Writing flashbacks can be problematic for writers. Often they fail at forwarding the plot and succeed at pulling the reader out of the story. This isn’t to say they aren’t sometimes necessary. For example, if knowing a character is recalling a certain moment in time changes how readers will interpret his or her actions in the present, a flashback is often the way to go. Here are some things to keep in mind before you hop into your plutonium-fueled DeLorian:
Generally, readers hate flashbacks.
Unfortunately, readers tend to skip and/or skim flashbacks thinking what happened in the past isn’t relevant to what is happening now. This is why the best flashbacks are the ones you don’t even notice. When you seamlessly integrate the flashback into the current narrative, readers won’t be able to blow it off—it will just read as part of the story.
Avoid using italics.
Italicized text isn’t easy on the eyes and should be used only when necessary. When it comes to flashbacks, it’s rarely necessary. Besides, given that we know most readers skip flashbacks, why would you want to call attention to one by changing the typography?
Make verb tenses work for you.
There’s a scene in The Last Days of Disco in which a character calls another character out for lying about when something happened based on the tense he used:
Bernie Rafferty: You didn’t tell me about that.
Des McGrath: I didn’t think it was important, it only just happened.
Bernie Rafferty: When?
Des McGrath: Tonight – just now.
Bernie Rafferty: Why did you use the past perfect, then?
Des McGrath: I used the past perfect?
Bernie Rafferty: Yeah: “I was approached.” It sounds like a while ago.
Even if most people don’t know what past perfect (or pluperfect) is called, they know how it sounds. The song lyric in the title is a perfect example:
Lying in my bed I hear the clock tick and think of you
Caught up in circles, confusion is nothing new
These two lines are in present tense. Then we go to past:
Flashback, warm nights, almost left behind
Suitcase of memories, time after
Flashback over, the following verse resumes the present tense:
Sometimes you picture me
I’m walking too far ahead
Easy to follow, isn’t it? We’ve all heard it thousands of times probably never found ourselves confused by the lyrics.
What does this mean for you? If your story is written in the present, put the flashback in simple past. If you’re writing in simple past, put the flashback in pluperfect. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, a novel told primarily in flashback. The book opens with the following passage:
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me.
Again, past tense. By the end of the first chapter, it shifts:
In reality, I lay many hundred miles away in an alien land, and would wake before many seconds has passed in the bare little hotel room, comforting in its lack of atmosphere. I would sigh a moment, stretch myself and turn…
The beginning of the passage is in past tense but then shifts to conditional, which is used to describe acts which may or may not take place.
Use Time Words to Transition
If you feel shifting tenses is a bit cumbersome (and in some instances, it would be) tell readers the scene is in the past:
I no longer feel as if I’m a young woman in a high-end Washington DC boutique. I’m back to being a little girl in bungalow in Washington State, playing dress-up in the clothes her mother never wears. The shag carpet in my parents’ bedroom is hideous, but I don’t realize it because I don’t know anything else. I walk on the old orange rug slowly, wearing a cheap version of the shoes I have on now. Much like the saleslady at the boutique, my mom keeps them in her closet, just in case. I scuff my feet as I move, trying my best not to topple over…
My future is made of fake patent leather, and not even the crude reality of a metal rod exposed by a missing heel tap could deter me from counting the seconds until it arrives.
It’s all in present tense, but we know she’s thinking of her childhood. The next sentence brings us back to the present:
When it finally does, it’s anti-climactic. Not only are stilettos uncomfortable as hell, I still can’t walk in them.
Again, all in present tense—but the timeline is easily followed.
Be a Writer, Not a Typographer
There are times italics are necessary—thoughts, the occasional emphasis, when Edward is reading minds. Generally though, the overuse of italics is a sign of an insecure writer. And even if you’re not secure enough in your writing to think it will speak for itself, do you really want your readers to know this?
sleepyvalentina has a bachelor’s degree in English from a nationally ranked liberal arts college you’ve never heard of. Italics make her eyes bleed.
“Time After Time” © 1984 Robert Hyman and Cyndi Lauper
Rebecca © 1938 Daphne du Maurier
The Last Days of Disco © 1998 Whit Stillman