Writing the Flashback in Fiction

Flashbacks are tools for the fiction writer to add depth and interest to a story, as they can be a part of any piece of writing in any genre and type. Flashbacks are important for the drama in the story, because they bring the reader into the life of the characters on an emotional level and let him enter the characters’ thoughts, feelings, and expectations.

The main obligation of the flashback is to take the readers back in time when that time or place in the past matters greatly to the storyline and to the present and the future of the characters. By the same token, the flashback has to aid the reader’s grasp of the story. The reader’s grasp usually matches the writer’s understanding of his characters and their situations. If a writer has not fully fleshed out his characters in his mind, the flashbacks may run the risk of being irrelevant to the story.

Let’s say, in a very short story, a character named Mike eats a quart of ice-cream in one sitting and remembers, in flashback, his mother serving him ice-cream. Then Mike goes to his job with the CIA and discovers his best friend is a mole. After a few incidents, he proves who the mole is to his bosses. Here, the ice-cream incident and the flashback that come with it have nothing to do with the discovery of the mole, so it shouldn’t be included in Mike’s discovery-of-the-mole story, even if the writer may imagine it helps to bring out the soft side of this character.

One way to bring flashbacks to a story is to give them in total in the beginning as a prologue, an introduction, or an introductory chapter. The advantages of the total flashbacks are:

o Total flashbacks allow the telling of the story without stopping the action.

o They give the story a chronological order.

o During the storytelling, the critical backstory data serves to give depth to the story.

o Writing the total flashback is easy on the writer. After he is done with the backstory in flashback, telling the real story becomes uncomplicated.

The disadvantage of the total flashback in the beginning of a story is that it can bore the reader with the long past, instead of pulling him into the story’s action and the story’s present time.

Another way to insert flashbacks in a story is to give them in several large chunks inside the story. The film industry can use cut-aways for this; however, in writing straight fiction, large chunks work better only in slow-moving stories. If the writer is telling a fast-paced story in any genre, he needs to avoid the large chunks of flashbacks.

In addition, this type of flashback is best used by signaling its beginning and end in some way or possibly putting the flashback in italics. As to the dialogue in a large chunk of flashback, it can be summarized, if possible.

A third way of inserting the flashbacks in the story is to insert small pieces of flashback, possibly in one or two sentences wherever they are needed. The advantages of this technique are:

o The writer has flexibility in telling the story, as to how to tell it and how much he will let the reader know.

o The writer can weave in critical information and background material at any time he wishes.

o He can use it to increase suspense or to attract the reader’s curiosity

o He can create layered characters during the writing of the real story.

On the negative side, if not handled well by the writer, this technique may cause the reader to confuse the past with the present.

A few points to pay attention to while creating flashbacks are:

o The contents of the flashback should not be more exciting than the real story.

o A flashback works better if it follows a strong scene.

o The writer should orient the reader at the start of the flashback in time and space. If the transition of the flashback is not adequately written, past and present may become a jumble in the reader’s mind.

o During the revision process, it may be necessary to leave out the least important incidents in the flashbacks and trim down the existing ones.

o As to usage, the writer may want to make use of the verb tenses to signal a flashback’s beginning and ending. If the story is told in the present tense, the entire flashback can be in the past tense. If the story is told in past tense, the flashback may begin with past perfect to signal the change, then the flashback may continue with the past tense again, in order not to overuse the weighty past perfect. Then the ending of the flashback can be maneuvered into past perfect again before continuing the story with the past tense.

Some caveats concerning flashbacks are:

o The writer should not make the contents of the flashback more interesting or longer than the real story.

o The writer should not introduce the flashback as the first real scene in the story. This doesn’t always work.

o Flashbacks within flashbacks run the risk of confusing the story and the reader who is reading it, unless the writer is as highly experienced as John Updike.

o Too many and too long flashbacks tend to turn a story into an epic. If that is not the intention and there is a limit to word count, the writer must be careful with long flashbacks.

o It works better to use flashbacks sparingly and with discretion since they do tend to slow the pacing. An experienced writer will not use flashbacks past the three-quarters of the real story.

Fiction Writing – How Short Stories Differ From Novels

Short stories and novels are similar in that they both tell stories. However, there are some fundamental differences between the two types of fiction writing.

The most obvious difference is the length or word count. Whilst novels can range from 80,000 words and upwards in length, the short story can be 500 words long although 800 to 1000 words is more common. There are also short stories that can be as brief as 200 words sometimes referred to as flash fiction.

Another way in which short stories and novels differ is the number of characters and background story you can include. For example, with short stories four characters is usually the maximum number that will be acceptable. More than this would make the story too involved and would probably make it more suitable for longer fiction, such as a novella.

On the other hand, a novel can have any number of characters starting with the main protagonist together with minor characters. With longer fiction you have the opportunity to tell an elaborate story that will feature the main components such as plot, subplot, setting and point of view. In a novel you can expand the story to include all five senses; sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch. Thus, engaging your readers in fiction that will be more descriptive and interesting.

In the short story none of this is possible. You have to gain the attention of your reader immediately and give your main protagonist a problem to overcome. This problem or obstacle will have to be resolved by the end of the story. It is important however to leave your readers feeling satisfied with the outcome. This can make short story writing seem more difficult than writing a novel and again highlights the difference between the two.

Point of view is another difference. In a short story the story is told through the eyes of the main character regardless of how many characters that are present. With a novel however there is more flexibility. The narration can be told in the first person which creates more intimacy, but it can be restrictive experiencing the entire story from the protagonist’s point of view.

It is more common for novels to be written in the third person narration point of view. This is a very useful technique in novel writing as you are able to experience the story from the viewpoint of multiple characters, thus creating rich and diverse fiction.

Historical Fiction and Writing – The Rose Trilogy: The Thorn, The Judgment, The Mercy

In some historical fiction, the reader can identify specific individuals, events and dates as the backdrop of a story. Others tell stories about a people and time in general, rather than a specific event or person. Considered the queen of Amish romantic historical fiction, Beverly Lewis scored again with The Rose Trilogy: The Thorn, The Judgment and The Mercy. One could not help but compare / contrast our lives with that of the Amish. To review this trilogy, I have chosen to do just that compare / contrast “The Plain Life and the Fancy Life.” As writing students progress essays expand beyond five paragraphs.

The Rose Trilogy: The Thorn, The Judgment, The Mercy

By Beverly Lewis

Beverly Lewis introduces us to the Amish of the Pennsylvania Dutch region, the People, through this trilogy and over 80 books. While the story of Rose Ann Kauffman begins in 1985, we can easily find ourselves in similar situations. God’s people of all times have found themselves faced with the challenge of living in the world, but not of the world. Amish talk of this struggle as the contrast of “the Plain Life with the Fancy Life.” Looking at three areas we will examine this challenge: separation from the world, courtship in this world and discipline in the church.

Rose Ann Kauffman or Rose lived with her parents in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Her grandparents lived in one of the “Dawdi (grandparent) Houses” on the property. Over ten years earlier, her mother had suffered an injury when her buggy tipped over and she fell in a ravine. Though constantly in pain, she refused to let her husband take her to a specialist. Later, as part of the story, she did decide to go and regained some health and no longer had pain. They had chosen, as a People, to live very simply. Church leader, the bishop of the district, allowed the Kauffman family to have indoor bathrooms because of Emma’s injury. Generally, modern conveniences such as motor vehicles, electricity, running water, telephones and televisions in a home have no place in the “Plain Life.” Further, the People dressed and kept their hair in a way in keeping with their lifestyle. While they did not own motor vehicles, at times they hired drivers of motor vehicles to get to places such as a hospital and rehab center. My question: “Are these things evil in themselves or is it what they may do to a person? If these activities represent sin, in and of themselves, why the exceptions? One answer to this question: The modern “conveniences” represent an attempt to draw people, especially the young, away from their way of life and ultimately destroy their entire community.

