Back to the flashback, or not

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However, you risk much by using this time machine too soon or too often. If you begin the novel with a flashback, you have started the manuscript in the wrong place. Don't attempt a flashback until your novel is truly launched into the present.

In your novel, a flashback is a literary time machine with strong headlights, illuminating background events and thus making the fictional present clearer and more interesting to your readers.

However, you risk a lot by using this time machine too soon or too often. If you begin the novel with a flashback, you have started the manuscript in the wrong place. Don't do it. Don't attempt even one flashback until your novel is truly launched into the present.

The whole idea of a flashback is to provide information from the past which helps to explain the motivations of the protagonist or which explains the history of something that’s happening in the present. Until readers know who the protagonist is and understand what conflict faces her, they don’t care what happened in the character’s past. And this points to the whole problem with a flashbacks:

If readers do not yet know what’s going on now in the book, they cannot understand nor appreciate what happened in the past. Since readers know nothing about the character’s present life, they can’t evaluate the consequence of an event in their past.

The purpose of the beginning of a novel is to hook readers with drama and excitement; to let readers care for the people as they unfold their lives in the “now” of present time.

Only when the forward motion of the present is strong, should you risk leaving it for a little while, to return to the past.

Flashbacks offer many pitfalls. Even the best-written flashback carries a built-in disadvantage: It is, by definition, already over. The scene you are detailing in your flashback is not happening in story time. It happened sometime earlier, and so we are being given old information. The flashback lacks immediacy.

When you do choose to write a flashback, be aware that there are three types of flashbacks: a frame, a flashback and a recollection.

The frame is actually a flashback that lasts nearly the entire length of the book. The book opens with a scene that occurs after the main action is over. Often, in fact, the point of view is that of a character recalling events of many years ago. (Like Doctor Watson recalling an adventure with Sherlock Holmes.)

The recollection slips into the main story (the flashback) and then stays there until the last few pages, at which time the story may or may not revert to the time frame of the opening scene. In other words, the whole book is a flashback. Readers are seldom confused by this kind of flashback because they are asked to make only one shift in time, after which the story proceeds chronologically. However, many stories do not lend themselves to this type of flashback.

A regular flashback lasts one or two scenes or perhaps as long as an entire chapter. That flashback can provide the necessary background. It can explain motivations more dramatically than big blocks of exposition. It allows you to start in the middle of conflict, of something happening, and then, once readers are hooked, you can drop back in time to explain how the conflict came about.

A flashback is a full scene, however, a recollection is more like an aside. An example of a recollection, from my book Option to Die:

“Veronica stood outside under the canopy. After the loud Bavarian music inside, the sound of light traffic and night birds was almost spiritual. The afternoon rain had turned the warm night humid and puddles still dotted the streets. It reminded her of that scary early morning race through rain-drenched streets to the hospital in April. Every mile of that interminable trip through the pouring rain she had been praying David would be alive. As traumatic as those few weeks had been, Veronica had distanced herself enough now to stare into the puddles and wish David was here with her, taking her in his strong arms and making everything all right.”

As you can see, the difference between a recollection and a flashback is not only its length but its completeness.

A recollection is a fragment of a larger past scene.

A flashback is a full scene.

A recollection is merely a brief fragment of the past brought back to the consciousness of the protagonist.

While a flashback is usually longer than a recollection, it need not be lengthy. It simply has to be a complete, individual entity.

Make your protagonist memorable to your readers by giving them a past. At least in your mind, a fully realized protagonist should have a past full of memories. When these memories contribute to the story, they can be used in your novel.

The easiest but least effective way to use them is the flashback. The problem with a flashback is it stops the story so we can go back in time. Every time we do that, readers are encouraged to lose interest and maybe even stop reading your book.

A flashback should be a time machine, illuminating background events and thus making the fictional present clearer and more interesting to your readers.

However, you risk much by using this time machine too soon or too often. If you begin the novel with a flashback, you have started the manuscript in the wrong place. Don't attempt a flashback until your novel is truly launched into the present.

The whole idea of a flashback is to provide information from the past, which helps to explain the motivations of someone in the present.

Until readers know the protagonist and understand what conflict that faces them, they don’t care what happened in the character’s past.

This is the problem with flashbacks. If readers do not know what’s going on now, they cannot understand nor appreciate what happened before. That’s why you should not put a flashback in the first chapter.

The beginning of a novel should hook readers with drama and excitement; to let readers care for the people as they unfold their lives in present time.

Only when the forward motion of the present is strong, should you risk leaving it for a little while, to return to the past. Even a well-written flashback carries a built-in disadvantage. It is, by definition, already over. The scene you are detailing in your flashback is not happening in story time.

How do I get into a flashback?

A regular flashback lasts one or two scenes or possibly as long as a short chapter. The flashback can be used to explain motivations more dramatically than big blocks of exposition. But do not attempt a flashback in the first chapter. In the second chapter, or later, you can drop back in time to explain how the conflict came about.

Ask yourself; is this information necessary for readers to know? Will this provide a better understanding of the plot? If you’re convinced, you should have a flashback in this location (but not in Chapter One) then, go ahead.

Getting in and out of a flashback is not difficult. It requires separate, simple shifts. From Revenge in Reno:

The rain beating mercilessly on the windshield [1. We are in the present] took Veronica back, as it often did, to a tragic rainy night in 1999, the last time she had seen Margo Crane alive.” [2. We are now leaving the present] Veronica and Margo had eaten dinner in midtown Reno. It was the first time she'd seen Margo since her divorce five years earlier.

[We are firmly in the past, as evidenced by “had eaten” which now becomes the present for this scene. The flashback scene goes on for several pages until Margo is killed and Veronica talks to a nurse in the hospital.]

The nurse took in a deep breath and said, “The police say she was dead at the scene. I’m sorry.” [1. We are still in the past.]

In a lightning-like instant on a rainy February night, Veronica had lost her best friend, Margo Crane, forever. [2. We are leaving the past and returning to the present.] Veronica lifted her head and finally turned the key in the ignition, preparing to drive home through the dark, rainy Reno night. [We're back in the immediate present, once again.]

Notice I used something memorable to trigger the flashback, went directly into the flashback, and then brought readers back out of the flashback through the same door I had led them in. (The rain.)

The “something memorable” used to trigger the flashback can be an unusual combination of words, a visual image, a place, an incident, an overheard snatch of conversation, a smell, an unusual color; it can be anything which logically recalls the past to the protagonist.

From NOVEL SECRETS (paperback or Kindle)

http://smarturl.it/novsec

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