Make Your Story: Flashbacks

28 Apr

Make Your Story is a series of articles by novelist Barth Anderson about things you might consider when writing your life-story, autobiography, or when mining personal material for your art. 

In approaching your life story, consider that you might not know it as well as you think you do. Consider your own life the way you might consider a stranger’s. Consider it unknown territory. Consider what you’ve never considered before.

Consider your flashbacks.

Your life-story isn’t one long flashback. It’s a narrative that incorporates a handful of flashbacks to create a particular dramatic effect of your choosing.

When you look at old pictures of someone you didn’t know twenty years ago, this dramatic effect is instant, often comical. You see them in funny haircuts and wildly different clothes. Their cosmetic game is entirely different. On point, but – wow. The effect is jarring because you know them as one person, but two decades earlier, they were someone you barely recognize.

This is elemental storytelling 101. Storytelling is change. A character was this, but then they became that. Flashbacks perform this change instantaneously while also setting up further plot-points, for greater change down the line. Dramatic gas for multiple storytelling engines: flashbacks.

But more than a fun costume change, a well-considered flashback can be used to drop your life-story’s main character right into boiling water. That’s a stronger dramatic effect than the reader seeing you in acid-wash jeans and a mullet: The character we’ve come to identify with was in trouble as a kid. That’s going to cut closer to the reader’s heart.

And yours.

What was “the boiling water” when you were twelve? When you were four? What made that water so dangerous and hot to begin with? Why in the world was a four-year-old thrown into boiling water? Who did that to you? Who tried to help? Why couldn’t they stop it? Why didn’t you perish? What was the fallout from that horrible scene?

The answers to those questions will create dramatic tension/contrast with the main narrative of your life-story.

You don’t have to flashback to agony and pain, of course, but whatever mood you set up in the main narrative should be contrasted in flashback. If it’s a humorous story in the “now,” then maybe the flashback should show something somber. If the mood is dour in the now, consider flashbacking to color and a dance of emotion.

The worst thing you can do with a flashback is make a static image of yourself that makes the flashback stand as a prop, an old-fashioned jacket that doesn’t get worn and has no effect, dramatic or aesthetic, on the story as a whole. This is a kind of forgetfulness on your part, letting the memory of a memory stand in for actual observation from you as a writer. To avoid this, you need to see yourself in the past the way you see yourself now, someone faced with possibilities and choices — yes, even as a child you had choices. Previous choices will make flashbacks dance. Consider those around you if you are remembering a time when you were very young. The people around you-as-a-child had thousands of choices to make that had a bearing on what you became, the choices you eventually made when you were older. They might have more to do with you than you realize, even if you think you know your story.

Exercise time:

Consider a flashback scene. Consider a time when you were very young. But rather than writing from the point of view of you as a child, write it from the angle of someone near you, back then. Drop yourself into a fierce, sharp, or passionate agenda of someone responsible for you. Or opposed to you. Account for that character’s agenda in your scene. If they are a villain, make them villainous, but make them round and believable with tone and realness. 500 words. Keep your pen/keyboard moving. Go.


Gustav Dore, “Dante Submerged in the River Lethe”



%d bloggers like this: