By James N. Frey
James N. Frey is one of America's leading creative writing teachers. For over ten years, he conducted the popular Open Workshop at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers annual conference. He's taught and lectured at dozens of other schools and conferences, including the Oregon Writers Colony, the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, the Heartland Writers, the University of California Extension novel writing workshop, the California Writers Club conference, and others, both in America and in Europe.
Frey is the author of the widely read How To Write A Damn Good Novel, How To Write A Damn Good Novel II: Advanced Techniques, and The Key: Writing Damn Good Fiction Using The Power Of Myth. He is an award-winning playwright and the author of nine novels, including The Long Way To Die, which was nominated for an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America, and Winter Of The Wolves, a Literary Guild Selection.
This article was originally published in the German magazine TextArt: Magazin für Kreatives Schreiben (The magazine for creative writers) in a question/answer column.
Flashbacks are not in themselves evil. In fact, they may contribute immensely to the understanding of the characters.
First, let's be clear about our terms. A flashback is a scene or series of scenes that dramatically shows the reader an event or series of events that happened prior to the time frame of the present story. Say you're writing about a murder that happens in 2001, but you want to dramatically show an affair the murderer and the victim had ten years before in 1991. You decide to show this through a flashback scene.
So you'd start in the present time frame and then slip into the flashback scene that is back in 1991, like this:
This is effective in that it brings the characters alive and is dramatic on its own, and comes at a place in the story that would hopefully bring the relationship of the characters into sharper focus. It would be an effective device to use and is not just a case of the author running away from conflict.
What a flashback shows is called "antecedent action." There are other ways of presenting antecedent action. One way is to have what happened come out in dramatic conflict. As an example, in the present in the story, say Sam is being questioned about Hilde's tragic death.
You see, despite the indirect dialogue, the reader gets the picture: they had an affair, they loved each other, but she couldn't stand his being a detective.
But the most common, and usually the most effective, way of making the antecedent action clear to the reader is to simply tell it in dramatic narrative.
Let's say our detective Sam has just seen the body and it's not clear to the reader why he's in shock and suddenly ready to beat the snot out of Monsieur Gillant to get information out of him. The reader needs to know this now but you don't want to slow things down with a flashback.
This is often done in a summary fashion:
Ugh! That's terrible writing, as stinking and flat as old road kill. Dramatic narrative is NOT simply a summary of the facts. Antecedent action should not simply be summarized for the facts, it should be shown in dramatic narrative--narrative that is as exciting and colorful as if it were written in scene. Like this:
As he drove away from the morgue, Sam remembered the last time he'd seen her, on that rainy March night in the Cafe de Fleur on the Rue de Rivoli. She wore her blue blouse that matched her lustrous eyes, and she looked at him over the rim of her coffee cup and said she could love him. Could, that was the word she used. If only, she said, she were not second in his life, second to Mademoiselle Danger, his true love. But he was not ready to quit being a detective for her, he said, then added ruefully that it would be easier to drink the Seine dry. What a fool he'd been, he thought now...
The whole idea of fiction writing is to create a
continuous drama in the theater of the reader's
mind. Flashbacks, dramatic dialogue about the
past, and dramatic narrative of antecedent action
can help to create that drama more fully. They
all assist the reader in understanding and
empathizing with the characters.