Flashbacks: better in fiction than in life

3d construction cropped

Let’s get the jackhammers working, boys!

Have you ever ducked for cover when you heard a jackhammer? If you’re like me, one of the lucky ones, you haven’t. Combat veterans may not be so lucky. Traumatic situations such as those faced by soldiers in battle leave indelible memories.

In extreme cases, certain sounds or sights can trigger a flashback. The memories of the trauma surface with such strength that the victim literally relives the experience. Ready for fight or flight, the victim becomes disoriented and cannot tell memory from reality. and can inflict harm on others who are perceived as aggressors,

No one wants to live through traumatic situations, and those who have experienced trauma didn’t like it the first time (or it wouldn’t have been traumatic), and the last thing they want to do is live the experience again. Flashbacks are not good things in real life. Fiction is a totally different animal.

A flashback is a part of a story that moves the reader out of the main timeline of the story to experience something in “real time” that happened previous to the “now” of the story. Sound confusing? Yes, if the author does not handle the transitions well, the reader can be left behind, disoriented and disappointed. The flashback must be separated from the preceeding narrative by a scene break or chapter break. The new setting must be established immediately so the reader knows the where and when of the new timeline. Lost readers do not leave good reviews, nor do they come back to read your next book.

3d person running with USB flash drive

We all carry memories around with us, and our actions are influenced by the past experiences that formed those memories. Well-written fictional characters have a past, even if it is known only to the author. The character is often shaped by things that happened in their past. For example, an abusive father can color a girl’s view of men in general. Childhood poverty can lead to unusual attitudes about money in later life regardless of the wealth the character may have gained later. A bitter divorce can leave a person reluctant to form another relationship.

The ways past experiences influence present attitudes and actions are limited only by the imagination of the author. However, even if a past experience is relevant to the current story, it does not have to be included as a flashback. For a flashback to be effective, three things are necessary: 1) the scene from the story past must be traumatic enough to influence the way the character is acting in the story present, 2) the results of that influence must be vital to the plot of the current story, and 3) the event itself must be dramatic enough to grip the reader and make up for the effort involved in switching timelines.

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It’s not too late to register for the May workshop, Backstory & Flashbacks with Maureen Milliken

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About dhallaj

Co-Founder of the Short & Helpful Online Writer Workshops and author of four novels, Dixiane holds a PhD in Literacy and Adult Learning from George Mason University. She lives in rural Northern Virginia with her husband of 55 years and her cat named Dog.
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