Through the Looking Glass – Using Flashback as a Tool

In my bathroom (no worries this is not going down the toilet), there is a mirror across from the window. When I look into the mirror the view reflected back of outside (not my reflection) always catches me by surprise. My brain translates the scene and I’m not in the present, I’m at my childhood home, looking out the window in the upstairs hall.

Every time it happens I’m amazed that a memory as unremarkable as a view out a window, could be so indelible that a similar view fifty years later would conjure up familiarity. Blows my mind but it is a pleasant experience so I go with it.

It got me thinking though about how to use this phenomenon in my writing. I always look for tools to add to my repertoire, but the tools themselves don’t mean success. Flashback for instance.  Flashback can be clunky and obvious or seamless and near invisible.

That’s the key writers. Use the tool well. If a flashback is inserted into the flow of the story as a ploy to tell backstory or to bulk up a character’s personality, it is obvious, cheap even, for any reader paying attention (which usually means they are a writer). Even short clips, if not reading like the character’s natural thought to the past, don’t add to reader immersion, they pause it. Any pause has to be ignored and then attention reengaged, like a hiccup in the middle of a speech. Don’t do it!

So what possibility did I find in my experience? Here’s what I came up with: A character sees her childhood in the briefest moment of a glance in a mirror. She is startled by the familiar scene and the rush of memories that comes with it. This happens just before she is about to shoot a man who looks like her brother, the same one who used to climb that oak tree with her and pretend that they were escaping a sea monster. Can she pull the trigger? Compare that to she sees the man, notes that he looks like her brother and remembers how they used to play pretend together up the oak tree making her consider if she can pull the trigger. Which one helps the reader connect with and experience the jolt of the memory and subsequent dilemma better?

Check your work for flashbacks. Be creative. Be subtle. Be real or find another way to add depth to a character.

Write on! Flashback to the first story you wrote and believe in your talent.


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