Writing — Flashback into Character Development

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To continue our ongoing, never-ending discussion on character development, I wanted to take a look at flashbacks.  The flashback is an extremely powerful tool at a writer’s disposal with which to develop plot, world-building, character, and more.  And like all powerful things, there is danger within.

The most obvious way to use flashbacks to develop character is simply by giving the reader a moment in that character’s life that explains or sets up either a plot point or a character trait.  For example, if it’s important to a story that Sally is afraid of snakes, a flashback could be employed to show us why or how that fear came to be.  Later in the story, when confronted with a snake, our sense of Sally’s fear will be richer and deeper because we not only know she’s afraid but we understand the past events that shaped this moment in the tale.  More than understand — we’ve experienced those events.

Since all good writers are readers, I’m going to assume that you are a little familiar with this type of flashback.  It is one of the most common.  Being so, this technique also carries with it one of the most common faults with flashbacks — slowing things down.  After all, the flashback isn’t the story.  The story is the story.  The flashback is a moment when the author says, “Whoa, I’m going to stop the story for a short break into a side tale I want to share.”  If handled poorly, the flashback will disrupt, and possibly destroy, the narrative flow.

Rather than a lengthy divergence into the past, some writers will create tiny vignettes that hint at a larger tale without slowing down the momentum of the main story.  It’s like a flash-flashback.  So, rather than go into a detailed re-telling of the day Sally went to school and Spike, the school bully, secreted the class pet, a rattlesnake, into her backpack which she only found that evening when the slithering reptile curled under her pillow, the author can highlight the final moments of terror in a few paragraphs — a vignette — and hint at the rest.  The reader gains the deeper understanding of her fear (granted, not necessarily as rich and deep as a three page flashback could provide but more than no information at all), and the main story can pick up after only a few paragraphs.

This method has its dangers, too.  The main one being a tendency to gloss over situations and thus, not provide the character development the author sought in the first place.  Vignette flashbacks work well in short stories where space is at a premium and in the hands of a writer who can squeeze out huge impact from a few choice words.

A great solution to these flashback issues is to combine both approaches.  You can take a lengthy flashback and break it up into smaller, bite-sized chunks.  Doling out the flashback in little bits can create a forward momentum that gives the reader a sense of progress despite the fact that the main plot is on hold for the moment.  This technique was employed wonderfully by the television show LOST.  Throughout each episode, the flashbacks (and later flash-forwards and flash-sideways) not only provided character development, they did so by relating, paralleling, and sometimes contradicting, the same character in the main plot.

In other words, imagine a plot where Sally handles snakes with fearless, ruthless cruelty.  As we watch her go through the main plot, we keep getting small vignettes of her as a child going to school and dealing with Spike, the bully.  Perhaps we even start to think the point of the flashbacks is to show how she became cruel by fighting Spike.  But just as the main plot nears its climax, we read the final flashback where we learn the full extent of Sally’s snake experience — the backpack, the pillow — and the depth of her fear.  How that plays against the person she portrays herself as gives her character and the story far more depth.

There are other ways to utilize flashbacks, but I think these tend to pop up the most.  One final thought — before inserting a flashback, consider not using one at all.  Can the story or the character stand on its own without the extra information?  If so, why break out of the main plot at all?  Just a thought.

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28 comments to Writing — Flashback into Character Development

  • Interesting stuff, Stuart, though I have to ask what kind of nightmare school has a rattlesnake as a class pet! I confess I try to steer clear of flashbacks for all the reasons you suggest (and because when I was writing screenplays I was taught that flashback was a real no-no, though–of course–lots of movies use them). Your idea of a series of flashbacks is a good one, I think, because it creates a narrative pattern and a sense of purpose. One off flashbacks can often feel lazy, like the author couldn’t figure out how to get the crucial information into the story organically and thus had to derail the narrative to look backwards.

  • Cool stuff! I’m working on how to deal with a couple flashbacks (or flashback-esque moments, I guess) in a WIP. I’ve found that they slow down the narrative and so I’m trying to get the information into other scenes (these are in the opening scene, which I don’t like).

    Done right, I feel like I don’t notice that things are flashbacks. I mean, I know they are, but they keep the scene moving anyway. It’s that sinking grinding-to-a-halt feeling that I try to avoid. :)

    I’d been told in an early critique group that you should never, ever use flashbacks in a short story. Period. For my own specific story, it was good advice, but overall, I think it’s wrong (the same way pretty much all absolutes are.)

