Flashing back

On February 25, 2010, Jill wrote, My big problem is when my character did something important that I want the people reading to know all about.  I tried starting the story with a flashback but realized what I want them to know didn’t happen in one event. It happened over many years.  I tried skipping year to year in the flash back but I got confused just trying to write it.  I really just want to tell them what happened and move on but it’s hard to get out all the information with out making it seem like two books in one.  Any suggestions?

The kingdom of Bamarre in my The Two Princesses of Bamarre is plagued by monsters and by a terrible disease called the Gray Death.  Events in the story are connected to events during the founding of the kingdom centuries ago.  I brought the back story into the current one with an epic poem that winds through the book.  The poem, which was written in the earlier time, is known by everyone.  People quote from it, perform scenes from it, refer to it.  My main character often thinks about it.

The Blind Assassin (high school level and above) by Margaret Atwood alternates in sections between the past and the present.  In the course of the book, the back story catches up.  The past is told in third person, the present in first.  The reader quickly adjusts to the shifts, cued by the change in point of view.  The story is a sort of mystery, and the time jumps contribute to the puzzle.  It’s a brilliant accomplishment.

Margaret Atwood introduces her chapters in the past with old newspaper clippings.  You too can come up with devices not merely to start the switch, but to reveal the events themselves.  For example, you can alternate the current story with old diary entries or old letters, or you can invent fictionalized newspaper articles too.

Or you can think up other ways to bring the past into the present .  Suppose, for instance, that your main character is haunted by a memory of being cruel to her brother only a few hours before he was killed in a car accident or abducted by aliens or morphed into an alien himself, and suppose she discusses what she did with a counselor or her new college roommate, someone who doesn’t know her past.  This can become a boring recitation, however, unless you do something to bring in tension, like maybe the confidant has a hidden connection to the brother.

If the back actions were performed by your main character (not carried out before her birth or beyond her knowledge), you can start with the first act and keep going, no need for flashbacks or anything else.  I’ve begun several of my books with the birth of my main character–Ella Enchanted, Fairest, and Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep, to name a few.  The story then jumps forward through selected episodes, sometimes years apart, to the present where most of the action takes place.  This is a straightforward way to do it and the least likely to cause reader confusion.  My favorite writing teacher, years ago, disliked flashbacks.  I have nothing against them, but if there is no reason not to write in sequence from past to present, this is the way I would go.

If you use them, flashbacks can be hard to pull off because you’re wrenching the reader away from the ongoing story.  Then, you want to excite his interest inside the flashback, but you don’t want him to fall so much in love with it that he doesn’t want to return to the present.  Quick flashback scenes often succeed, since the reader comes to understand that the digression will be short.

The television series Lost – High school level?  Middle school?  I’m not sure, so check with an adult – is wild with its scene switches.  The story jumps in and out of flashbacks, and then, to further complicate matters, characters become unglued in time.   The viewer learns to expect this madness and adapts.  I don’t always admire the show, but I enjoy the craziness, and it’s worth studying how the endless complications are handled.

Of course television is a different medium.  Information can be conveyed instantly.  The viewer has only to see a telephone with a cord to know that she’s in the past.  We writers have to reveal the switch in words, which takes longer.

The Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard (high school and up) and the Stephen Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along tell their stories backwards.  The novel starts with a marriage that has fallen painfully apart and progresses  back in time to the first meeting of the couple and their early love.  The musical begins with the misery of a man who has misused his artistic gifts and ends with his hopeful college graduation.  Both are tragic.  I don’t know if it’s possible to tell a happy story this way.

Saying It Out Loud (middle school and up), which I think I’ve mentioned before, by my friend Joan Abelove, moves effortlessly through time.  Joan uses flashbacks a lot, so you may want to read the book to see how she does it.

Many actors develop back stories for their roles.  They may flesh out a childhood, adolescence, family, school that never come into the actual play or movie.  But the back story adds depth to the performance.  The audience picks up on the complexity.  So it’s a good thing to have earlier events influencing the current story. 
Whatever method you use, sympathetic or fascinating characters in a difficult situation will lure your reader in and keep him in.  If he is hooked, cares about your main character, roots for her, he will keep reading and may love the all the track switches you conduct him through.

You can try any of the techniques I mentioned: flashbacks, diaries, letters, newspaper clippings, backward telling, an epic poem, dialogue in a counseling session.  And here are three specific prompts:

•    Make up a back story for a character in a book you love.  If you love Pride and Prejudice (as I do), for example, make up a back story for Wickham or Mr. Collins or Charlotte beyond what Jane Austen provides.

•    Make up a back story for one of your own minor characters.  Figure out a way to introduce a bit of it into your story.

•    Develop a flashback scene in a story you’re working on now or an old story.  Keep it in if you like it.  Otherwise take it out.

Have fun and save what you write!

  1. >>Then, you want to excite his interest inside the flashback, but you don’t want him to fall so much in love with it that he doesn’t want to return to the present. <<
    Exactly! 😀 That happens sometimes, when an author inserts another story or flashback. I sometimes like the flashback quite a lot, and wish I could continue reading that, instead. Or sometimes I just can't wait for it to end, and count the pages till it does.
    Great suggestions, Ms. Levine, thank you.

