The first time I realized the pitfalls of writing flashbacks was on reading through the initial edits of my upcoming book, a biography of geologist M. King Hubbert. My editor had scribbled in the margin, “Watch your tenses.”
I had always thought of myself as a person with an excellent grasp of grammar. It was true I couldn’t name the various verb tenses. I’d learned a bit about the finer points of tenses in school, but it never sank in. I had long since forgotten it all. But by one route or another, I thought I had a good intuition for grammar.
So when I got those comments from my editor, I looked more closely at what I was doing at the spot he flagged. The story was jumping back in time. It was a scene set in the 1950s, but it included a passage on how geologists in the late 1800s thought about finding underground oil reservoirs, and how their ideas evolved over decades. That is, I had written a flashback, albeit a poorly executed one.
Going back over my editor’s comments, he had flagged the same problem in several other places. But I had failed to do anything special grammatically—or otherwise—to set up these flashbacks. I should have used the past perfect tense, also known as pluperfect—sticking “had” in front of verbs, just as in the flashback in this paragraph (“he had flagged” and “I had failed”).
But more importantly, I hadn’t thought about when it was good to use a flashback, and when it would be a detriment to the story.
This book was my first piece of long narrative writing. To make things easier at the outset, I’d tried to stick to telling the story in chronological order. But, as I gradually learned, this is nearly impossible to do. We’re always swimming through various memories—our own, or memories that others share with us, whether in stories around a campfire or in tomes of historical research. We often learn about things after they occur, and as our lives unfold, we think back to earlier events that serve as lessons or take on new meaning. Our lives are full of flashbacks.
Doing Detective Work
Detective novels, of which I’m a big fan, are likewise constantly jumping around in time. The basic crime story goes like this: a detective learns of a crime—usually, a murder—then goes on a quest to collect evidence, which largely consists of people’s recollections of where they were and what they were doing earlier. Meanwhile the detective builds a narrative to explain the crime—and then continually revises the narrative as new information comes in.
Take this passage from Philip Kerr’s 1990 novel The Pale Criminal, in which the narrator, the detective Bernie Gunther, arrives at an apartment to find a man hanging from a noose.
The thing looked clear-cut enough. In my experience hanging is almost always suicide: there are easier ways to kill a man….
… I took a closer look at Klaus Hering’s body. Apparently he had tied a length of electrical cord to the banister, slipped a noose over his head, and then simply stepped off the stair. But only an inspection of Hering’s hands, wrists and neck itself could tell me if that had really been what happened….
I climbed over the banister onto a small shelf…. Leaning forward, I had a good view of the suspension point behind Hering’s right ear. The level of tightening of the ligature is always higher and more vertical with a hanging than with a case of strangulation. But here there was a second and altogether more horizontal mark just below the noose which seemed to confirm my doubts. Before hanging himself, Klaus Hering had been strangled to death.
This passage jumps back and forth in time a lot. But it works because of the signals that the narrator uses.
The whole story occurs in the past, as with most narratives, so it’s written in the past tense. But even so, the story unfolds over time, so at any point in the narrative, there is a moment that is “now.” In the passage above, in the “now” of the story, Gunther describes his view of the scene using the simple past tense: “The thing looked clear-cut enough.”
Then he interjects some general knowledge, starting with “In my experience,” followed by statements in the present tense, such as, “hanging is almost always,” and “There are easier ways …”
Based on his experience, Gunther constructs a narrative of the past, based on the superficial evidence. When jumping back to an earlier time, he uses the past perfect: “Apparently he had tied …”
Then he returns to the “now,” in which he looks for more evidence, using the simple past tense: “I climbed,” and “there was a second and altogether more horizontal mark.”
Then he again draws on his general experience, present tense again (“The level … is always higher”). Finally he revises the narrative of what occurred in the past, with the past perfect (“Klaus Hering had been strangled”).
Having dissected this, it may all sound very complicated. But I’m guessing the paragraph made perfect sense as you read it the first time. Kerr skillfully uses changes of tense to move the reader back and forth in time, from sentence to sentence.
It can be tricky for a writer to jump back and forth so much in a couple of paragraphs. It’s somewhat more straightforward when writing longer flashback passages—and the same grammatical techniques apply. It’s all about holding the reader’s hand, but doing so in a subtle way, without explicitly saying things like “here’s where we’re going to jump back in time,” or “now back to the main story.”
Creating a Waking Dream
A narrative is an illusion, typically a story about the past that readers experience as if they were watching the characters living through the events. But using flashbacks carries a risk for the writer. If not done well, flashbacks can snap the reader out of the narrative illusion. Getting the verb tenses right is crucial—but it’s only the first step in successfully using flashbacks.
To learn how to fix the problems with flashbacks in my book, I looked for practical tips. By far the best guide I came across was Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story. It’s targeted at novel writers, but the tips seem equally applicable to narrative nonfiction stories. Wired for Story helped me think differently about when to use flashbacks, and when not to—and led me to cut some flashbacks and add others.
Cron points out that a flashback is a diversion from the main story, so a writer should use a flashback only when absolutely necessary. She lays out three guidelines for flashbacks.
First, there must be a specific need or cause—that is, the flashback must affect the story. Suppose that upon seeing the dead body hanging from a noose, detective Bernie Gunther, remembering that the man was a nurse, had gone into a recollection about a time he had spent in the hospital suffering a gallstone attack. That would take the story off in a different direction, with no clear tie to the main question: How did the man die?
