At the start of a new year, we look back in order to look forwards, and I think it’s worth noting that this is also one of the main actions of writing. I thought I would take some time today to talk about writing flashbacks – why we do it, when to do it, and how to do it.
Before we get there, a quick definition: by flashback, I mean any time in a fictional narrative or a non-fiction explanation when you stop the main story or flow in order to look back at something that happened in the past, in order to make sense of what is happening in the present. There is no form of writing that doesn’t employ this technique in some way, shape, or form.
Why Even Write a Flashback?
Readers turn to books to help us make sense of a world that often doesn’t make very much sense. Our lives don’t always have clear arcs or neat resolutions, and they certainly don’t have the clarity that comes from following a step-by-step how-to guide laid out by an expert. Whether we are reading a memoir, a novel, or a non-fiction book, we are seeking a deeper understanding of the world, of the other people in it, and of ourselves.
Each of us goes through the world with our own belief system, our own way of thinking and knowing. We can’t actually walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, but we do have the ability to imagine what that would be like, and it is that imagining that expands our understanding.
That imagining is also extremely individual. If I say to you, “Picture a castle on a hill,” you will see something very different than I do, based on where you live, where you have travelled, what you have read, and how many Disney movies you have watched.
We write flashbacks in order to let our readers into those specific, highly personal thoughts, in order to invite them into our minds and our way of seeing, because that is the closest anyone will ever come to getting inside someone else’s head.
So we write flashbacks to give our readers insight and understanding. It’s as simple and as profound as that.
When Should You Write a Flashback?
In my definition, above, I explained that a flashback lets us look in the past in order to make sense of the present. The past can be yesterday, an hour ago, five, fourteen, or thirty seven years ago, but they key to when to take us there lies in that definition: in order to make sense of the present.
You should only use flashbacks when the present demands that we know something from the past. You should not use flashback because you the writer decided that the reader needs to know this thing and you picked an arbitrary place to dump it on us. We hate that. That feels like a lecture. What we want is an invitation.
The best way to learn how this process works in writing is to watch it at work in your own life. Pay attention to what causes memories to come into your mind, to what brings you in and out of the recollection, to how long they last and how detailed they are.
Let me give you an example of how this recently worked for me.
Like millions of my fellow humans, I was recently in a theater watching the new Star Wars movie. When Harrison Ford showed up on screen as Han Solo, tears instantly came to my eyes. I imagine that tears instantly came to a lot of people’s eyes (I mean, he’s with Chewie, on his battered and beloved and dependable old ship, and he says, “We’re home,” and it’s a lovely moment.) The question is, though, why did tears come to MY eyes? What specific understanding was I bringing from that past into that moment that was different from any one of the millions of other teary-eyed movie-goers?
If I were writing about that moment (in a memoir, or transposed in some way to a novel, or in a non-fiction book about, say, the power of a shared cultural moment), I would be leaving the reader completely out if I didn’t answer the question. I would be letting the reader flap in the wind by bringing up my teary eyes without also explaining what it meant to me – an omission which would confuse and frustrate them. Or I would be leaving them to interpret for themselves why I was crying – which would mean I gave up my authority.
I owe it to the reader to explain my tears so that they can understand what I am feeling, and whatever larger point I am making in even choosing to talk about Star Wars in the first place.
The past that brought tears to my eyes in that one silver screen second has many layers, but the two most prominent layers for me were:
- The fact that grey-haired Harrison Ford looks alarmingly like my dad (who is on the right, below); and that my dad has always been quite like a superhero/action figure to me, with all the power and all the limitations of that job; and that because of the same devil-may-care attitude he and Han both have, I have never been completely sure that my dad would survive any of his many adventures; and the fact that, unlike my dad, Han can always be counted on to swoop in to save the day. The split-second appearance of Harrison Ford’s face yanked all of these thoughts up to the surface in a sudden bittersweet wave of affection and regret. That alone would have given the moment meaning, but there was more:
- The fact that I was 13 years old when the first Star Wars movie came out, and this time I was sitting in the theater with my husband and our grown children, and all this time has passed and Harrison Ford has grown older and I have grown older, too, and on top of all that there was a time that is now receding into the past when (because of a cancer diagnosis) none of us were sure that I would have the chance to grow older. And yet there we were – my husband and my children and I -- having made it to that moment, which brought up a whole different sent of intense emotions about mortality and chance and love and loss, just as complex and nuanced as the other wave.
