The Use of Flashbacks
By James N. Frey
James N. Frey,
author of the best-seller, How to Write a Damn Good Novel,
has given JAW permission to reprint some of his
articles. The one that follows covers a subject dear to the
hearts of many writers. Take heed.
(from one of James' fans):
In your book, How to Write a
Damn Good Novel, you advised people
flashbacks if possible. I find that when I give the background
information without using a flashback, it gets boring. Being
to me, the biggest sin. What do I do?
Okay, first let me make a confession.
When I made my attack on flashbacks I did so because I'd found
that in working with beginning writers they often would break
off a very interesting story to go into a flashback that was
often totally unnecessary. My theory was that they did this
because when their stories were heating up and the characters
were under a lot of stress—which is very good for drama—the
beginning authors felt the stress in their own bellies. This
stress made them uncomfortable and so they would decide to
show the reader a flashback to relieve their own stress.
Creative writing teachers call this "running away from
conflict." Lots of beginning writers do it, so in HOW TO WRITE
A DAMN GOOD NOVEL I advised them to use a flashback only when
they had to.
Flashbacks are not in themselves evil.
In fact, they may contribute immensely to the understanding of
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
So you'd start in the present time
frame and then slip into the flashback scene that is back in
1991, like this:
Sam went back to his
office, poured himself a tall glass of bourbon, and looked
deep into its rich, brown color. He leaned back in his old
rocker and put his feet up on his roll-top desk, took a sip
of bourbon, and thought about Hilde and that horrible,
stupid, meeting at the Cafe de Fleur on Rue de Rivoli, on
that rainy March day in 1991.
Hilde wore a blue blouse that
matched, he remembered, the deep blue of her lustrous eyes
as she looked at him over the rim of her coffee cup.
"I could love you Sam," she said.
"For the sake of argument, why don't
"I can't stand to be second."
"You're first with me, Hilde."
"No, I'm not. You love this dance
you do with death. You love only Mademoiselle Danger, not
"You want me, you've got to take the
"I say it again: only if I can be
first in your life."
"I'm a detective," he said flatly.
"I could no more change that than I can drink the Seine
Now, in his office, he stared into
the glass of bourbon and thought of what he should have
said. That for her he could be a cobbler or cab driver or
street car conductor, anything at all...
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.
Inspector Deveraux took a
long drag on his Galloise and sneered at Sam sitting at the
other side of the table in the gray-walled interrogation
room. "You knew Hilde Schmidt in Paris in March, 1991,
"You seem to know everything, why
don't you tell me?"
"You practically lived together in
the Hotel de Corsaire, room 206, did you not?"
"You fell in love like two
gooey-eyed teenagers, and you walked arm in arm through the
Tuileries...do not try to deny it. You loved her and she
threw you over for an Italian count, didn't she?"
"What happened between her and me is
none of your goddamn business."
"You wanted to marry her, we know
you said so to your friend the dwarf. Yes, he told us
"He should learn to keep his mouth
shut, and I'm just the guy to teach the little bastard how."
"She wanted you to give up this
private-eye business, but no, you wouldn't, and so she ran
out on you. Admit it."
"You're full of soup. Okay, I knew
her, we had a few laughs. She went to Naples with the
Italian and his money, let's not make so much of it. Look,
pal, women are like the common cold--you get a little fever,
you lose your appetite, but then you take it easy, drink
orange juice, and you get well again real quick."
"Why then, after her murder, did you
hound Monsieur Gillant and beat him if you did not care for
"I've got a curious nature, I like a
little murder to work on when business is slow, keeps up my
"Then you deny you ever were in love
with Hilde Schmidt?"
"I love Mademoiselle Danger, I've
been told. Nobody else."
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
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
This is often done in a summary
Sam knew Hilde in Paris ten
years before. They'd met quite by accident on the street one
day, and before long were having an affair. He loved her,
but she insisted he quit the detective business and he
couldn't do it, so they split up. She went to Naples with an
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.
N. Frey is the author of the widely
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.
He also conducts nationally
acclaimed creative writing workshops at www.jamesnfrey.com.
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