There is no greater (nor annoying) motion-stopper than immobile chunks of physical description. A head-to-toe tour of a character's appearance, clothing, etc., before we know anything else about him, is at best ineffective and at worst counterproductive. Not only is this technique clunky and amateurish, it stops the natural flow of the story. The inexperienced writer often introduces characters this way:
At the knock on the door, Alan looked up from his desk. Walter Clayton ambled across the carpet, holding out one hand. "I've been looking forward," he said.
Walter Clayton was thirty-five years old, dark-haired, with blue eyes that looked forced open. He liked basketball, but at five-feet-two wasn't tall enough to play. His feet were small and square. His graying hair was parted severely to one side and his ears were pinned close to his head. The only thing big about him was his hands: large and meaty, with thick, calloused fingers and curiously shellacked nails. He wore a suit of blended silk, and his cuffs protruded an elegant half-inch below the sleeves. As he sat down his pant legs rode up, revealing an extraordinary pair of chartreuse wool socks.
This is not bad description; in fact, it is good description. The details are precise and interesting. The problem is that the descriptive information is given all at once. We are left to drum our fingers until the writer gets back to the plot. I recently read a good novel, a well-written psychological thriller, in which every single character was introduced this way. It became distracting, then mildly amusing ("I wonder if he knows he's doing this?"), and finally infuriating. You don't want to tamper this way with your readers' good graces.
Lack of movement is not the only problem with this kind of "chunk" description. As I discovered from reading the aforementioned novel, when readers are introduced to a character in this way, they will not remember what the character looks like later on. Despite your heroic efforts at description, readers tend to accept chunks of physical description as "snapshots" that they look at once and then forget. The characters get short shrift! Descriptions should guide readers to the most telling, characterizing details; when all the details are lumped together they take on equal weight. Reading a long, detailed physical description is like looking at a painting from a distance of two inches: it becomes a big blob that's hard to keep in perspective. Deliver physical characteristics a few at a time, and the character in question becomes much more seeable:
At the knock on the door, Alan looked up from his desk. Walter Clayton ambled across the carpet, holding out one meaty hand. "I've been looking forward," he said.
Alan shook Walter's hand. "Have a seat."
As Walter Clayton sat, the cuff of his immaculate silk pants rode up to reveal a pair of chartreuse socks. "Abby sent me," he said. "But of course you know that."
Alan stared at the small round face, the blue eyes that looked forced open. "You have information for me, Mr. Clayton?" he said, glancing down at the preposterous socks.
"I do," Walter Clayton said. He patted the sides of his graying hair. "Yes, indeed." He gave out a thin-lipped grin. "Oh, I do, indeed."
Do you see how this one-detail-at-a-time description turns Walter Clayton from a mannequin in a storefront to a full-blooded character? We discover the eccentric details of Walter's physical appearance at the same time he is being revealed as a character, and therefore each detail takes on added significance. The details mean something. If details emerge one by one in increasing significance, the character encroaches on our consciousness in a way that makes him real, and the story rolls along without missing a beat.
FLASHBACKS AND THEIR PROBLEMS
Used judiciously, the flashback is a magnificent descriptive tool. Flashbacks move a story back in time, giving us insights about characters we don't know well.
Imagine you're writing a story about Marcus, a ruthless inside trader who seems to have no conscience. Your descriptions are as deliberately dispassionate as his life: he goes to work early in the morning, when the sky is a "low, steely ceiling"; his office is "fluorescent and silent," and his apartment is furnished with "chrome and leather, with a high-tech kitchen as clean as a space station." After Marcus tells his fiancee that her clothes aren't right for the party he wants to take her to, you insert a brief flashback that shows Marcus as a boy on a dirt-poor Iowa farm, putting on a handed-down suit for his father's funeral.
The descriptions in the flashback, which suggest humiliation and despair, contrast with the hard, unemotional imagery of the present-time story. Paradoxically, flashbacks can move stories backward and forward at the same time. This story takes a leap forward as we gain a fuller understanding of Marcus. We can suddenly see why he is ashamed of his fiancee's clothing and why he might want to live the way he does. Flashbacks can flesh out your characters, add to the readers' perceptions, and change the mood or direction of a story.
Flashbacks are not always brief, nor do they always move stories forward. This is not to say that long flashbacks are bad. They can be badly handled, however, and often are. They may feature awkward transitions; they may take too long; they may contain flashbacks within flashbacks; they may deliver chunks of information that stop the action and therefore have a dry, expository quality. All of these drawbacks affect the natural movement that good stories require.
