Carol Brennan King July 7, 2021
Prompt for next week: Write something around the word vacation. Think school, holiday, family, short or long vacations, accidental vacations (a snow day) or intentional and planned vacations.
The example that I am sharing here may seem a long way off from vacation, but I was on my vacation when it happened. Remember, if you are working on something else, bring that and ignore the prompt.
The Dog Spoke
The sun shone hot on the earth
and I sought a cool
respite in the pool
inching my way in for
the water had not yet
got the message the sun
But the dog had and
she came over to me,
her feet cool on the second step
into the water. I sat on the edge
of the pool, my feet too
feeling in the water.
She came over to me and
she put her paw, her long
forearm into my lap,
black toe tips on my thigh
assuring me that we
could do it, we could
step out into the water
and feel its caress and
shed the lethargy of the heat
and step into this moment
of renewal together.
Creative Writing and Memoir Class
Writing the Flashback
First remember, that flashbacks are useful whether you are writing fiction or memoir. So let’s look at what a flashback really is.
A flashback is a scene, a memory of something that took place before the current time of the story. It interrupts the chronological order of the narrative to accomplish one of three things:
- To give the story more depth by sharing more details that help the reader know why the character behaves this way or pursues this thing. Think helps with character development
- To add tension and move the plot along
- To move into and out of a different time period creating more interest.
- To keep the reader interested in and connected to the character(s).
- To help explain the currentconflict.
To use a flashback, you must remember to use all three parts:
- You must have a natural way to move from the present into the past
- Show the action of the backstory or flashback (Don’t fall into a telly piece, this happened to him and he felt this way about it)
- Get back to the present.
The easiest way to do this is to have the character be reminded of the past by something in the scene. Perhaps let this item prompt the memory and when the item is replaced or looked away from, the action moves back to the present.
4 Tips for Writing Flashbacks: Books make time travel effortless. Here are a few writing tips for moving elegantly between different time periods in your narrative:
- Use verb tense shifts to move between the flashback and main narrative. Whenever your narrative or characters recall a memory from a time before the story began, you have two choices.
If the memory is short, you can describe it briefly.
If it’s longer, you may want to pull the reader back into a full scene describing a past event.
It important to mark the beginning and end of a flashback to make your time jumps clear to the reader. If you’re already using past tense to tell your story, once inside the flashback, use a few lines of past perfect tense to introduce the change—e.g. “he had gone to the marina.” Past perfect tense uses the verb “to have” with the past participle of another verb (in this case “gone”). After a few lines of this, transition into simple past tense—e.g. “he climbed onto the boat.”
Generally speaking, using past perfect for a long section of text is jarring for most readers. It’s enough to use it only at the start of the flashback before switching to simple past tense. At the end of the flashback, return briefly to past perfect tense and then transition back into the tense you started out with to signal a return to real time.
- Keep them relevant. Flashbacks help fill in the characters’ motives and history, but if they are too long or tedious, the reader will get bored.
It can be tempting to unload every last one of your character’s memories but tell the reader only what they really need to know, and no more than that. Keep the language in these passages clear, always keeping the readers’ understanding in mind.
- Sometimes the whole book is the flashback. Occasionally, the first scene or first chapter of a book will feature the main character (or a supporting character) beginning to tell a story to someone else.
Framing the events of the storyline this way, with a dual point-of-view into a character’s life over the passage of time, can bring more nuance to the storytelling.
Before using this technique, ask yourself whether the character’s arc is dramatic enough to make for interesting retrospection.
- Tell the present story first. Sometimes it may not be clear where a flashback belongs until you’ve completed your first draft and have a complete view of the storyline.
Don’t feel any pressure to weave in flashbacks as you write: simply tell your story in a linear fashion first, then shed more light on a character’s motives that may need more clarity, or set up later events in the revision process.
An example of a flashback at the beginning of a work.
It was just a mess, my dresser, collector of the detritus of empty pockets, empty purses, luggage, tags ripped from new clothes, tags with laundry directions now so distant from the garment they were attached to as to be useless, jewelry I took off and did not have the energy to hang up or put back in their nests, and my fragrances.
Funny about fragrances…how they mean so much for a while and I picked up the Chanel #5 bottle, loosening the stopper and, turning the bottle up for a second, and dabbing the stopper between my breasts, the familiar fragrance doing its own loosening of memories. It was our second Christmas, still almost newlyweds when he piled gifts under the tree for me. Gifts nor reflective of his Army salary but of his second job at Sears where he worked on commission, and the Christmas season had been a good one. I forget what else he got me, but I loved the Chanel #5. Over the years he has bought me other bottles of Chanel but only two come with significant memories, that first one – a memory in a bottle filled with recollection of being loved enough for Chanel. And the second nearly fifty years later, when we waited at Heathrow for our flight back home, and he noticed a Chanel store and hurried in to buy me another bottle, this one in my hand. I am holding fifty years in my hand.
Reluctantly I replaced it, then wiping the dresser of dust and garment tags and the odd bits of plastic that tacked the tags to a blouse or a shirt, I decided to just throw away all of those single earrings and broken necklace chains in the little porcelain dish from Jim’s mother.
New chapters required a sort of ruthlessness that never came easy to me. But if there was one thing I prided myself in, it was learning new things. I could learn this new thing called downsizing, even if I might learn it a bit slower that I have learned other things. And I was glad his leukemia was supposed to be the slow kind.