Over the past month, the WriteOwls have been debating flashbacks in novels. Much of the writing advice we read cautions against using flashback scenes because they often do more harm than good. By pulling readers out of the storyline, you risk them getting confused about what’s happening and giving up on the story altogether. Despite the warnings, many of us feel compelled to include them in our stories for various reasons. So the question has become how to write them so they inform our readers while keeping them turning the pages.
As I have been considering that question, I have been thinking about an incident that happened about six years ago while I was attending a Cub Scout family camp with my son. When we arrived, families milled about on the parade ground, sleeping bags and backpacks at their feet, as we waited for our campsite assignments. One boy in the sea of people was with his dad, a man who looked familiar to me. I knew I knew this man, but I couldn’t figure out how I knew him. When we started chatting, he confessed that I looked familiar to him, too. Yet he couldn’t remember when or where our paths had crossed either. Eventually, we shrugged our shoulders and turned our attention to other conversations.
A few minutes later, we received our campsite assignments and the man bent down to pick up his backpack. As he shouldered it, a specific image from my memory snapped into focus. I ran up to him. “I know how I know you!” I said. “Our boys were in the infant room together at the same daycare.” He nodded as it sank in. That’s how we knew one another. The act of him bending down to pick up the backpack had triggered a memory of him bending down at the daycare to pick up the diaper bag when he collected his son at the end of each day. Mystery solved.
Thinking about that specific incident made me realize that I’m not really writing flashbacks into my WIP. My protagonist is simply recalling memories. Because the life she’s living in the story I’m telling my readers varies dramatically from the life she lived before her tale begins on page one, those memories help my readers understand her motives. They help my readers empathize with her.
This realization has eased my fears about how to write memories into my story. Most people can relate to the way songs, smells or images trigger memories. So it’s easy for readers to follow my protagonist from her current plight back into her past as she remembers those moments from her earlier life. Moving forward with my story, I’m now focused on finding those triggers and writing about them in a way that my readers will effortlessly slip back in time with her. Hopefully, that journey into her past will result in a richer, more meaningful connection between them that keeps them rooting for her until the end of the book.