Do you see how, if you knew none of those things, my teary eyes at Harrison Ford could be mistaken for straight up movie nostalgia, or for something else entirely?
You need the intel from the past in order to understand my tears. If I were writing about those tears, it would be my job to give you that intel and to give it to you the moment I told you about those tears. If I waited, I would lose the opportunity, I would lose momentum, and odds are good that I would lose you – because SO WHAT that I got teary in Star Wars? Everyone got teary at Star Wars.
Flashback allows you to answer that so what at the moment the question is raised, which deepens the hold you have on your reader because it deepens the meaning of what you are trying to convey.
How to Write a Flashback
The key to making flashbacks work is to enter and exit them in a seamless way. They are part of the story you are telling or the point you are making – not a separate thing. But you need to give the reader distinct cues and clues as to what you are doing.
Those cues almost always have to do with the passage of time – days and dates. It often feels heavy handed to write these kinds of sentences – Three years before… or The last time I was in a movie theater… or I suddenly remembered my tenth birthday party… but those straightforward cues are necessary.
In the Star Wars example, I might write this:
Tears instantly began to burn my eyes and I felt my throat close up. I felt silly – why was I crying at Harrison Ford’s sudden appearance? – and I looked at Emily to see if she had been impacted by the moment in the same way. She hadn’t been. She sat watching the movie unfold as if nothing momentous had occurred. [This is “story present.”]
It was then that I realized that my 20-year-old child simply didn’t have the same deep history with mortality that I had. [This is a statement of my point in telling this story…]
She had only been three when I was diagnosed with cancer. [Note the use of ages to bring the reader back in time… we are now entering the flashback.] I remember that once we decided to tell the girls, we gathered them in the living room to try to explain what was happening. We told them we had something important to say, and while her older sister was antsy about the gravity of the moment, wanting to escape it, Emily seemed to sink into it. She sat there with her little forehead wrinkled in concern, her green eyes drinking everything in.
“Your mom has a sickness called cancer,” Rob said.
“That’s what Grandma died from," Carlyn said.
“Yes,” I said, “But the kind I have is different. We don’t think it’s as bad.”
“Are you going to die?” Carlyn asked.
Rob took my hand. “We don’t think so,” he said, “We’re going to work with the doctors to do everything we can to make sure she doesn’t.”
“Okay,” Carlyn said, convinced, and got up and left the room.
Emily stayed. “What’s cancer?” she asked.
Rob took a pencil and drew some shapes on a yellow lined piece of paper. He then explained how cells divide, and he turned some of the shapes into larger shapes.
“How will the doctors make it go away?” she asked.
Rob explained how doctors had tools to remove the cells that divided the wrong way, and he erased the dots. This seemed to satisfy Emily – but she never asked what death was. She never asked what it meant to die. Perhaps, at age 3, that simply wasn’t part of her worldview. Perhaps, like any child, she simply couldn't imagine her mother not being there.
Sitting in the darkened theater next to her 17 years later [Note the use of time to bring the reader forward in time and back to story present] – having lived all those years, having survived – I felt immense gratitude for the opportunity I had to raise my children to adulthood. I felt immense gratitude to be alive.
Suddenly it didn’t seem silly at all to be so moved to see Hans Solo return against all odds, yet again.
Here’s another good way to learn how to go in and out of flashbacks: watch sketch comedy. The best comedians often fold stories within stories and you can HEAR how it works.
With my kids home for the holidays, I was invited to watch all kinds of great videos, clips and sketch comedy routines that I might not otherwise ever know about, and among them were some comedy routines by John Mulaney. I found him quite hilarious, but he does use strong language and scenarios that might offend some people, so I tried to find a clip that showed what I wanted to show without going too far.
In this clip, Mulaney is telling a story about how great it is to have a girlfriend going through life by his side and in the middle of that story, he breaks to tell a story about what life was like before his girlfriend. It’s a flashback. It happens to be told in an over-the-top extreme way, for the biggest laughs, but it’s flashback nonetheless.
20:35 -- The start of the girlfriend story.
21:19 -- The restatement of his theme (“Before I had a girlfriend, I had no standard for how I should be treated as a human being”) and the segue to the flashback – a story about how life was without the girlfriend.
21:49 – Repetition of the theme and the flashback story -- the story about Delta airlines (so funny, I crack up every time!)
23:28 -- End of flashback, back to girlfriend story, where she calmly and logically recommends Southwest, thereby proving the theme of the whole routine: life is better with the girlfriend.
Here’s to telling great stories and writing great books in 2016!