Some Thoughts on Flashback

At some point, after teaching creative writing for a few years, I decided that for many writers flashback is a crutch, and made a big stink about how I don't like it. I tried to be funny about this, and to roll my eyes at myself when I said so, but basically my message was: don't use flashback within the context of a scene unfolding in present action. It breaks up momentum, and short-circuits the story, telling us things we could fund out in a separate section or in exposition. 

Recently, though, I received this question from a student, quoted below with her permission:

Dear Rachel,

If everyone is basically their childhood (even if you disagree with that, childhood is still highly relevant), how am I supposed to show this woman's childhood without flashback? Just have random scenes from childhood? In Swing Time (I can't help it; it's what I'm reading at the moment), Zadie Smith does it by writing out the narrator's childhood in scenes interspersed with her current life. That makes it easy for the reader to know a lot about the narrator without the narrator having to spell it out. Is that what I have to do? Doesn't feel quite right and also seems like a shit ton of work.

It's also weird for me to define her hopes/desires/etc., because I don't know that most people walking around know their hopes/desires/etc. other than the universal goals of having happy family/friends and good health. I'm also more thinking of a character who doesn't know what she wants. How would I go about writing that? Thanks for any help you can give.

The question was thought-provoking, and I spent enough time on my answer that I thought it might be worth including here. This is how I replied:

Dear _________,

You have successfully uncovered a secret tactic in my teaching style! I don't actually think that flashback is a problem, especially in a long-form piece like a novel. The reason I tend to be "against" flashback in short stories is that many writers slip into flashback unknowingly, and get off-track. Not being aware of what is flashback and what is exposition can muddy up the structure of a short story. You don't want your narrative voice veering off into the weeds of childhood when your main character is supposed to be fully engaged in a scene that's vital to the plot, for example. (And every scene should be vital to the plot, right?)

You may be right that the average person isn't aware of their hopes and desires—but, okay. First of all, the average person probably wouldn't make a great character in a novel. The average, conventional person who just wants friends and family and good health may not be very interesting at all (there, I said it!). But, second of all, at the risk of getting overly philosophical, I actually, personally, believe that that so-called average person is a fantasy. He is like the American dream: he does not exist. Everyone has hopes, fears, and desires. Everyone wants something—even if they don't know it yet. Figuring out what that thing is, is what they call self-realization. In fiction writing, self-realization is expressed through character development.

The question of character development is often a question of awakening. So your main character might not know what she wants right now, at the beginning of the story, but there are certainly competing and conflicting desires deep within her, which she will have to become increasingly aware of in order to grow and develop over the course of the story. I haven't read Swing Time yet, but interspersing scenes from childhood with scenes from adulthood does seem like one good way of accomplishing some important character-building.

If I were you I might try doing some of that, as an exercise. You might not end up integrating these childhood scenes into the final product, but at least you'll have a more distinct sense of who your main character is, and what drives her. These scenes should not be random, though. Think of each one as pointing toward the generation of one particular character trait that is relevant to the story which is unfolding in the present action. For example, you might want to show an illustration of the pressure she felt as a child to be a "good girl," or of the conflicting desires she felt to be a "good girl" on one hand, and rebel in little ways—e.g. drive drunk—on the other.

In fact, why not try expanding on that beautiful paragraph you already have, and making it into a fully fleshed-out scene? Off the top of my head, I can think of a handful of conflicts in your main character, which could be more fully expressed in your story. There is the good girl/ bad girl ambivalence. Then there is her sexual desire versus her ethical responsibility. There is her professional ambition versus her urge to be pleasant and traditionally feminine, i.e. not particularly assertive. There is her weird urge to suppress her sexual attractiveness even as she pursues the man she's attracted to. I could go on! Do not ignore these conflicts. There are the source of your character. They are what make her tick, and they are what will make her interesting and worth reading about.

As a last note, it occurs to me that you could try writing your story in the third person. I think that might help you have some perspective on your character which she can't have about herself.

Give it a shot! Let me know how it turns out.