Traycer (traycer_) wrote in fandom_grammar,

FEATURE: Tips for Writing Flashbacks

Tips for Writing Flashbacks

With examples from Stargate SG-1 and Sarah Connor Chronicles

What is a Flashback?

Flashbacks are scenes that describe a past event, presented in a way to help the reader understand what's going on in the main story. It's a scenic moment in which the character "relives" or remembers the past, though there are more subtle ways to intrude on the timeline, such as reading or writing a letter containing a scenic backstory or literally slipping into another person's memory as Harry does in the pensieve several times during the later Harry Potter books. Flashbacks are a great way to explore a character's background and motives, while providing an insight to past influences that shape the decisions made in the present.

Framing the Past

Flashbacks can take many forms, they can be introduced by a letter or journal entry (any act of the character writing and recording memory), a dream, a frame (the story within a story, wherein the character is telling a story of the past), or the flashback can be triggered by something within the narrative—a scent, a sight, an action, or something another character says or does.

Once the flashback is triggered, you have some options for how it is formatted within the story. One way is to include an ellipsis to indicate the beginning of the memory:

The words were etched into the wood surface of the wall, gouged deep as if someone wanted them to remain there forever. Sarah stared at the saying, wondering why anyone would believe in it enough to take the time to dig deep past the smooth surface. She walked up to the wall and reached out, touching the words, remembering that day long ago...

"Seize the day, Sarita," her friend, Juanita, had said. "Always remember that the future holds only your destiny."

"The future is not set," Sarah replied, holding onto the belief that was drummed into her mind as she recovered from the wounds inflicted by the first Terminator. "We can change it."

"Like that monster who wanted you and John dead?" Sarah tried not to think back on that time, knowing that her friend was right. If the Terminator couldn't succeed in changing the future… "There will always be death," Juanita continued, her dark eyes boring into Sarah's. "And you never know when he will strike."

Her friend had been right about that, but times were different now. Sarah no longer believed in hope and dreams.

Another way is to set off the flashback as italicized text. The above flashback could have been written like this—

She walked up to the wall and reached out, touching the words, remembering that day long ago.

"Seize the day, Sarita," her friend, Juanita, had said. "Always remember that the future holds only your destiny."

—showing that the italicized part is a memory.

Flashbacks can also be weaved into the narrative as recollections, short sections that break the narrative timeline.

Jack O'Neill hefted the axe that he brought with him, holding it in both hands as he stared at the tree. Memories flared up when he noticed the groove in the limb that had been cut into the flesh of the tree by a rope. His features hardened into a scowl as the memories became personal.

He hefted the axe once more, then slammed it into the trunk of the tree with a force that shook free a few of the stubborn leaves. He swung it again and again, while the sounds of screams filled his ears – screams of pain and of death, horrible sounds that filled his soul and fueled his wrath.

It had been Carter's screams that had stayed with him, screams that still plagued his every waking moment. The axe bit into the bark, going in deeper with each swing. He and Teal'c had been sitting next to the Stargate when a group of men rode up, demanding to know where Carter was hiding out. Jack had tried to explain that they had no idea where she was, but the men didn't seem to care. Every planet had the same problem in Jack's experience. The native's never listened.

In each of the examples above, the characters are firmly placed in the current time and location with the memories clearly taking place in a different time and location. Describing the setting of a flashback can help make it clearer that it is not part of the present-day timeline. Describing Jack and Teal'c next to the Stargate moves Jack away from the tree he's cutting down, or as in an example in another fandom, describing Dana Scully in her childhood bedroom sets up the scenario that she is no longer in Mulder's office. In addition to physical setting, there are other descriptions that can indicate a shift in time, for example, a teenage Scully would dress differently than the current day Scully.

The same could be said for your character's attitudes. When you show the differences between the young and the old, you'll create a clear distinction between the scenes and provide valuable insight into the character. We all know that Sarah Connor is a hardened soul whose attitudes and lifestyle were shaped by the determination that she and her son live in order to fulfill their destiny, but she wasn't always like that. She once was an innocent young woman who had no idea that her whole life would change with the arrival of a machine/terminator. Flashbacks to that period of her life should reflect that innocence when writing the character.

Verb Tense

Verb tense also helps in transitioning into a flashback. Nancy Kress wrote a great article for Writer's Digest that helps define how to best use verb tense to transition in and out of a flashback:

If your story is being told in the past tense, then write the first few verbs of the flashback in the past perfect and the rest in simple past.

As Kress describes, verb tense helps to set up the scene for a flashback.

In the Sarah Connor flashback above we have:
...her friend, Juanita, had said...
...Sarah replied...

And in the Stargate: SG-1 example:
He and Teal'c had been sitting....
Jack had tried to explain.....
...but the men didn't seem to care.

For further understanding on the difference between simple past and past perfect verb tense, check out supercheesegirl's Grammar 101 article on verb tense.

These transition words move the storyline along so that the memory can be played out for your audience in real time. Ending the section with another verb in past perfect can help make the transition back into the present timeline.

Present tense can also be used when writing a flashback. It's most effective if the flashback is meant to be felt immediately, like PTSD, which is usually depicted by the half-in, half-out state some people experience. They see the present day, but the memory is sort of overlaid on reality. Of course, a PTSD flashback works just as well when written using past tense verbs, so make sure the tense makes sense for your story. melayneseahawk discusses the immediacy and effect of tenses and point of view in her article Is Present Tense More Desperate? if you want read further on choosing verb tenses.

To the Past and Back Again

Now that we know how to incorporate a flashback, how do we seamlessly go back to the present? Try using words that indicate the character is back in the present? One way is to indicate the shift with one final past perfect verb. The Sarah Connor Chronicles example above does just that in the final line.

Her friend had been right about that, but times were different now. Sarah no longer believed in hope and dreams.

You might also notice that the first sentence in the example uses the word "now," which also indicates she is back in the present.

There are other cues you might use to explicitly state that the character is no longer remembering the past.

He put a stop to his reminiscing when he realized that he was heading into territory better left untouched. He definitely didn’t want to remember what happened to him when he did manage to make a run for it.

Or in another example:

Daniel brought Jack back to the present by coming over to sit down next to him on the bed. “I’ve asked the SF to let me know the minute SG-3 gets back from their latest mission," he said quietly.

Adding in a flashback is a great technique for building the world around your story and for showing the continuous lives of characters. Just as you can flash backwards in time, you can also flash forwards to give the reader a glimpse of what will happen in the future of the character's life. A flashforwards could be a precognitive dream, a vision, an aside from a narrator who is telling his or her story from a point in the future, or even the "future memories" of someone who has traveled back in time.

Slaughterhouse Five (a book famous for being "unstuck" in time) heavily employs flashbacks and flashfowards. Here's an example of a flashforward:

Billy stayed in the wagon when it reached the slaughterhouse, sunning himself. The others went looking for souvenirs. Later on in life, the Tralfamadorians would advise Billy to concentrate on the happy moments of his life, and to ignore the unhappy ones—to stare only at pretty things as eternity failed to go by. If this sort of selectivity had been possible for Billy, he might have chosen as his happiest moment his sun-drenched snooze in the back of the wagon.
pp. 194-195

No matter if you're taking the reader forwards or backwards in his or her memory, make sure you have something that triggers the memory and pay special heed to the verb tenses. Hopefully some of the tips listed here will help you get in and out of flashbacks smoothly and enhance your writing while you add depth to your characters and your worlds.

(Many thanks to theemdash for the extensive help she provided for this feature!)

Using Flashbacks in Fiction
Storytelling: Writing Flashbacks
Tags: !feature, author:traycer_, writing tips

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