Memory is a deep component of our personal story. As writers, it’s a source of material and a means to add texture to our characters. While I fight nostalgia when writing, afraid to create something that is too sanitized or sentimental, when I become stuck on a scene or plot point, it helps to look back in my life and find how a younger self would have dealt with something. This a key quality in writing young adult fiction, imbuing it with senses and reactions appropriate to the protagonists’ age when everything was just a bit more intensely.
Characters arrive with memories of their own, and they can bring their memories to life in vivid detail. Writing allows for time travel in many ways, not the least being the use of flashbacks to explore the past.
For flashbacks to function, they have to deeply impact the current chronology without overwhelming its story. Like points of view, they need to possess both merit and resonance. I always think of Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye as the gold standard for flashbacks: the chronology in that book synchs past and present, with the present usually being the weaker of the two.
As I write the current work-in-progress, I’m struggling with the use of flashbacks. Fully half of the book is planned to occur in the main character’s past. But as I read through the current draft to find the rhythm, I find the pace slows when I hit the first memory. It soon picks up again, but any drag on the story is a problem. In genre fiction, pace can be everything. I want my readers turning the pages, into the night, over-sleeping and being late to work because they could not stop reading my books. Backstory is often boring and so often very unnecessary. If events in a character’s past are so important to their lives, shouldn’t those events be the plot of the book?
Some books, like the Steel Remains, limit the flashback sequences to either small vignettes or single scenes which reveal the key moments of a character’s history. This keeps the story moving and only derails the chronology to give you what is essential in the character’s past. Flashbacks can only hold so much tension: you already know the main character has survived. Death is not a potential. Perhaps he was greatly affected by those events, even shaped by them: but like all good fiction, the boring parts should be left out. An important part of making flashbacks work is to twist readers’ expectations one way in the present, but unfold events in an unexpected means in the past. You know he survived, but there are unknowns in the how or the things he had to do to keep himself alive.
Flashbacks are more than memories. They are scenes in a character’s life, and they should be given as much life as possible in order to keep them active and engaging. It’s just one more place where “show don’t tell” is the rule.