hailed as “one of Avon’s fastest rising stars.” Her fourth book was chosen to launch the company’s Avon Romantic Treasure imprint. Known for stories charged with emotion and humor and filled with flawed characters Tanya is an award-winning author, journalist, and editor, and her novels have garnered reader praise and glowing critical reviews. In 2013, she penned her first romantic suspense novel, Speak No Evil, which appeared on the USA Today list. The Girl Who Stayed brings her full circle to work with Lou Aronica, President and Publisher of The Story Plant, who first published Tanya at Avon Books. Tanya and her writer husband split their time between Charleston, SC, where she was raised, and northern Michigan, where the couple make their home.

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