People in my classes are always wondering about how to write good flashbacks…probably because in workshops, readers immediately pounce on a flashback that goes on too long: “You’re taking us out of the action of the story here.” And these same readers are equally adept—or so it seems—at immediately noticing a perceived lack of information: “Where did your character go to college? I need more information about her family. You didn’t tell us how he met his girlfriend.” So it’s no wonder that writers are edgy when it comes to the subject of flashbacks and how to achieve that perfect balance of enough but not too much.
Now, thanks to our screenwriting friends, we also hear the word “backstory” a lot more now. It seems to me that there’s a difference between the two: to me, a flashback implies more of a dramatic scene or moment, whereas backstory in fiction might be more of a summary of events that have preceded the action—the way The Great Gatsby starts out. (For examples, I almost always turn to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby—the world’s most nearly-perfectly-written book!*) So, in the beginning we get a little bit about where Nick is from and how he decided to come to Long Island for this summer. It’s not long, it’s not intrusive, and, as we discover later, it’s actually vitally important to our full understanding of Nick—though it may not seem that vital as we’re reading those opening pages. A flashback, to me, feels as though it’s more of a scene—there are characters and thought and action in a flashback. The backstory fills in facts that the author thinks we need to know. The flashback offers information we need to know, but in a dramatic way—scene, memory, story told by the narrator. Backstory might be, “Tom graduated first in his class at Yale.” Flashback might be, “Tom thought back on his days at Yale when he….”
As usual, there really aren’t any rules to guide us—no formula of “16 lines of flashback allowed per every 3 pages of ms.” I asked one of my friends how she handled flashbacks and backstory, and though she was talking about short stories instead of novels, I thought her simple advice was useful: “Wait as long as possible before putting them in.” That struck me because it implied what I think is true—that overall, we need to remember that readers are reading to find out what happens—not what happened. That your characters and stories are, for the most part, revealed through their action—through what they’re doing in the here and now. That showing WHY someone is that way isn’t as important as seeing the way they are now…as long as we believe their actions. And that’s where flashbacks tempt us and come in handy, I think—that a flashback is a quick and easy way for us to SHOW the reader (because aren’t workshops just so fond of saying, "Show, don’t tell"?) that the actions of the character are believable—see, this action happened in their past and so that’s why they’re acting this way now, so you need to believe me. Or, here’s something that happened a long time ago, and now I, the author, think it’s the right time to reveal this to you because now it’s important to what’s going on in the present. There’s no denying that in real life the past informs our present every single minute. Yet—must we as writers PROVE that at every given opportunity? Or can the present speak for itself more than we assume?
First, it’s important to think about why we might be turning to flashbacks: most often it’s because we, the writer, have questions about the character that we need answered. How did soccer mom Sally get this way—how did she become the kind of mother who smacks her child in a grocery store parking lot? She got this way because…hmmm…oh, her mother used to beat her and I’ll show that in a flashback here. And you, the writer, didn’t know that bit of information about Sally until right at that very moment when you wrote that flashback and figured it out. So flashbacks are often needed by the writer…the question becomes, are they also needed for the reader? That is, if you had been doing your job correctly, does the reader already believe Sally would hit her kid in a parking lot because you’ve set up other hints and foreshadowing that lead up to Sally’s action? So, ask yourself as you’re reaching for that flashback, Am I only using this bit from the past to explain present actions? Or am I truly providing important information that the reader needs, that the reader wouldn’t get in any other way?
The next question might be the placement of a flashback. Let's say we're reading along, and Sally’s in the parking lot and her twins are throwing a fit and she’s about to lift her hand...but suddenly we’re yanked away from that and into a scene of Sally’s mother and Sally’s past…is that the right place for that information? As a reader, aren’t we right there with the uplifted hand, dying to see what will happen? However, if the story opened with a memory that Sally had of her treatment by her mother, a vivid, concrete memory, a scene…and then later, we see Sally in the parking lot about to hit her kids, we’re totally engrossed—is she going to do it, is she going to be like her mother—that might be a successful placement of a flashback. (Or it might not—it’s always a bit tricky to start in the past. I like to think of things in a book or story as beginning in the middle of the action.) So look to see what your flashback is interrupting—what are you taking the reader away from? You’re like a magician, moving the reader’s attention from one thing to another, leading up to the big moment where you pull a rabbit from your hat and the reader totally buys it. So, ask yourself, Why is this flashback HERE? What are you gaining, what are you losing? How is shifting the chronology of your story serving your purpose?
One thing I’ve noticed about flashbacks is that often they raise more questions than they answer. That is, they bring up some bit about the character’s past that suddenly brings it to our attention that we don’t know other facts about his past. If we’re told he went to Harvard, suddenly we feel a need to know if his family was rich. If we’re told his family was rich, we need to know if it was new money or old money and how everyone got along. By opening that door to the past, it’s hard for readers not to want to know more, more, more…things that are not necessarily relevant to the story you’re trying to tell. If the book isn’t about class struggles/issues, do we need to know the financial pedigree of the family? Often this problem of raising questions occurs when a writer tries to give too much summary in a flashback instead of relying on a concrete scene.
I think that when readers are saying they need more information about a character’s past, perhaps what they really mean is that the writer isn’t doing a good enough job of showing who the character is, right here and now on the page. To return to The Great Gatsby, did we want to know more about Nick’s family—did we wonder if he had brothers or sisters? Did we want to know what his mother was like? Did we want to know more about that school he had gone to, when he was coming back west for Christmas in that lovely scene? Or is Nick so fully realized that all that information feels unnecessary, or is implied through the way we see Nick on the page now?
This isn’t exactly a flashback, but it’s a good illustration of what I’m saying. When I was trying to finish A Year and a Day, my vision of the last chapter was that it would show Alice in the present time, turning the same age as her mother was when she died, and would wrap up what had happened. So I dutifully mentioned a husband, three little boys, where she was living, and so on. And every single person who read that draft said, “I want more about how Alice got to that point.” And I realized that that wasn’t what the book—or the ending was about—how Alice reached that point. That was like creating a whole different character, a different journey. The story was Alice in the year after her mother’s death. So I changed my vision and wrote a brief scene that suggests everything the reader needs to know (I think) about how Alice “ended up” with specific, concrete action instead of a summary of her life. And no one has ever said, “I need more about how Alice ended up”—because they essentially knew with just this one suggestive scene. By putting Alice in action, I was able to show how she ended up.
Action…if there is a writing formula, maybe it can be found once again with Fitzgerald: "Action is character."
*Bonus: Go here to read the original review of The Great Gatsby in the New York Times (April 19, 1925).