Used effectively, flashbacks enhance the emotional movement of a story, deepen the story's imagery (an image that figures prominently in a flashback takes on extra meaning when used again in the main body of the story), and organize a story by weaving information into the narrative at critical times. Most important, they can enhance the descriptive nature of a story by shoring up some of the more elusive aspects of a character. Like scenes (many flashbacks are scenes, in fact), flashbacks can help you locate your story. That Iowa farm may be the key to understanding Marcus's present motives; the story's heart is not on Wall Street but back in Iowa.
Even well-written flashbacks pose risks. One, readers may become impatient to return to the present action; two, they may become so engrossed in the flashback that they're disappointed to get back to the present action; three, they may feel they've been absented so long from the present action that they can't very easily pick up the thread of the original story. My own rule of thumb about flashbacks is that they are such a bother and so hard to make seamless that they should be used only when you have no other workable descriptive choices.
The most common problem with flashbacks is getting into and out of them. When introducing flashbacks, inexperienced writers often resort to devices like the following:
I opened the drawer to my mother's desk and discovered the emerald ring. The sight of it brought me back to that day nearly thirty years ago when she gathered us into the living room to tell us she was leaving.
"Boys," she said. "Come here. Mama has something to tell you."
Roland slipped the letter through the gold-painted mail slot and paused. Something about the deeply cut design of the door reminded him of another door, another life, another time . . .
It was 1955 when he had first gone to the lumberyard to get some wood for a new door. His father took him down in the truck, and he loved the rough sounds that rattled up through the seat as they moved over the pocked road.
These transitions are burdensome and somewhat awkward, and take away from the nice flashbacks that they introduce. Never use ellipses (...) to telegraph a passage back in time. It looks amateurish and usually makes your opening line seem like a voice-over in a B movie. Also, avoid phrases like "it brought me back to" or "suddenly I remembered." Forget the fanfare and enter the flashback directly:
I opened the drawer to my mother's desk and discovered the emerald ring she had been wearing the night she told us she was leaving. I was six. "Boys," she said. "Come here. Mama has something to tell you."
Roland slipped the letter through the gold-painted mail slot and paused. The deep cut of the door was similar to the one he and his father had once designed for the house in Cutler. His father had driven him down to the lumberyard in Grandad's 1955 Chevy pickup, and he loved the rough sounds that rattled up through the seat as they moved over the pocked road.
Do you see the difference? Here, you enter the flashback with no "I remember" prologue of any kind. The transition in time barely makes a ripple in the story's forward motion.
Coming back out of flashbacks can be tricky as well. The shorter the flashback, the easier the return:
Holly turned the key and held her breath. Last week at this time it had been Alfred on the other side of the door, lounging in her favorite chair, drinking her good sherry, his fingers coiling around the stem of the glass as he smiled up at her. "Hello, Sweetheart," he said, his upper lip curling. Maybe she should have given him the money. She pushed open the door, half expecting to see him again, but the only living creature was the cat slumbering on the sofa.
The character's transition from remembering last-week Alfred to pushing open today's door is seamless, because you haven't diverted the readers from the present action long enough for them to forget anything. Only three sentences of flashback intrude on the present-time story.
Transition problems usually crop up when you try to return to the main story after a flashback of several paragraphs, or several pages, or, in some cases, several chapters. In case the readers have forgotten the present-time story, you announce its return with a drum roll:
. . . She waved goodbye to the birds that eddied above the sea-green fields of her grandmother's saltwater farm.
The sound of bells brought her back to the present.
. . . The sight of his wife's fingers moving over the piano's shiny keys would forever remain a memory he kept to himself.
But that was all in the past; Mr. Goldberg rubbed his eyes and turned again to his papers, which suddenly looked thin and pale.
In these returns, you might as well be holding up a cue card: AND NOW, BACK TO OUR STORY IN PROGRESS. To avoid this awkwardness when moving out of flashbacks, use the same direct approach that you would in moving into a flashback:
. . . She waved goodbye to the birds that eddied over the sea-green fields of her grandmother's saltwater farm.
Bells sounded outside her window. She rose from her desk to look down at the street.
. . . The sight of his wife's fingers moving over the piano's shiny keys would forever remain a memory he kept to himself.
Mr. Goldberg rubbed his eyes. The papers spread on his desk looked thin and pale.
