Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border

Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border
photo by Gene Tunick of Eureka, Montana

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Tip O'Day #423 - Flashing Back

Guest blogger Ben Drake flashes back to earlier today, when he had a question about flashbacks.

Does every flashback need a catapult?

I am a lover of the flashback. I recently read a very good story with several flashbacks in it, and I just wrote a story with some attempts at flashbacks on my book site. They are not as easy as one would think. An editor I know has told me about one rule for flashbacks – there needs to be a trigger for them.

But what about when the character is insane? In my own mind I don’t need a flashback catapult when I am transported back into the actual, strong memory. Then again, it has been said that I do not have the soundest of minds.

Dixon says: Thanks, Ben. In my opinion, there’s only one rule for a flashback (or a flashforward) – you need to be absolutely clear when you’re going into and coming out of the flashback.

Flashbacks can be any length at all. They can be one phrase long – The smoke from the fire made Paul break out in a sweat, taking him back to the burning crack house in Phoenix when he accidentally shot an innocent kid. They can be a hundred pages of longer. In the novel The Godfather, there’s a huge flashback right after Sonny’s wedding, going back to Don Corleone’s youth in Sicily. I’ve seen books where the opening and closing chapters are bookends, in the present tense, and the rest of the story is a flashback. An example of that is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

The Liberty Valance short story by Dorothy Johnson (as well as the movie) is also an example of a flashback within a flashback, when Sen. Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) reveals that Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) actually shot bad guy Liberty Valance. To get even more complicated, there are cases of a flashback within a flashback within a flashback, such as Six Degrees of Separation.

It’s easy when the flashback starts and ends at chapter breaks. Thirty years earlier makes a nice transition. The same thing goes for a scene break. When the flashback occurs in the middle of a scene, the author needs to go out of her way to ensure clarity without jerkiness, both going in and coming out. My suggestion is to do your best and then show it to some critique partners (beta readers) to see if what’s in your mind works on the page.

As for Ben’s question about an unbalanced character, if that person has already been established as unreliable, there’s no reason a flashback shouldn’t work. In my WIP, a thriller tentatively titled Montana is Burning, there’s a schizophrenic character named Winnifred who holds lengthy discussions with her dead mother, her son (who may or may not have been aborted), the devil, and various imps. If Winnifred tells you today is Saturday, you’d still better check a calendar. Her flashbacks are some of the most entertaining parts of the novel, even though the reader isn’t sure whether they actually occurred.

Ben’s guest post was a fine example of brevity. Unfortunately, I rarely demonstrate that talent.

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