  2. My book is full of flashbacks, haha. My main character has a complicated (and tragic) past, but I use my flashbacks to help bolster the present plot, such as introduce information that is essential to the rest of the story. But I've spread them out a bit, and they're not very long (a few pages at the most), and I feel that they're a great way to get to know my main character more and more as the story progresses.
    I guess I never really thought about them confusing the reader because I clearly indicate that the flashback is beginning (either by words, or a space in the page, or both).
    Thanks for the tips! Ever since I discovered your blog, I've begun looking forward to Wednesdays 🙂

  3. I've stayed away from flashbacks because they're such a tricky thing to get right, so thanks for these great tips. Your blog is an excellent resource for writers, and I always look forward to your insights and advice!

  4. I have to say that I never even thought about using flashbacks just because they always seemed to detract from story flow. But i really love the creative ways in this article, namely the newspaper clippings and such. This blog in general has just been really helpful for me.

  5. @ maybeawriter
    (I keep popping up!)
    One way I could think of for that is having another older character talking about it, or maybe gossiping to someone about it. Or if it was a long time before, maybe someone gets asked a question about it in history class and we hear their answer. Or if it was something that your main character knows about (maybe related to him/her or their family), the main character could be explaining it to a friend. All of these could make pretty neat opening scenes.

  6. And just like Silver the Wanderer, I also love Wednesdays because of the posts 🙂 Thanks so much, Ms. Levine! I love the writing prompts especially!

  7. Great post Mrs Levine!

    @Silver the Wanderer: Being the unobservant person I am, I didn't realise the fact about Wednesday posts! Thanks for mentioning it.=) Well, its actually Thursday where I live.

    I don't usually do flashbacks, except for school essays. But I do quite a lot of back-up stories, though they never come useful. Reading this post, I think I ought to rather just do back-up stories for the characters.

    I love Pride and Prejudice too, I chose Mrs Gardiner's for the prompt, and one of my own characters. It really did add depth to them, and I enjoyed making new things up for Mrs Gardiner.

  8. Since you mentioned that you liked Jane Austen I thought I'd mention that over the weekend I watched a movie that was an adaption of Pride and Prejudice where this girl goes back in time and falls in love with Darcy. It was just about the best version of the movie I'd ever seen. It's called Lost in Austen. You should check it out sometime.It's a BBC movie. 🙂

  9. I used flashbacks in the novel I recently completed. I needed to show how these characters came to where they were and what events shaped everyone to what they were. I think it worked out well! I left the most exciting flashback until towards the end, too. I have another novel that essentially is just a flashback – it starts with the main character in later life, flashes to his younger days, and then ends with right before the beginning. I like flashbacks because I like to know everything!

  10. I love Pride and Prejudice! I haven't actually read the book, yet, but I have seen the old(er)BBC movie. I have seen the new one with Keira Nightly, too, but I don't like it near as much! I HAVE read Persuasion, also by Jane Austen, and that is a really good book!


    P.S. – Great post, Mrs. Levine! I loved it!!

  11. Ms. Levine – I was thinking today, about how they say that you should write, write and write until you find your 'voice' and style of writing (And coincidentally how yours always has that 'fairytale' feel to it). Whenever I think upon this topic, I've always mused idly that my voice is sure to differ from book to book. Coincidently, I came upon a similar topic on the net, where someone had mentioned authors whose voices have differed from series to series, leading to their readers not recognizing them.
    What are your thoughts on the matter? Is it important for an author to write in a consistent voice? Or is it alright to differ from book to book?
    (I hope that all made sense)

  12. Thanks for this, Mrs. Levine! 😀 I don't use flashbacks that much in my writing, but I do know that I will probably need to in the future, and it never helps having advice! Once again, thanks; this was really helpful. 🙂

  13. very helpful post — thank you! One of the situations you mention is very similar to a WIP; I take the straightforward approach for the most part, and am looking for appropriate stay-in-the-story ways to use a few other devices throughout. Thanks for the book recs as well.

    @Ezmirelda, Lost in Austen was a treat, especially some of those Austen-esque one-liners!

  14. Orson Scott Card's Pastwatch (high school on up) does some interesting things with both time backwards and time travel.

    My creative writing class had an exercise where we took an old object and wrote three episodes about it, from most recent to oldest. I got this really cool old mirror/makeup case. You could tell from the wear marks that it had been owned by a left-handed woman!

  15. Thanks for the advice, Rose! I was kind of planning on having older characters saying what she needed to know, I was just wondering what you guys had to say about it.
    An excellent post, Mrs. Levine!
    In my main story, I already know most of the characters' back-stories, but there are one or two who's backgrounds are important, but I haven't made up anything for, yet. I think I'll just let them develop along with the story, for now.

