The Art of the Flashback, Plus Tips on Avoiding Info Dumps
If your novel is the first in a series or is a stand-alone, the problem of how to set the scene and provide background information can present itself. This is especially so if past events such as a bereavement, calamity or the breakup of a relationship are important to your story. How do you let readers know about all this at the beginning of the book? If you find yourself thinking ‘flashback’, please put your hands above your head and step away from the keyboard! The first one or two chapters must hook readers and draw them into your fictional world. It is very hard to do this by launching into a lengthy flashback on page one. More so because flashbacks are rarely related in a gripping way, by their nature often relying on telling rather than showing.
In your first one or two chapters, you want to keep things moving forward strongly. Readers need to feel that this story is going somewhere, that they are setting off on an exciting adventure. Avoid writing things like ‘Katie had two brothers, one seven and the other eighteen. She had been working as a shelf-stacker in the local supermarket for three years, having left her job in the bank because her boss was harassing her.’ Instead, show by having her arrive home and take off her supermarket uniform, then remember she had forgotten to buy a card for her brother’s eighth birthday. On the way back out of the house, Katie passes Tim, who has just come in drunk. Write a dialog scene where she argues with him, saying just because he is eighteen now doesn’t mean it is okay to get drunk every weekend. He replies by saying that she is not his mother, that his sister has no business telling him how to live. She storms off down the street. Passing the bank, she runs into Alice. They talk about William, the bank’s boss, and how Katie left because he was harassing her… Think of everything you write as fulfilling several roles, not just one. The more you can make your scene provide at once, the more exciting your story will be.
If you cannot start your story without giving a detailed account of earlier events, consider writing a prologue. In your prologue, your primary aim is to build suspense and interest. Have action happening, but perhaps avoid revealing much about who the people are or where it happening. Try to plant questions in the reader’s mind so that they will feel compelled to read on in order to find answers. And remember that prologues are short, not full chapter-length.
Flashbacks do, however, have uses and can be highly effective in some instances. As a general rule, it is best to keep them to no more than one or two paragraphs and avoid using them too early. It is often better to do a sort of ‘semi’ flashback, where your character briefly thinks about something that happened or was said in the past. Another way to do this is to have a scene where your character dreams about past events. I used this in my medieval mystery The Heart of Darkness. Part of the novel’s suspense is created by Sir Richard’s shady background, which is not known to main protagonist Rowena or to the reader. The scene starts with this:
The inside of the room was dark. Every inch had been searched with groping, frantic hands. But no door could be found. A pale, eerie blue light began to fill the cell. Standing an arm’s length away was a white-faced young woman. Her dishevelled hair cascaded over her thin, trembling shoulders and down to her waist. Her white slip was smeared with dark stains. Blood covered her nose and hands. Tears had washed thin rivers down her dusty cheeks. The ghostly, waif-like damsel fell to her knees.
She threw back her head and screamed, ‘Help me, save me!’ The wrenching, half-crazed cry grew louder and louder until it was not just coming from her throat, but from all sides. Sharp, clawing talons suddenly bit into living flesh with searing agony.
Sir Richard woke from his nightmare with a start.
This actually is a flashback, in that he is dreaming about something that really happened, although in a partly distorted way. But the reader is not told this. This builds suspense. The incident creates more questions than it answers. Is it real? Who is the young woman? Why is she in this state? What does she wish to be saved from? Did Sir Richard have anything to do with her distress? Could he save her? Why is this haunting him? Therefore these few paragraphs do several things: they show us something that happened in the past; they are exciting; they build suspense; they give the reader insight into Sir Richard’s mind; and they tell us about something that is happening now – Sir Richard is having a nightmare.
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