LOOKING BACK – USING FLASHBACKS IN NOVELS

I used to think that flashbacks were boring. They took me out of the story and sometimes I couldn’t work out why they were there.

Lately I’ve realised that the reason I felt this about those flashbacks is probably that they weren’t very well done. But particularly with suspense and thrillers, flashbacks have a definite place in fiction.

I’m currently reading Love You More, a thriller by Lisa Gardner. It’s a great read and I think that one of the things that has hooked me into this book is that the reader knows more than the main character and this is all done through flashbacks and POV changes.

In the story, state police trooper, Tessa Leoni claims to have shot her husband in self-defence.

For Boston detective, D.D. Warren, it should be an open-and-shut case. But where is their six-year-old-daughter?

Part of the tension is created by the fact that I as the reader, know some of the facts about the case that the person investigating it doesn’t, and I’m wondering when she’s going to find out…and if she’s going to find out before it’s too late to save the little girl.

I’ve been reading thrillers for a while, but I’m really taking a good look at how they’re constructed at the moment because I’m in the middle of rewriting one of my own, and one of the things I’ve realised is that my plot is too linear and that by drip feeding the reader information through what the main character discovers, I’m losing some of the tension. I need to use flashbacks to give the reader more.

As Nancy Kress mentions in an article for Writer’s Digest,  3 Tips for Writing Successful Flashbacks, flashbacks if done well can

1.            Make a character’s motives plausible

2.            Fill in events

3.            Present crucial information in a way that doesn’t involve an info dump.

I’m currently working on my thriller, The Secret Life of Mindy Palmer which I wrote for my May Gibbs Fellowship in 2010. My goal for 2012 is to have this book polished to an irresistible sheen by the end of the year. (Wish me luck:)

In The Secret Life of Mindy Palmer, you know from the first page that Mindy is dead and that the book is going to be about Lia Palmer trying to find her sister’s killer. I’m toying with the idea of bringing Mindy back to life, not in a literal sense, but through flashbacks where things that happened in the past start to make sense to Lia as the facts unfold. There may be some flashbacks that just involve Mindy.

I think this will give the reader more insight into Mindy and why she did the things she did, and it’s going to allow me to present the reader with new information that the reader will know, but Lia won’t. Lia will need to discover this information in order to find the killer and save her own life.

Do you use flashbacks in your writing? I’d love to hear your tips on why they work or don’t work for you as a reader and a writer. Feel free to leave your comments at the end of this post.

Happy Writing

Dee

P.S. Don’t forget Friday Feedback here at this blog where we provide constructive feedback on your piece of writing. If you have 150 words of a novel that you’d like feedback on, send it to Dee*at*Deescribe*dot*com*dot*au

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10 thoughts on “LOOKING BACK – USING FLASHBACKS IN NOVELS

  1. I’ve just recently used a sort-of ‘Unreliable Flashback’ moment in the piece I’m rewriting, though have had it ‘bleed through’ into the reality as a cross between a memory and a dream – the same way in which we might remember what we wished we’d said as part of what actually happened.

    For my writing, it’s hard to throw them in a way that feels organic to me. They often feel forced – though if I see them in other writing, I don’t have that same sense. There’s been a few times where I’ve wanted to do a flashback, but it felt too much like a block of exposition to carry through with it.

  2. I know what you mean, Nick.

    Flashbacks are hard aren’t they? But they can add another dimension to your work.

    From what I’m learning, the key seems to be showing the flashbacks themselves as a piece of action and using them in response to something that just happened in the story, and as a lead in to what’s going to happen next. Also, they have to be necessary…like there’s no better way to get this piece of information across but the reader must have it.

    I’m still working on getting my flashbacks working. I guess it also depends on your story and what’s happening to your character at the time.

    Good luck with yours:)

    Dee

  3. I’m interested in this post because the novel I’m working on now has a lot of action happening when my main character is aged 12-17, and I’m struggling with having a child protaganist in an adult book. I’m toying with the idea of having one thread of the story being told from the POV of my heroine as an adult, with flashbacks to her childhood to explain what happened. A lot of the key scenes are childhood ones – but if I tell the story in a linear fashion my readers will spend a substantial part of the novel in her childhood. The hard part will be finding the points of change, I think …

  4. Hi Kate,

    I have a young adult novel like that where I used flashbacks from when my main character was very young. Most of the novel is in first person present tense, and the flashbacks are in third person intimate in the young child’s POV. So the different POVs are easily differentiated, but still relate to the same character and are still very much in that character’s head.

    I actually worked out first what information the reader needed to know about the character’s childhood – and plotted it so it became an entire story/sub-plot of its own. Then I worked it into the main story where it needed to be according to what was happening in both the sub plot and the main story. But I’ve actually worked it in backwards to increase the tension so that the reader knows that it’s leading towards something bad and the climax of that sub-plot hits just before the main climax of the story.

    Have you read any Jodi Picoult books? (Handle with Care, My Sisters’ Keeper and Keeping Faith) Her books are adult novels often about small children, with part of the story in their POV. She seems to do POV shifts really well.

    Kate, I’d love to hear about how you end up solving your dilemma. Hope you’ll keep us updated:)

    Dee

  5. Love this post, Dee. I agree, flashbacks are terrific if done well. Hope Lia and Mindy’s story is coming together well!
    In my story, ‘Singing the Wires’, I’ve brought a flashback in (twice) via the main character’s dreams (subconscious memory, actually). I think it’s a logical way to work her past into the story, and seems to fit seamlessly.
    Kate, I’m also interested in how you finally solve your dilemma. 🙂
    cheers
    Sheryl

  6. Thanks, Sheryl,

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I think that’s the key…to make it fit seamlessly. I guess that’s when you know it belongs there.

    Mindy book one is almost completely replotted by scenes, Sheryl, using everything I am learning from the fabulous Mary Buckham. Then it’s onto Books 2 and 3. Seeing as it’s a thriller/mystery trilogy I really need to have the whole thing well thought out so that all the bits and pieces fit into place and all the clues and foreshadowing work well in the first book.

    Hope your writing is going well:)

    Dee

  7. Fascinating post, Dee.
    I think the flashback that works best for me as a reader is when they are short and give information that makes sense of the current situation.
    I can’t wait to read your new use of flashback.
    As a writer I find it hard not to use them as an info dump. But maybe if I only use them when they are reflecting on something that needs to be revealed at that particular point in the book they could work better?
    You have given me plenty to mull on.
    Alison

  8. Thanks, Alison,

    I think they can also be used to show a side to a character that you want the reader to see, but not the main character.

    This seems to work particularly well in thrillers and mysteries.

    Dee:)

  9. This is a great post, Dee. And very relevant to me. In my last novel I had a few sections that showed things in flashback and on a couple of readers’ advice changed them to real time because they wanted to see the whole event. The effect has been to increase the word count substantially and I think slowed the plot. Your discussion here prompts me now to go back and query whether all those moments really need the full treatment and whether they have slowed the pace. Also if perhaps they just weren’t done well enough!
    Hope your course is going great. You sounds inspired.
    Best, Chris

  10. Thanks, Chris,

    I’m glad this post has been helpful. Flashbacks really are tricky and I think they definitely have to have a specific purpose, not just be put there to get information across to the reader. Good luck with the rewrites.

    Thanks, I am loving the course. It finishes at the end of the month and then I’m going to spend all of March applying what I’ve learnt.

    Dee:)

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