  • AJ — Snakes make great pets. No mess, no fuss, and if you handle them from birth, they grow up comfortable with human contact, so they won’t strike out at you.

    AJ and Pea — My take on the “rule” about not using flashbacks is this: Many writing rules are designed to help novice writers learn how to write a story in the quickest, perhaps even the most efficient, manner. Because a flashback is easy to fall into as a lazy crutch and even easier to misuse, thus slowing down a story, we tell beginners to stay away from them. But just like all our writer rules, when you understand the how and whys of the rule, you will understand how to break it. In my novel, there is a lot of backstory that I don’t think is needed for the main story to move forward, so while I hinted at it, I avoided most of it. My beta-readers (those that have finished, hint hint out there :) ) have all responded a strong desire to know more specifics and I can see how those specifics would enrich the character conflicts in the main story. So part of my current revision is seeing how I can utilize a series of flashbacks to push the main story forward — really, finding the quieter/less action-packed moments where I can get away with it — without sacrificing the fast-paced momentum the story has. Like most aspect of writing, it becomes a balancing act.

  • Chris Branch

    A related question about flashbacks: Let’s say you use them, and you do it right, so it “works”, and doesn’t detract from the main flow. Now it’s time to write the synopsis to send to your publisher or agent. How do you handle it there? Presumably your summary description of the main plot is going to suffer if you don’t include the key information from the flashbacks. So do you mention them in all the same places where you’ve inserted them in the real manuscript? Do you dump the info all at once instead? If so, when? Or leave it out all together and trust the reader will understand that the real story will have more explanatory details?

  • Great timing on this, Stuart, as I’m writing a scene now that requires some flashes of memory, but is too close to the end of the book for me to stop the action with a full blown flashback. I think the key for me is making the flashback not about telling another story, but about connecting with my POV character’s immediate emotions. That’s why I refer to it above as memory. To me, the idea of a flashback distances the narrative from the character. On the other hand, even in the midst of important episodes in our own lives, we are struck by memories that connect with and inform our emotional responses. That, I believe is the key to the balance you mention in your comment. It reminds me of this time back several years when I was…..

  • Chris — Writing a synopsis is a whole tricky, messy bag and one size does not fit all. So, without specifics of the novel and such, my advice would be to leave out the flashbacks (after all, it’s a synopsis — it’s a telling, not a showing — of your novel) and see how it holds up. Where it feels weak, perhaps you can drop in a one- or two-sentence bit (or even just a phrase) hinting at the larger backstory without holding things up. Ex: Go from — Mary sat down to eat some curds when she was visited by a spider. To — Mary, who feared spiders from an early-age accident, sat down to eat some curds when she was visited by a spider. Perhaps my fellow MWs will be able to chime in with other ideas. Good luck!

    David — It’s a thin line between memory and flashback (sounds like a Spinal Tap line). Simply a matter of degree. If you have to do it so late in your story, I agree you want to keep it at the memory level. But I’d be hesitant to do it at all. I’d rather find some place earlier to “plant” the memory so you could simply refer to it fast during the crucial final parts of the novel. Particularly, if the memory is not just fleshing out a scene but is crucial to the scene. You don’t want readers to feel cheated that you’re pulling out hidden info at the last moment.

  • Stuart, I trust you on the snakes as pets thing (and I’m a snake fan), but rattlesnakes? Really?!

  • A.J., you are such a wuss! I suppose you also think that Plutonium is an [finger quotes] -inappropriate- gift for young children. Must be an English thing….

  • AJ — Well, okay, that part was the magical words part. It’s fantasy fiction, after all. Yeah, that’s it. There’s a magic rune inscribed on the snakes underbelly that makes it docile around children. 😉

  • You never know. I’ve seen Stuart’s menagerie and anything is possible :) And just to prove David wrong I will immediately go out and buy plutonium lollypops for my son. With lead sticks. Sprinkled with cyanide. That will make a man of him.

  • Mikaela

    Great post, Stuart!
    As I read your answer to Chris, a question popped up in my mind. What if someone that is archnophobia becomes a Spider Mage? ( No, I don’t know what a spider mage do.) A New idea. Just what I need!

    So, thank you. I think… :)

  • Snakes are seriously inexpensive, low-maintenance pets. I speak from experience, as the long-time owner of a Mexican milk snake. But I agree with AJ…any poisonous snake that did not have Stuart’s handy runes etched on its belly would not be living in my house. 😀

    By the way, we’re considering selling her, so if you want a reptile to go along with the lollipops, AJ, you know how to contact me.

