Coping with the Past: Or Flashbacks and Infodumps
It’s the middle of a battle scene. The hero is pinned down, comm relay out of order, in desperate need of backup, a plan, and chewing gum (not necessarily in that order). The smell of burning plastics, choking and thick, fills the air and—
Cut to a flashback from childhood of grandpa and the burn pit, and what it smelled like when Older Brother put something with plastic-coated wires in the garbage, and how grandpa reacted, and grandma laughing about boys will be boys and…
Yeah. Story fail.
“But it’s important!” Cries Jane Q Writer. “That’s the foreshadowing that hints that the Big Bad is the hero’s long lost older brother!”
The reader, who has already set the book down (or tossed it against the wall), picks up a different book and wanders away.
Thus far, the one story I’ve read that works as pure flashback is “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” I won’t say much more because of spoiler for those who have not read it, but Ambrose Bierce did a fantastic job of blending flashback/memory with story. Alas, most of us are not Ambrose Bierce.
There are times when you, the writer, need to pass information on to the reader that won’t work well as a lecture, general mention in the text, or inscription on the wall of the Ancient Tomb of Doom. You are trying to hint at character motivation, or feed a little background hint, or foreshadow. Or throw a red-herring so the reader will later go “Oh! Now I see, it really was the Provost all along.” If the book is part of a series, you might need to drop references to previous events, so that newer readers are not completely at sea.
Flashback, retrospective moments, conversational asides, things like “You know, Bob, doesn’t this remind you of…” And Bob will either say, “Nope,” or “You’re right, Orville,” and bring his plasma rifle around to the ready position. Or start wondering just what the Chancellor really is doing in the Tower of the Five Winds on cloudless, still nights. And your reader will get some foreshadowing, hints about what is to come, that the Chancellor has either been doing his level best to keep the defensive wards going despite the machinations of the Provost, or that the charming and sweet little old lady Chancellor was the evil mastermind all along.
I’m struggling with this at the moment, because I need to refer to past events to explain why a character knows enough bushcraft to get out of a situation, even as the character is struggling to recall everything needed for survival. I also need moments to ease the tension and slow the pacing, so the reader doesn’t get overwhelmed. The book isn’t a thriller, so I can’t use thriller pacing. Plus that’s kinda hard on the reader, who knows there is a chunk more book yet to come.
The sort of conversation mentioned above is one way to nod back to previous events, at least if the characters are all familiar with what happened. If Jane Newkid stands there gawping, a you need to add a little more exposition, or at least have someone say, ” S’ OK, Jack’ll explain later.” It is usually a short few sentences at most, and the story moves on.
Flashbacks also work, but they bring the action to a halt if you describe what the character is seeing/smelling/hearing. That can be exactly what you want, if you have a character who freezes, trapped in the memory. Or it might be something to describe from the outside at the time, and then later, when someone pushes the character to find out what went wrong, you describe the flashback in detail. One intriguing way I’ve seen flashbacks used was in a story where the protagonist’s father had inadvertently imprinted his own memories of events into his son, and the son re-lived his father’s experiences. Once this was just puzzling, once it saved his life, and once it took the father’s old comrades to break the memory and help the protagonist move on with his own life.
Retrospective moments are slower, places where the character (and readers) are breathing, resting, musing over events. Think protagonist leaning against the sun-warmed stone of the rampart, looking out over peaceful, green fields and woodlots, and musing about how much better things are now that the nasty emperor has been gone for two generations. Or musing about her last rather disastrous social event and how she’s not looking forward to the Grand Ball at Court. A couple on a quiet evening after the children are in bed, and they are chuckling over stories from their family, or shared past. Those sort of things—useful for backstory, for foreshadowing, or for filling in new readers (or readers who have been away for a while) about earlier events.
There’s no One True Way to use retrospection, flashback, and the like. A slow, meditative story will work very differently from a thriller or police procedural. The main rule is: don’t break the story. Don’t throw the reader out of the story. Time slows, the character remembers something, OK. Story slows as the character remembers half of In Search of Times Past, not OK.
And in case anyone has missed it:
Distinctly Familiar, the sixth book in the Familiar Tales series, is out.
Because a 2000 lb Shire mare familiar has to earn her keep, and Tay the lemur just will not leave things well enough alone…