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Flashbacks in Fiction

Ask any writer or publisher of fiction for their opinion on flashbacks in novels and you'll get a variety of responses. There will be a common theme however: that flashbacks should be used only sparingly. You’ll likely be told that flashbacks slow down the flow of the story, that by introducing flashbacks too early you lose all forward momentum, and that the inclusion of flashbacks will confuse the reader.

Of course everyone knows that the past - and decisions made in the past - have later outcomes but usually in novels the present is driving the action. The inclusion of backstory can stop the forward momentum that the real story needs and result in the loss of the reader’s interest.

There are instances where a flashback is of great value. It can add depth and texture to a story and it can contribute to the reader's understanding of character. The general consensus of countless writing blogs are that a flashback should be brief and that is should be included only to advance the plot.

But some novelists have used flashbacks extensively to brilliant effect. One example is All the Birds, Singing, by the Australian and English writer, Evie Wyld. This book has two interspersed parallel narratives concerning the main character, Jake. There is a ‘front story’ in real time and a ‘back story’ that starts relatively recently and moves further and further back in time, revealing eventually how Jake ended up in the isolated location of the front story. This is a powerful device that introduces great narrative tension.

“Wyld works with two parallel narratives which remain separate but nevertheless reflect and illuminate each other – and that’s not simply because they chronicle stages in the same character’s life. Wyld highlights the contrasts and similarities between the environments in which Jake finds herself: she’s looking after sheep in both, and doing so is (to an extent) a means for her to escape the past. But the sheep station is a very different place from the island: life in the former, with its workers arriving from all over, is transitory; the latter feels much more like Jake’s attempt to build a permanent life for herself. That impression is underlined by the use of different tenses: Jake’s narration on the island is in the past tense, while her flashbacks are in the present tense – so the chronological present feels more stable than what (for Jake) has already happened.”

The backwards structure keeps up the tension as the reader becomes desperate to know what happened. In other ways, Wyld’s book is relatively simple. It is the point of view of one main character, and it is relatively simple plot that has been made more complex and compelling by the structure.

A second example of a recent novel in which the author has used flashbacks to brilliant effect is All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, the US-based novelist.

“Told mostly in the present tense, in short and usually pointed chapters, the story moves briskly and efficiently toward its climactic encounter during the Allied bombing of St.-Malo, France, a couple of months after D-Day. Although the narrative consists largely of flashbacks, it’s easy to follow because it focuses most sharply on only two characters, the blind child ­Marie-Laure LeBlanc, who takes part in the French Resistance, and the very Aryan-looking Werner Pfennig, a technocratic private in the service of the Thousand-Year Reich.”

The reader may be able to come up with more examples of innovative and compelling novel is where flashbacks have been used to great effect.

And it’s worth remembering about advice on writing literature: the rules are there to be useful but they are also there to be broken.

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