  16. This is unrelated to this post, but I didn't know where else to comment, so…
    I was wondering how you feel about the covers of your books? I've seen at least four different covers on Ella Enchanted, for instance. Is there a certain image you want portrayed when people first pick up the book and look at the front cover? For me personally, first impressions of the cover and title make a lot of difference in whether or not I end up checking out a book from the library and reading it. The other thing about a cover is, when they picture the main character, do you mind how they look? For THe Two Princesses of Bamarre, I think there's a lot of confusion about wich girl is Addie and which is Meryl on the cover. One of my pet peeves is when the book contains a very, very specific description of a girl's hair/eye/skin color and the picture totally contradicts that. Even though it isn't directly writing-related, could you maybe write a post about covers? Thanks.

  17. F–I think it's fine for your voice to change from book to book. I have a post coming up (eventually) about voice. I'll add your question to it.
    Abigail–I can write a post about covers, although I won't be writing about writing that time, but I guess I can switch for once.

  18. Yay, I'm glad it doesn't matter, because I was worried about that. I'm working on (another) project of mine which is in a genre I don't really like reading – sci-fi. And, of course, my voice is changing to suit the setting, so…
    @Abigail – agreed! I love the (in my mind, original) Ella Enchanted cover – the blue one with her smiling cheekily. LOVE it! It looks exactly like Ella!
    But then there's the one of her wearing the green dress, and she looks too young. 🙁
    And the Two Princesses of Bamarre, too – I like the first one (I think).

    Related to this however, I have a question *SPOILER* In the book, we know the conditions when the cure will be found, right? Well, me and my friend always argued as to who the 'cowards' mentioned where. I now see that you probably meant the villagers, but I always thought you meant Meryl. Was that a completely different line of thinking, or did you perhaps mean to point at her, too?

  19. Thanks so much for the awesomely instructive piece. I've linked to it on #YAlitchat! I've used a similar device as you–a book within a book (a well-known book to the fictional characters in my story) to provide layers of backstory as well as another layer of a character who tells the story as a witness to a crime from the police station. So, in essence, the entire book is a flashback that catches up to the present at the end. I love to work this way and I think it can be fun albeit challenging to engage the reader in this way. I don't think we give the readers enough reader for how intelligent they are.

    Thanks for all that you are-
    Georgia McBride

  20. Ms. Levine, do you have any suggestions on writing action or fight scenes in books? Things that happen fast are especially hard to capture, because it takes so long to say that it happened, even if it happens quite quickly. I think I especially need help on writing large battle scenes because I have no idea where to start. However, if you haven't done this sort of thing much, that's fine too – I was just fishing for whatever help I could get.

  21. F–Interesting… I didn't mean Meryl, and I didn't even mean the villagers specifically, although they were cowardly. I meant the entire kingdom. No one was willing to face the monsters.
    Rose–Great question. I'm adding it to my list. I have a battle scene in FAIRIES AND THE QUEST FOR NEVER LAND, which will be out next month.

  22. Now that IS interesting! 🙂 And it makes so much sense. I thought it was the villagers since it kind of *SPOILERS* tied in with how Freya was killed – the villagers were too cowardly to help then, when she lay dying. But when they had to help Meryl, some of them went along, and hence the 'cowards' found courage.
    There isn't any symbolism I'm missing, is there?

  23. Stephen Sondheim reference! Huzzah!

    Pride and Prejudice is my favorite book… I've never tried adding to it, though, or any other established story. It just seems like I'm trying to add to something perfect. Though the idea to write a past for one of the characters is wonderful. I'll see where I go when I next start writing.

  24. I have a story in which a major spoiler event occurs in the middle of the chronology. I've tried a million different ways to move its telling nearer to the end of the story so as not to give away too much, so it's a very similar problem. Thanks for the helpful insights and examples!

  25. Hello!

    I wanted to thank you for your blog. I've effectively distracted myself from studying for exams so that I could read all of your posts. It's truly insightful and enjoyable.

    I also have a question I'd love you to answer. When you write love stories, or a love theme in one of your books, how do you prevent the eventual coupling from being predictable from the first interaction between the characters?

    I also wondered if you have any ideas about preventing the sickly sweet, trite element of romance – it's sometimes so hard to avoid!
    Thank you, and again for your fascinating blog. It's definitely a favourite.


  26. Yes, I was also wondering about how not to make love too predicable. As a reader, I know that as soon as a nice boy, (or girl,) comes into the story, I think, "Ooo, I smell romance!" An example of this is Fairest. (SPOILER!) I think I guessed from the start that Aza would fall in love with Ijori, although I did have doubts after the plain is found out, and he doesn't defend her.

  27. Interesting information. In my fantasy chapter book in contract, I started with one page of present, then went to the backstory bringing the character to that point. Then, back to the present and onward.

    It is a tricky business, and like your suggestion to start at the beginning and just work forward.

    I have your blog on my Yahoo feed.

  28. Dear Mrs. Levine,

    I am such a fan of yours! You are a fantastic writer, and I just ordered your book "Writing Magic". I have a blog on here called "God's Eccentrics", by the way.


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