Avoiding Flashback Whiplash: 15-Minute Writer's Workshop
"I remember my first day of school like it was yesterday," the young woman recounted as she stood at the podium before a sea of her tassel-hatted peers.
"Mother!" The young girl cried out as she bounded down the hallway.
"Yes dear?" Mother cooed as she stirred a bubbling pot of broth on the stove.
The day was a bright and sunny one. Mother thought, Surely this child is ready for what's to come. But then she remembered the child's previous birthday and how the young girl lost the birthday hat that'd been strapped to her head.
She remembered the cries of her daughter on that day, and the many times she asked "Where is my hat?" before finally finding it mixed in with the colorful bows and wrappers left over from opening gifts.
"I can't find my shoes," the young girl wailed.
"Did you check the shoe cubbie?" Mother chuckled. She tapped her wooden spoon against the metal rim of the pot before placing it on the counter.
"They're not there!"
"Have you tried to retrace your steps?" Mother said as she wiped her hands on her apron. "Surely your shoes didn't wander off without your feet to guide them!"
The young girl sniffled and nodded. Her mother watched over her as she walked backward, literally retracing her steps until she found herself in her room.
"And what did we do last night?" Mother said. She silently sighed at the state of her daughter's messy room.
"We picked out clothes for my first day of school," the girl said.
"Where did we leave them?"
"At the foot of my. . ." the girl's face brightened as she noticed the shoe-shaped mounds made by her frilly pink nightgown. "My shoes!"
"And from that day on, I always kept my room tidy and neat," the young woman said as she adjusted the microphone.
Flashbacks are common to find in all variety of storytelling mediums, from film and comics to of course novels and short stories.
However, despite their versatility, flashbacks are not a one-size-fits-all best method to communicating past events to a reader, and can actually push a reader out of their immersion in the story world. Some common problems with flashbacks are depicted in the passage above, such as:
Flow Disruption and Flashback Whiplash
In the above example, a character is giving a speech to her peers. During this speech, the main narrative is interrupted by a Hyperreal Flashback that goes into vivid detail on every word and gesture that happened at some time in the past.
Rather than a fuzzy memory with one or two details standing out, the flashback reads with equal quality as to what occurs in the "present" and as a result is perceived by the reader as "happening now" in the story.
This causes the reader to slam on the proverbial brakes in the main narrative in order to physically jump back in both time and place into a new "now," leaving the young woman at the podium in order to teleport over a decade into the past to a place the reader may be unfamiliar with; in this example, it's the young woman in question's childhood and home.
If a flashback is short, the passage of flashback can feel like hitting a rock in an otherwise smooth-flowing river that disrupts the flow of the main narrative. This causes the reader to be bumped from their immersion. If the flashbacks are frequent and short, the many rocky little speedbumps can throw a reader off-balance and out of the narrative completely. If particularly large flashbacks derail the flow of the main narrative, it can result in readers "forgetting" what the main story is as they settle into the time and place of a flashback only to be thrust back into the "present" again in an equally jarring experience. This stop-and-go storytelling amounts to a form of "mental whiplash" that, over time, can cause readers enough discomfort that they put a story down because they need time to recover from the strain.
As an alternative to disruptive flashbacks, consider distilling the flashback down to its essential elements and incorporating the information directly into the story. For example:
"I remember my first day of school like it was yesterday," the young woman recounted as she stood at the podium before a sea of her tassel-hatted peers. "The lesson I learned that day didn't come from school, but from my mother. She taught me the importance of not getting so wrapped up in the problems of the present that I'm unable to look back to the past. While the action was simple—retracing my steps until I found my shoes beneath some laundry—my mother prepared me with all I needed to know by ensuring I wasn't so laser-focused on the present that I overlooked how small actions taken in the past have led us to where we are today."
"In the process, she also taught me the importance of cleaning up my room."
A murmured chuckle rose from the crowd.
Puzzle Without a Picture
Every time a flashback like the one depicted above happens during a narrative, the reader ends up with a piece of story that they must juggle alongside the main narrative. Not only is it more for a reader to keep track of, but it also increases the likelihood of memories becoming unlinkable due to a writer's own continuity errors.
Regardless of whether a passage of flashback is chapter-long or paragraph-short, it is an element disconnected from the flow of the main story. Flashbacks take up a separate space in the reader's mind until they are able to find ways to link the flashback more concretely to the main narrative (for example, between the memory of the character's last pre-schooling age birthday party and their first school field trip).
Readers are like computers: they may have good long-term memories when it comes to processing and storing away continuous flows of information, but when their short-term RAM where they process what they're reading and keeping track of fills up, that's it. A reader will be faced with a choice:
stop reading, or
forget seemingly irrelevant and disconnected details.
A writer can craft a well-thought-out story full of flashbacks and foreshadowing that all come into play hundreds of pages later, but without the author's roadmap telling the reader when and where each piece will come into play, readers can become bogged down and misinterpret what's most important to remember. Time is also an element: like an open puzzle, a piece of information is unaddressed by the story for an extended period, it is likely to be lost and forgotten, resulting in a final puzzle and narrative that seems full of holes. A flashback the reader can't remember may as well not even exist for the purposes of storytelling, so saddle a reader sparingly to keep them from being overwhelmed.
Flashback-within-Flashback and Point-of-View (POV) Shifts
Some things to keep in mind, even when writing from third person, include:
Who is the source (POV) of the flashback?
What are the limits of their knowledge?
When is the flashback taking place?
Where are the limits of the flashback in time and space?
Why is the flashback the best way to communicate information?
Having clear limits prevents sprawling flashbacks from overtaking the story and causing a reader to become lost in the many complex folds linking a story's present and past.
Typography as a Crutch
If there's one thing that stands out about flashbacks, it's their tendency to literally stand out from the rest of the story in the form of extensive passages of italicization, bolding, or outright different fonts used to communicate to the reader that "this is separate from the main story."
While typography—when used sparingly—can enhance a reader's experience of a story, its overuse or abuse can exhaust a reader and drop them from the narrative altogether.
Typographical changes distract a reader from the narrative and remind a reader that they're reading (thus dropping them from their immersion), and in the cases where a combination of fonts and italicization cause a passage to become difficult to read, directly impede a reader's enjoyment of the tale as they struggle to translate the stylized lines, dots, and dashes into words with meaning.
For this 15-Minute Writer's Workshop exercise challenge, consider the following:
Find a flashback in a story and read it once. Go up to someone else—be it a parent, a friend, or even a pet—and tell them in your own words what happened in the flashback.
Go back to re-read the flashback, and ask yourself:
• What information was memorable?
• What information did you forget or cut out from your retelling?
Consider ways that characters might communicate their memories and thoughts to others without relying on the use of flashbacks, and try incorporating them into your own writing!
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Thanks so much for reading, and as always,