For an example closer to the “English” lives, as Amish call us, I graduated from high school in 1967. During high school and college I went to churches who taught against going to movies. One of the reasons given involved not wanting to support the movie industry. I now know that they can track sales and know which kind of movies sell. At some point I would not even watch a movie on television, though I would watch television shows. That made no sense, but I wanted to obey the “rules.” Over the years, things have changed and now preachers use movies as illustrations in sermons. Content should guide us in what we watch. We must consider if the content steers us away from the Lord; if so we should discontinue it. As seen in the story of Rose, the People and “English” evangelicals meet the challenge of “separation from the world” with gradual change. I John 2:15 “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”

Amish practice of courtship stems from their idea of separation from the world. In this trilogy, young people of courting age attended Sunday evening “Singings.” Family members would get the young ladies to the “Singing” and afterwards the young people would pair up and young men would offer to take a young lady home. Young men of courting age must acquire a special “courting buggy” which was open to avoid improper behavior. During cold, Pennsylvania winters, the young men would have heated bricks and blankets to help keep their gals warm as they drove around the countryside “courting” or getting to know each other. One aspect of the whole process that seemed especially interesting involved the secrecy. While parents knew that their young lady spent time with someone after the “Singing” and presumably someone from one of the respected families of their community, the custom required secrecy. While the young couple may agree to marry, they do not announce it until a couple of weeks before “Wedding Season” at the beginning of November each year. Our protagonist, Rose, would have benefited from the guidance of her parents.

Apparently, Amish young people discuss whether to kiss on the lips before their wedding or to save it for that special day. “English” or evangelical young people have similar conversations. Parents of both groups want their children to marry believing people. Probably, most Amish demand more exclusiveness in this area. In one of the books, Rose’s grandparents questioned the wisdom of young people being out late at night. In a way, this surprised me because I expected that generation to be more entrenched in the custom. Rose’s older sister had married an “English” man and left the community for five years. Her departure from the People began to bother her only when her husband thought nothing of exposing their young daughter to worldly influences. Hen (short for Hannah) took Mattie Sue to spend some time with her parents and began to dress and act Amish. Brandon did not like this change. It pleased me that the Bishop and Hen’s father allowed her to stay there for a short time, but they encouraged her to do what she needed to restore her marriage. Certainly, we would see a bigger difference contrasting how non-believing people in our society would address these issues.

Finally, I address the issue of discipline in the church. In this trilogy, the first title, The Thorn probably refers to the foster son of Bishop Aaron. From the beginning he rebelled showing no interest in submitting to his foster parents or to the People. Nick and Christian, Aaron and Barbara’s biological son, never got along. At one point, Christian took Nick out and began to cut off his pony tail, a scuffle ensued and Christian died at the bottom of a ravine. Nick took him back to the house and then ran away. Not getting all of the information, everyone blamed Nick. Several Bishops in the area, placed Bishop Aaron on suspension; they relieved him of all his ministerial duties and he could only function as a member of the People. The Judgment develops the story of this act of church discipline. Finally, in The Mercy, a number of twists represent God’s mercy to His people.

In the epilogue and word from the author, Beverly Lewis mentions the heritage of the Amish as related to the Anabaptists of old and Mennonites of our day. In my experience one Baptist distinctive is the autonomy of the local church. While a local body could request help from nearby churches, no hierarchy exists like illustrated in this story. Members of the district in question did not agree with the decision of the other bishops. In the end, the bishops lifted the suspension as the truth came out.

This compelling story reveals how much alike and how different God’s people are. Of course if we would compare God’s people with the world, the differences would abound. Just looking at the areas of separation from the world, courting in the world and discipline in the church give us a good idea of these differences and similarities. May God grant us wisdom to be in the world, but not of the world!