  • Nowadays, flashbacks are rarely discussed without reference to Lost. I love Lost and I think its execution of flashbacks is one of the best I’ve ever seen.

    Like you said, I think it’s important to make sure that flashbacks fit the narrative. If there’s a better option, don’t do flashbacks! Lost pulled it off well because it was constantly comparing and contrasting the characters pre-island and on-island.

    Flashbacks are great when they fit, but my guess is that most authors — particularly newer authors (like me) — tend to resort to flashbacks because the other methods of divulging backstory require more effort.

    Great post!

  • Stuart, this was great. Thorough, without being pedantic. This one needs to make it into a HOW TO II.

    I kept thinking as I read the post and comments, “What about…whatever?” Then then you answered each of my questions, even before I asked. I have no comments and no additions.

    Soooo, really, I’m just taking up space here. And since I’m not scared of snakes, and you didn’t use centipedes, I also am making no girly screams.

  • Mikaela — I like the sound of Spider Mage, too. Here’s hoping you do something cool with it!

    Misty — We own an albino corn snake. Not poisonous but, as a constrictor, would gladly squeeze your hand til the bones break. Well, he would be that way if not for the runes.

    Lancer — By the time the show ended, LOST did a lot right and a lot wrong, but one thing most people will agree on, they knew how to use flashbacks as a storytelling device. While writers often refer to specific tv shows and films when discussing writing, since they tend to be more common experiences than specific books, a lot of what is done in those mediums does not translate well to prose. LOST’s use of flashbacks, I think, is an exception. In fact, if you’re having trouble with flashbacks, it might be helpful to take a close look at how that show uses them. How are they cut up? How are they entered and exited? How are they connected with the main story? And how can you use those techniques in prose? Might help. And if it doesn’t, you get to enjoy watching LOST all over!!! :)

    Faith — Thanks. And don’t worry about the centipedes. I couldn’t have used them. AJ took them. Something about “crunchies for Halloween.”

  • Stuart … AJ …
    Ick. Yuck. Erp. Eeeeeeek.

  • “I don’t like spiders and snakes…” keeps playing on my mental radio now. Thanks, guys!

    Actually, I am fascinated by both – outside. Where they belong. Slightly off topic, but getting there. Back to spiders, snakes, and the old, old song above…

    Flashbacks. Memories. A single sentence here and there throughout the story can often set the stage for that action that called for a backstory. Wiping spiderweb off the face or arms is a fairly natural reaction when cobweb is around. Rubbing the spider-bite scar afterwards suggests maybe the wiping is more than casual. Eeeping (Is that a word, Faith?) when a tiny spider crawls across the floor reinforces he’s afraid of spiders. Later, when the tarantula shows up and the character gives a Shelob-sized reaction, it makes more sense.

    Or, if you’re my generation, you think flashback and an entire LSD-20-years-ago story, complete with spiders, snakes and old songs pops into mind…

  • “I don’t like spiders and snakes…” keeps playing on my mental radio now. Thanks, guys!

    Oh my! I haven’t heard that song in around 3 decades.

  • Unicorn

    Sorry for commenting late yet again, but I have two questions that will be niggling at me for days.
    Question One: Does a story-within-a-story count as a flashback? By story-within-a-story I mean that, say, an old man is telling the story of his escapades when he was young to someone, but the actual story is really about the old man when he was young. I hope that makes any sense. The only example I can think of right now is Patrick Rothfuss’s “The Name of the Wind”.
    Question Two: What do you think of flashbacks in dialogue, if they could be called flashbacks? Such as someone telling someone else about a past experience. When could they work, and can they also become a crutch?
    As for snakes… I had seven non-venomous snakes a few years ago. They all escaped. Into the house. We only ever found one big fat one. Cannibalism, perhaps?
    Unicorn

  • Unicorn — No need to apologize. Better late than never! :) Anyway, to answer your questions: The story-within-a-story approach is different, though if the story is a 100% factual re-telling of a past event, some might argue otherwise. The key thing, though (and this also answers question two), is that we are not getting a 100% factual retelling. We’re getting a story told to us by another character. This slight difference means that the author can utilize the character’s take on the events as well as the characters embellishments to further the main story. The thing to be careful of, and this is what AJ, Lyn, and others have referred to, is thinking any flashback technique can be used to dump all the backstory into your novel. Backstory is somewhat like research. Nobody likes reading a pointless infodump and nobody wants extraneous backstory that does nothing for the main story. As for snakes…seven? I better not let my wife read that or we’ll have many more in the house.

