Wednesday, July 26, 2017

On Writing: Using Flashbacks to Deepen Character

Often writers are told to avoid flashbacks. In some cases this advice is wise. However, if used judiciously flashbacks are a powerful writing tool, especially for deepening character. What’s important is when and why characters choose to remember, what they remember, and the emotion or emotions the memory evokes.

One of the most important things to remember is to only use flashbacks at a point in the story where they will have a direct impact on the ongoing action. For example, a flashback can justify a character doing something that goes against how they have behaved up until that point in the story by showing a past event that serves as a trigger for this seemly strange behavior.

The flashback itself needs to be an emotional high or low point. But it doesn’t have to be a long or extensive memory. In fact, tiny and more personal flashbacks tend to covey a stronger emotional impact on the character and reader.

For example, a withdrawn and prudish Victorian school teacher might risk social rebuff by rescuing a drunk prostitute from ridicule because a yellow ribbon in the woman’s hair reminds the teacher of her own mother who was an opium addict. Perhaps the flashback has to do with her mother putting a yellow ribbon in the teacher’s hair, the sensation of a loving touch in the teacher’s otherwise harsh childhood.

Equally important is the character’s attitude toward the flashback. If the teacher’s memory of the yellow ribbon makes her feel hatred or envy instead of compassion or confidence, then her behavior toward the prostitute might be entirely different.

The flashback doesn’t just deepen the character that’s remembering it. The flashback also can show a lot about the character or characters being remembered. Was the teacher’s mother kind but a victim of circumstance? Or was she in reality abusive and the ribbon was used for both kindness and punishment? Is there a third character in the scene, the teacher’s brother who in the past was ridiculed by the mother and now is treating the prostitute in a similar manner?

Now here’s a tricky thing. A character’s emotional reaction to or understanding of a flashback can change as a story progresses. Instead of being stagnant, the flashback can transform into a marker of a character’s growth. For example, if we go back to the schoolteacher story, perhaps at first she hates the prostitute because of her memories of her mother. But as the story goes on, the teacher’s experiences make her realize that she was cruelly judgmental of her mentally ill mother. At the end of the story, the teacher might see the flashback through new eyes and have a different reaction to a woman and yellow ribbon.

One of the best ways to experiment with flashbacks is to think about your own past. What tiny moments in your past do you recall with strong emotions? Do certain smells or tastes affect you emotionally because of something in the past? Now add similar experiences to your characters’ backstories and let them surface at moments when a hot spike of emotion is needed.



She wants more than he can promise.
His desires could lead to betrayal.
But without each other, neither can survive the dangers ahead.

Annie Freemont knows this isn’t the right time to get involved with a man like Chase. After years of distrust, she’s finally drawing close to her estranged family, and he’s an employee on their estate in Maine. Though she never intended to stay on the estate for long, her father’s illness and the mysteries surrounding her family made leaving impossible. And now with the newfound hope of rescuing her long-missing mother, Annie’s determined to be involved with the family’s plans one way or another.

If only she could keep her mind off Chase and focus on the impending rescue. But there’s something about the enigmatic Chase that she can’t resist. And she’s not the only woman. Annie fears a seductive stranger who is key to safely freeing her mother is also obsessed with him. As plans transform into action and time for a treacherous journey into a strange world draws near, every move Annie makes will test the one bond she’s trusted with her secrets, her desires—and her heart.

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