Second, Cron writes, the reason for including the flashback should be clear to readers at the start of the flashback, so they know why they are reading the passage. This may seem to be part of the first point, but it’s all too easy for writers to convince themselves that because the reason is clear to them it will be clear to readers.
Finally, the flashback’s effect must be clear when readers return to the main story, so they know why they went on that digression.
Readers might follow you on one apparently irrelevant digression without a fuss. But do it multiple times without the reason being clear, Cron argues, and you will likely annoy your readers and snap them out of the waking dream of the narrative.
Not Too Early, Not Too Late
With flashbacks, “timing is everything,” Cron points out. “Give us an otherwise crucial piece of information too soon, and you neutralize it…. Give it too late, and it’s a groaner.”
I ran into the “too soon” issue in my book, The Oracle of Oil. It’s a biography of geologist M. King Hubbert, famed for his prescient oil forecasts, but also known as “twentieth-century geology’s Renaissance man” because of his wide-ranging contributions. One chapter deals with scale models—that is, tiny models, made of clay and other materials, which attempt to simulate geological features such as mountain ranges. Hubbert had learned about these models over the years, and initially, in telling the story of Hubbert’s life, I had peppered in such information chronologically.
However, following Cron’s advice, I realized much of this information about scale models was ineffective because it came too early in the story. So in revising, I cut a bunch of this information from where I’d put it, and gathered it all together for a single flashback. I put the flashback in the midst of a key moment, when Hubbert attended a 1936 meeting of a National Research Council committee and came across a problem he wanted to solve.
When the committee called for someone to work out a theory to guide scale models, Hubbert spoke up: “I’ll take that.”
Well before he knew a name for it, Hubbert had been intrigued by scaling. He’d noted how things of widely varying sizes could behave in strikingly different ways. As a child, he’d seen a mouse jump off a table and scurry away unharmed, and he wondered how that was possible. If he jumped from a comparable height, relative to his size—say, the top of a tall tree—he’d break his legs. On the farm, he’d watched big windmills turn lazily in a breeze, while in the same breeze his toy windmill spun furiously.
During his time in Chicago [in the 1920s], Hubbert had picked up a partial answer to such questions from his mentor Bretz. To support their weight, Bretz had explained, large dinosaurs needed thick bones—much thicker than if you simply scaled up a person or a dog severalfold. While in graduate school, Hubbert had also read Galileo’s classic Two New Sciences, published in 1638, which discussed these same issues.
The chapter continues along these lines, describing what Hubbert had learned about scaling over the course of his career and how he’d run across some scale models that were remarkably realistic.
To signal that it was a flashback, I switched from simple past tense to past perfect (“Hubbert had been intrigued”). Then I continued using the past perfect throughout this relatively short flashback. When writing a longer flashback, to avoid having to use the pluperfect tense throughout, you can signal at the start that it’s a flashback by using past perfect, and then switch to the simple past.
But then when ending the flashback and returning to the “now” of the narrative, it’s helpful to hold the reader’s hand and give an explicit signal. In the case of this passage, I ended the flashback with a section break, and then began the next section by stating again the time and place of the main scene: “When Hubbert joined the National Research Council’s Borderlands Committee in 1936 …”
So that’s one example of how to use a flashback to solve the problem of information coming too early in a story. As Cron mentions, flashbacks have another pitfall: Wait too long to bring in information and it’s a “groaner.” Like this:
“The safe has fingerprint recognition,” said Cracker McGee. “I can’t open this.”
“Dammit, Ryan!” shouted Lieutenant Fancypants. “You shouldn’t have shot Dr. Evil yesterday. Surely he would have been able to open the safe.”
Ryan smiled. He had cut off Dr. Evil’s index finger the day before and stuck it in his pocket, in case such a situation arose.
Thankfully this example is not from a real book. I made it up.
If a story presents a problem—the safe can’t be opened—and then immediately solves it with a flashback that the reader had no inkling of before—like Ryan’s penchant for finger collecting—it can easily be a groaner. It’s just too convenient to be realistic, and thus risks snapping the reader out of the waking dream.
To avoid a groaner, this flashback would need to be set up in some way. The story could have described Ryan cutting off Dr. Evil’s finger earlier, at the time he did it. The narrator could explain that it was to take back to Ryan’s bosses at the CIA, so they could do DNA testing, and that would give a reason for the action that would satisfy the reader without giving away that the finger would come up later in the story.
The same principles apply for telling nonfiction stories. In presenting a flashback with all that information about Hubbert’s past interest in scale models—which readers would be unaware of until that moment in the story—a reader might ask, “Did Hubbert really notice mice jumping off tables and wonder how that was possible?”
So I tried to set it up by showing how Hubbert had been science-minded from a young age. For example, I describe how his older sister, who had left their farm to move to Washington, D.C., sent issues of Popular Science to Hubbert, and how he dismantled telephones to mess around with their magnetos. Then, when I present the flashback about scaling and weave in Hubbert’s recollections about growing up on the farm, it will (I hope) be entirely plausible to the reader.
Flashbacks are a powerful tool—but, like many tools, they cut both ways. They’re a detour from the main story, and they make your narrative more complicated overall. You don’t want to take a detour, or make things more complicated, unless there’s a good reason. But there often is a good reason.
Mason Inman is a freelance writer whose first book, The Oracle of Oil: A Maverick Geologist’s Quest for a Sustainable Future, will be published by W. W. Norton in April 2016. Follow him on Twitter @masoninman.