  • Young_Writer

    I remember in third or fourth grade I read a book that alternated from the present to flashbacks every chapter, and they eventually met in the middle and made sense. It was just so wonderfully crafted.

  • This post couldn’t have come at a better time. Thanks, Stuart! I have this short story that builds step by step to a ghostly and bloody climax. The story consists mainly of the MC brooding, having bouts of “memory,” and refusing to buckle under to pressure from his second-in-command to subdue the locals with violence (the MC is a general in an invading army). I toss a few red herrings at my readers — which my betas appreciated — and reveal an assassin and a traitor in the end (two separate people, but in cahoots).

    Here’s my main issue. The publisher I’m planning to submit to has announced that they will base their request for the full story on the first 500 words ONLY. If the first 500 doesn’t grab them, they will pass. With this in mind, some of my betas think the beginning scene, although strong, is a little slow if looked at from a “first 500 words” perspective.

    So, after some thought, I’m planning to write a flash-forward, and put it at the very BEGINNING of the story. From the cliffhanger ending of that flash-forward, I will then launch into the main story, which is already written. I guess this means it could be argued that my entire short story is one big flashback! Has anyone ever tried something like this?

  • Hepseba ALHH

    @ JM Martin: While I don’t know enough about short stories to give a good reply, I know that the flash-forward intro to some novels can work quite well. In the Sci-fi horror book “Stinger” it is used to give us a peek at how a quiet town and every-day sorts of people are going to wind up facing a much more intense situation than they every would have imagined. If it weren’t a flash-forward, it would be sort of a premonition of things to come.

  • JM — As Hepseba already pointed out, the flash-forward technique has been used before. After all, there’s a reason for the saying “there’s nothing new under the sun.” And it sounds as if you have a story that calls for just such a technique. The main reason to employ it is to create suspense where there really isn’t any. I once a wrote a novel that ultimately was about a woman who survives a spaceship crash on a wild planet and spends 22 years living there. Kind of like Cast Away in space. And like that movie, the opening section was used to set up who she was before the crash, so the reader could see just how much she changes over the years. BUT one hundred pages of life before can get a bit boring. So I opened the book with one of the big moments from far later, where she is almost animalistic, and then shift back to before the crash happened. Now, no matter how mundane a scene I write, the reader always has in the back of the mind that somehow this character making an omelet or going out on a date is going to end up in a drastic situation. That “flash-forward” beginning created all the suspense needed to carry the story through. Double-bonus is that, later, when the story reaches that opening scene, I replay the whole thing but add new details to heighten the experience and help the reader see the scene again as if it were new. If done right, you should have a very cool, effective opening. Good luck with it!

  • JM — Oh! One more thing — if you want to see this technique used really well, rent the Will Smith movie version of the play Six Degrees of Separation. It’s not genre. It is an excellent play about race, society, and other weighty topics, and offers up a wonderful angle on Catcher in the Rye.

  • Unicorn

    Thanks Stuart, that makes sense.
    Didn’t Stephenie Meyer also use the flash-forward technique in the “Twilight” series? For me it was very effective and worked well. Even if I did skip the kissy bits :)
    Unicorn

  • Hepseba, Stuart, and Unicorn, thank you all. You’ve bolstered my decision that this is the right course of action. And I’ll check out SIX DEGREES…, specifically per your request, Stuart. That novel you wrote about the woman on a wild planet, is it available?

    Next stop, Netflix!

    Thanks again, ya’ll!

  • Unicorn — I’ve not read nor do I intend to read the “Twilight” series. Not meant to sound snobby — it’s simply that based on all I’ve read/seen/heard about it, I’m just not that interested. And since there’s only so many books I can read in a lifetime, I think I can let these pass.

    JM — You’re welcome. As for my novel — sorry, it’s never been published. It’s actually one of my very early “training” novels. Looking back, I find the story itself and even the plot still hold up. The execution (ie, the writing) is pretty bad. Perhaps someday I’ll sit down and write the whole thing over again from scratch. Same story, same plot, better prose! But it’ll be hard to do because the creative impulse of the tale has been dead for over a decade.