On August 4, 2012, MNM wrote, I’ve been working on a story that is written in first person and I’m having issues with putting in the background or writing flashbacks. I can bring them into the story easily enough, but I am having trouble getting back on track without a choppy transition. Any tips?
Here’s a confession: I’ve started to put together a second writing book, this one based on the blog, and I’m about to write a chapter on flashbacks and back story, so this question is exactly on time. Thank you, MNM!
The first consideration with back story (background) and flashbacks is whether they’re needed. If not, I say leave ‘em out. No matter how smooth our transition, the reader has to quit the forward movement of our tale to journey to an earlier time and, often, a different place. When he returns he has to get immersed all over again.
Let’s go back to last week’s post about Queenie, the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, who specializes in shouting, “Off with his head!” Suppose Queenie’s love of execution comes from a childhood tragedy. Her father, Daddy Card, the late King of Hearts, was assassinated, stabbed in the neck, eek! The assassin was never found, but the Chief Constable and Queenie are convinced he or she is still at court. We want the reader to understand Queenie, maybe have some sympathy for her, so we decide to show what happened. There are lots of choices.
One way is a flashback. We want a smooth transition so we plan it ahead of time. Let’s say Daddy Card liked to write lengthy letters to family and friends on pale purple stationery in his distinctive spidery handwriting. In present time, Queenie is in her study when a Nine of Clubs, a servant, brings in her mail, among which is a letter in a pale purple envelope, not the exact tint Daddy Card favored, but close. Hands trembling, she picks up the tiny silver dagger she uses as a letter opener, and thinks, Ten years in a month.
That day she’d been in this room, too, opening replies to her birthday party invitations. She’d issued eighty-nine invitations, and eighty-nine children had accepted. As she was mounding the responses in a triumphant pile, feet had thudded in the corridor outside. She hardly heeded – the servants were always rushing about. Then came a soft knock, her lady-in-waiting’s shy tap, but an instant later the woman opened without permission.
We’re in. Notice that I started with had been and had dispatched, but switched to simple past in the sentence, The servants were always rushing about. That sentence marks the complete shift to the earlier time.
The flashback continues. We see the shaken maid delivering the terrible news. Whatever follows follows: weeping, rushing out of the room, going to Mommy Card, could be anything. Finally we bring Queenie back to the study and start the return transition:
She sat dully at her desk and stared without comprehension at the party replies. Oh, she’d finally remembered, the girl she used to be was going to have a celebration. For the first time, on that sad, long-ago day, she’d collected her hair in a bun at the back of her neck. Then she’d picked up another letter and had slit it open.
The mauve envelope in her hand now had nothing to do with a party. There was no party. She hated parties. Who would be stupid enough to choose this color?
And we’re back. Did you see that I repeated the tense switch on the return? Two devices make the transition smooth: the tense shift and an action that bridges the gap in time, in this case opening the mail.
But if we don’t want to interrupt the story, what are our other choices?
Suppose Queenie always touches her throat before calling for an execution. If Kingie, who thoroughly understands his wife, manages to put his arm around her quickly enough, she relaxes and doesn’t give the order. A newcomer to court can observe this and ask her uncle to explain. In a short bit of dialogue the father’s assassination can be revealed.
If we’re writing in Queenie’s POV, the revelation can come in thoughts, something like, Ten years in a month. I was nicer before the assassin. Then we go back to the action. Five pages later, she might think something else, like, Dr. Two of Spades says I lost my father at a girl’s most formative moment, no matter how he died. What a Two he is! She makes a weighing gesture with her hands. Heart attack – assassination. Heart attack – assassination. Not the same. More action. Later on she can finish the back story by thinking, I probably killed the assassin long ago, but as long as he could still be playing croquet, I’ll keep the executions coming.
If we’re writing from another character’s POV, he can be present for one of Queenie’s execution orders and think about the past in a sentence or two.
Or the reader can do without. Everyone knows Queenie orders people’s heads off. It’s one of the facts of her rule. People avoid playing croquet with her and are terrified when they have to. The history doesn’t have to come to the fore. If she’s an important character, we can show her touching her throat, loving Kingie, seeming relieved when her husband pardons people. She’ll come off as a complex character. Excellent.
I would ask the same questions about a back story as about a flashback, and if I can, I would do without.
But suppose you need to put it in and the back story is the history of this card kingdom. Let’s imagine that Alice has a mission in Wonderland and in order to have a chance she has to understand the place. She can find a tome about it in her parents’ library, and we can put a page of the book right in the story. We can have her stop in the middle to gasp or to get a glass of water, whatever. For suspense, we can have her leave the room for the water and find the book gone when she comes back. She knows part of the story and she has to find out the rest, which moves the back story into the front. She can ask the university historian, and we can include their conversation. If we break up the back story, again we haven’t suspended the forward story for very long. In the first instance, we leave the back story to get the glass of water. In the second, the historian can look at his watch and say he has to teach, and we’re out. The trick, I think, is to plant the seeds for the return from the back story in the way it begins, for example, with an action that the character can return to.
Here are four prompts:
∙ The White Rabbit is hopping ahead of Alice. From his POV write a flashback that explains his urgency. In Lewis Carroll’s story, he and Alice separate and the story follows her. Stick with him and invent what happens.
∙ Write the back story that explains the history of the card monarchy.
∙ Let’s use a modern weather event, Hurricane Sandy or a tornado or a blizzard, and have Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz show up in it. Provide a back story to explain how she got there.
∙ After an election I always wonder how it feels to be the winner or the loser, but a prompt on the actual election seems too close to home, so let’s imagine one in the republic of Tulipe, where Mistress Prunette of the Globule Party ousted Master Rosto of the Concavities. Each has asked to be alone for a few minutes to reflect on the contest. Write a flashback for each that gives personal meaning to the outcome.
Have fun, and save what you write!