As a writer, you don’t need a Delorean for your characters to travel back in time. You can use Flashback – which is exactly what it sounds like. The author flashes back to a previous time in the character’s life to demonstrate why a current action or idea is important. It’s an effective tool and I encourage its use – BUT, there are certain ways to use this device effectively. And many, many ways to use it in either a pointless way or a detrimental way.
The most misused and dangerous use of Flashback is – what I have come to call – interrupting backstory. Interrupting backstory is a quick info-dump that the reader might already infer or a flashback that interrupts the current action in an effort to validate why the action happened in the first place. It is often small, taking three or four (sometimes fewer) sentences to make the explanation. And since it’s small, it’s usually unnoticed. However, it’s small nuances like interrupting backstory that make a bad story a good story… or vice versa.
Let’s take a look at an example. Below, I wrote a paragraph about a woman coming home from work. She’s exhausted and about to have a fight with her husband. Her exhaustion is important because it’s the catalyst for the fight. As the author, I want to stress the importance of her exhaustion after a long day. Read what follows and see if you can identify the interrupting backstory.
She shut the door and leaned against it. She puffed out a sigh and dropped her purse. Sandra was exhausted from work. She had spent the entire day completing a single task that she should have been able to accomplish in an hour or two. Karen, her secretary, was on maternity leave and the work was becoming too much for Sandra alone. Each day she came home exhausted and knew that her unemployed husband would only ask her to do something more. So when he asked her to go buy more ice cream, she certainly did not feel like it.
Did you spot it? You as the author need to know what’s important and what’s not. Read the next excerpt with the same author focus – a woman coming home from an exhausting day at work. Which of the two best describes an exhausted character without interrupting backstory to over-validate her fatigue?
She shut the door and leaned against it. She puffed out a sigh and dropped her purse. She heard her keys scratch the floor but did not even look to examine for marks. She walked to the couch and fell into it, stomach down, her face oppressing a pillow.
“Tough day at work, huh?” her husband asked as he walked in from the kitchen. He spooned another glob of ice-cream into his mouth. “We need some more ice cream. Mind going to the store?”
This second paragraph completely eliminates all the information about Sandra’s day at work. By eliminating the needless facts about why she was tired and giving an image or two more about the fatigue, the writing focuses on the current images and not on interrupting backstory. Who cares about Karen’s maternity leave or a simple task made difficult? As an author, I focused on Sandra’s emotions, and by eliminating interrupting backstory I enhance the in-scene tension. This sets up the coming conflict – does she get ice cream for her husband or scream at him? – and does not dwell on something inconsequential that happened hours before. We need to know Sandra is tired before the conflict – the Why, in this case, can be inferred.
Interrupting backstory also breaks your reader away from the action of the story. Read the below examples about a sex scene between two characters (and, let’s face it, no one wants that interrupted).
Alicia let out a small giggle when she felt Dan flick his fingers and unbuckle her bra in one deft movement. He pulled her closer and kissed her neck, slowly working his way up to her ear. As she dropped her neck to his shoulder she smelled his cologne. It was Calvin Kline. She immediately remembered Karl, her late husband. He had worn that cologne since they first met and it had been one of the most attractive features on their first date. Scent always was attractive to Alicia.
Whaaat!?! Don’t interrupt something captivating for a few lines of backstory. If Dan’s smell meant a lot to Alicia, you as the author have to bring in the importance of scent long before the sex scene. That way, when Alicia smells Dan, the readers know it’s something important to her. (This description might work if this new smell slams the brakes on the sex -- so slamming the brakes on the narrative makes sense too). Don’t interrupt the action to describe a character motivation. Give the motivation either before the action or let the reader infer the Why.
Importance of a point never trumps the flow of narrative. This goes with any other situation. Don’t interrupt the shoot-out to describe the Sheriff’s good-ole, trusty six-shooter. Don’t interrupt the verbal fight with backstory on why the line “Just like Connie did” is so hurtful. Use flashback. But don’t interrupt.