Flashbacks in stories

It’s October  and the mood on my Facebook feed couldn’t be more distinct. Fall weddings, National Novel Writing Month is just a month away, that “three months away from the end of 2012” feeling, and the advent of fall and colder temperatures.

That’s not to mention the exciting personal bench marks that come with it, birthdays, more weddings, and the surreal idea that for the first time, since I left California, I managed to hold down a job longer than two weeks, albeit with its ups and downs, and occasional flashbacks to not-so-happy memories of my first job.  Which brings me precisely to the topic of today’s post: Flashbacks.

Sometimes it feels like flashbacks work far more seamlessly in reality than fiction. A supervisor says or does something a certain way that brings back an unpleasant memory of a previous job, or hearing someone describing falling in love with Doctor Who and suddenly all the  emotions and reactions that stirred in you when you fell in love with  the show well up. The stimulus and the response of flashing back in reality is more spontaneous and effortless than it seems to come in fiction.

Maybe some writers do find it easy to incorporate the two, but sometimes I feel like I really have to make my characters bleed before I finally get some back story out of them, or have flashbacks to their own pasts. Some might suggest that maybe I should pass over flashbacks if it’s an area of writing that I struggle with.

I feel that flashbacks are part of the human experience; that events, feelings, interactions strike significant chords of our life – things that have shaped our attitudes and beliefs, and we carry them through life, not always as baggage, and that they continue to shape  us through life.

The writer is on a fool’s errand if they think they can write a character without flashbacks, because unlike people, characters exist on the page, using the words we carefully select to bring them to life. With flashbacks, readers can become intimate with a character’s past and leave a book feeling like they’ve met a new friend. But it only works out well when the author has the skill to know when it add it and when the narrative is weaker or stronger because of its place in the story.

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