I know you all have probably had crotchety old writing teachers who say never to use flashbacks– that they’re a crutch, and stop the story dead in its tracks. This can be true, sure.
But there are so many wonderful ways to use flashbacks! And it doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a novel, or screenplay, the proper use of this device can actually add tension, and emotional layers to your narrative.
So, how can you effectively use flashbacks to deepen and create conflict in your story?
Those of you who know me, know I’m a true crime fanatic. And so it had to be that I was immediately drawn to ALIAS GRACE, based on a true murder case, turned into a novel by Margaret Atwood (HANDMAID’S TALE,) and adapted into a limited series on Netflix. The structure employed by the series, which is written by Sarah Polley, is a great example of how to use flashbacks to create tension and at the same time reveal backstory.
If you’re writing a novel, and starting to exit out of this blog post, DON’T. What follows is a strategy for using flashbacks that works in any story based writing form.
Again, this is just one approach to using flashbacks.
At the beginning of the story, we meet Grace Marks, a servant girl who has been convicted of brutally murdering her master and his housekeeper. We get flashes of a body falling through a trap door, and know that Grace was there, but she can’t remember what happened. Dr. Jordan, a young psychiatrist, is sent to interview her and find out if she was willingly part of the murder, is a true amnesiac, or just insane.
See how the writer is establishing the dramatic question right up front– What happened? Was Grace willingly involved or not? This is the question that holds us to the story. We want to know the answer and so we keep watching. As the doctor interviews her each day, we flash back (in chronological order) starting with her voyage to Canada from Ireland with her family, to the moment of the killings. Grace meets friends and enemies as she makes her way out into the world as a maid. This backstory, spooling forward, has a traditional hero’s journey arc. But the narrative in the present, where she is in jail, and being interviewed by the psychiatrist, also has its own drama. Dr. Jordan is falling in love with Grace, and his landlady is sexually obsessed with him.
See how tension is growing on both fronts, in the present and the past?
Midway through the series, another dramatic question arises. Is the story that Grace is telling Dr. Jordan true? Or is she spinning it to make Dr. Jordan fall for her? Notice that both the past and the present are DIRECTLY AFFECTING each other, creating conflict and moving the story in the present forward.
The biggest pitfall of flashbacks is that they are often used simply to reveal backstory/exposition.
The trick is to make the past move the present narrative forward, and braid the flashbacks with the present day scenes together to build to a climax where the dramatic question is answered. Then, if you’re super advanced (like the writers of ALIAS GRACE,) bring the dramatic question back again one more time at the very end.
Take Action! Steal this strategy from Sarah Polley and Margaret Atwood’s playbook.
Again, this is just one way to effectively use flashbacks…There are obviously many other strategies to weave past and present in a narrative, but what I love about ALIAS GRACE is that the flashbacks are actually the main focus of the story and don’t slow the story down at all– in fact, they ARE the story.
There’s power in the past. Just make sure it’s moving the present forward.
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