I’m not sure when I first realized it, but I’m obsessed with “the past.” I’m not talking about my own past per se, although in some ways I am. I have the occasional—OK, frequent—bouts of nostalgia.
It’s not just my life though. It’s my characters’ lives. Their pasts. Their struggles. Their transformations. That’s why I’m such a fan of the coming-of-age novel; by the time the story reaches the end, the protagonist already has a past.
I once had a writing professor who railroaded one of my short stories because it had too many “flashbacks.” Great professor, great class, learned a lot…but the man DESPISED flashbacks! In fact, he discouraged it, saying something along the lines of, “There’s nothing worse than the middle aged-man-on-the-front-porch-reflection story.” Gasp! How about the woman-in-the-bathtub-with-glass-of-red-reflection story? No? Oh…
In hindsight, I see what he was doing. He was encouraging us to write forward-moving stories. Page turners. Narrative arcs that built up conflict, climbed to their pinnacles without interruption. And in some ways, it’s true—particularly in short stories—that a story’s action must constantly be accelerating, driving towards something. And certainly meaningless, random, and miscellaneous flashbacks that do nothing to advance the plot have no place in literature.
But the well-crafted breed? To me, there’s nothing better in fiction. Alice LaPlante’s book Method and Madness: The Making of a Story says this of flashbacks:
“…one very rich source of characterization-driven plotting can found in flashbacks, giving the reader information about what is traditionally called “backstory,” or the past of the story. Flashbacks are very important to plot—which, you may remember, is those events arranged in the proper order the writer thinks best, not necessarily chronological order” (334).
Not only are flashbacks important to plot, but they’re critical to characterization. Take the show Lost for instance. A plane crashes on an island, and its new inhabitants are forced to forge a new lifestyle. What I love about that show…drum roll, please…are the character flashbacks. In every episode, we see glimpses of the characters’ life pre-freaky island adventure. Each ‘back story’ gives the audience insight into why the character took the dreaded flight from Australia to LA, and what he or she went through before taking the voyage. It helps put each character’s motivations, actions, and personalities into perspective. Without the flashbacks, it would just be the singular setting of the island, and thus, the characters would be strangers—to both the audience and each other.
Some of the best books I’ve ever read contain flashbacks. In Kristin Hannah’s novel Winter Garden, the prologue itself is a flashback that sets the tone—an incident that causes a lifelong riff between a mother and her two daughters—for the remainder of the story. In Sue Miller’s While I Was Gone, a chance encounter with an old roommate delves the protagonist into memories of the late 1960s that lasts nearly one-third of the book, and of course, serves the foundation for the overall plot. In Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much is True, the narrator, who is dealing with a schizophrenic twin brother, goes back and forth from present day (the early 1990s in the story) to the late ‘60s when his brother was first showing signs of the disease, as well as deeply developed family histories of the characters.
Luckily, there is no one recipe for flashbacks. They come in all shapes and sizes. They can be a substantial portion of the book, they can come and go like musical riffs, they can be stretched out over the length of novel, building on each other as they go along. They can be scenes, blurbs or simply a quick, character reflection (such as on the front porch or in the bathtub).
In any event, flashbacks, when done correctly, breathe more life onto the page. They should be used as an opportunity to develop characters, expand the plot, heighten readers’ awareness, and most importantly, make the story unforgettable.