The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked.Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
It seems like great advice for telling a story: Begin at the beginning and when you get to the end, stop. Except stories are often more complicated than a single moment. Why? Because our lives are more complicated than each moment taken separately.
I write almost all of my stories in non-linear fashion. While there are many approaches to non-linear storytelling (multiple POV, dual timelines) my favorite method is the flashback.
Why are flashbacks an effective storytelling method?
As humans with an amazing capacity for memory, we live our lives within a series of flashbacks. For example, a question as simple as, “What do you want to do tonight?” can trigger a waterfall of memories until we reach something that sparks desire in us. We remember staying in and cuddling with our lover, we remember going out for beers with friends, and maybe we remember being on our own with a good book. We weigh each of these memories against our current situation to make a decision.
That question on its own might not make a beautiful, engaging story. But depending on the memories that surface when the question is asked, the situation can suddenly hold more drama.
This is especially true when a character has suffered a past trauma associated with certain triggering experiences. I am not saying all characters have PTSD. Instead, I am saying our lives are difficult and we often remember stressful experiences. These memories surface when we run into similar situations. So when we face a potentially traumatic or exciting situation, we are not a clean slate within that moment. We are rich tapestries of past experiences that inform our current actions.
If each of us experiences memories, to varying depths, based on current situations, then why wouldn’t our characters? To leave out flashbacks is to strip a character of their past.
How do we avoid info-dumps in flashbacks?
Many writers will argue that flashbacks are used as the dreaded info-dump and should be at best avoided and at least minimized. I’ve read some of these info-dump flashbacks, and I agree they hinder the story. Flashbacks often slow forward momentum to give the reader important information the characters in the story already have. However, when written into the fabric of the story, flashbacks can be an essential piece of the forward action.
The trick I use to avoid these info-dumps is authenticity. I try to write as close to the hearts of my characters as possible. Doing so, I like to imagine that I get in their heads and can anticipate when memories would arise. This means I can’t add in a key flashback to help the plot or force a beautiful scene to fit (I tried in Casual and had to take out several). Instead, I can only use a flashback when the current scene would naturally trigger one. That may mean I have to take my character different places and have them try different things until I unlock the memories I need to push their story forward.
I try not to make this site about writing (at least not the technical aspect) because I want the content to be for my readers. But I think the things we remember and the lenses we access our memories through are some most interesting aspects of the human condition. So I continue to write about memory, and I hope you will continue to enjoy reading these meditations.
We may experience life linearly, but we are definitely non-linear creatures.