Easy in, easy out. Delete phrases like "brought her back to the present" or "that was in the past" or "suddenly he realized he'd been daydreaming." They are almost never necessary. With longer flashbacks you may want to use asterisks or white space—that is, several blank lines on the page—to signify a major leap from past to present:
. . . defeated and bereft, Mark staggered over the sidewalk. He wanted only to be alone. He stood in the shelter of a urine-soaked doorway, clutching the gritty lapel of his cousin's jacket.
* * * *
The clock tower struck four as Mark stepped out of the arched doorway of the bank lobby. He stood on the street, squinting up at the sky, hands thrust deep into his pockets.
These physical cues give readers a moment to get their bearings and prepare to re-enter the present-time part of the story. White space in a short story is similar to a chapter break in a novel. It is the author's polite way of telling readers that the scene is changing.
The more unassuming your transitions in and out of flashbacks, the less your story will have an "assembled" quality: this part (e.g., the flashback to the Vietnam War) goes here, and that part (e.g., the therapy session in 1995) goes there. Assembly is the opposite of flow. To maintain a sense of forward motion and descriptive cohesiveness, make your transitions in and out of flashbacks as invisible as possible. You want your story to feel like an inevitable whole, not a collection of parts.
For some reason inexperienced writers have a penchant for "frame" stories, in which the present-day action frames an extended flashback. For example, the story may open with a man's description of his mother's burial, which triggers in him an extended flashback of the summer his dog died, and how his mother's practical strength helped him accept the death of his beloved pet. Then the story returns to the present-day gravesite where the man is saying his final goodbye to Mom, and the readers are now supposed to have a deeper understanding of his grief. This structure stops motions cold, for the readers spend the bulk of the story wondering when he's going to get back to present action, and what on earth the present action has to do with the extended flashback. The result is just as awful as you'd suspect. Stories like this begin this way:
I walked the long dirt path to the open gravesite under a white, curiously cold sun. Friends and colleagues murmured their condolences; their voices blended into a quiet, indecipherable stirring in the air. My wife leaned her cheek against my arm as we listened to the minister's bland intonations. When finally they lowered my mother's coffin into the ground, the strong scent of earth brought me back to one unforgettable summer over twenty years ago.
Sparky, our family dog, turned nineteen that summer, a day after I turned nine. My mother thought it would be fun to have a birthday party to which we invited both boys and dogs.
After this awkward introduction to the flashback, the narrator goes on to describe that fateful summer. On the last page he returns to the present in another awkward transition:
I buried Sparky at the back of my mother's garden with a spade she kept in her tool shed. I stayed there, sitting on the upturned grass, until she came down long after supper to help me pick some flowers to lay on his grave.
Now, twenty years later, as I toss some flowers from that same garden on her grave, I can thank my mother for all she taught me about remembering the dead.
Frame stories almost always have transition problems, because the frame, unbeknownst to the author, is usually unnecessary. The extended flashback usually can stand as a story all by itself. Notice also that the frame makes the story's other problems—principally the sentimental descriptions—much more glaring than they should be. Framing a flashback points a thousand red arrows at it. The most innocent description sags under the burden of momentousness. ("A cherry-red barn?" we ask. "Cherries must be really significant!") Don't do this to yourself. Unless the flashback and the frame are critically, unequivocally interdependent and there is no other way to merge the past and present, the frame is irrelevant. A frame like the one in the above example begs the questions: Why not make the flashback the story? Isn't the story about that transforming summer, not about the mother's funeral? Whether or not the mother dies twenty years later, isn't the lesson she taught him during that summer the point of the story? The line that comes after the introduction to the flashback would, with minor adjusting, make a great opening for a story all by itself::
The summer I turned nine, my dog turned nineteen. My mother gave us both a party.
Bingo, you're moving again! You have dropped the readers into the midst of a story, one that has wonderful descriptive potential. Gone is the clumsy introduction, not to mention the wet blanket of sentimentality that dear old Mom's burial provides. Without the lead-in, the flashback no longer has to support a present-day story that isn't really a story. Instead, the flashback stands alone as a memoir-style narrative told by a reminiscent narrator. No introduction or grand finale required.
In rare cases, a frame is necessary. You probably should keep the frame if the frame part of the story is the direct result of the flashback: A man is hiding his true identity from his wife and kids, because he's a fugitive from a 20-year-old crime. Also, you should keep the frame if the frame is more important than the flashback: A woman's children ask her to tell about the baby she lost fifteen years ago; in the telling, they all realize that the lost baby is the only one the mother ever loved. If you must keep the frame, then avoid pitfalls by relying on the transition rules: easy in, easy out. Use white space if you have to. Don't belabor the "that was then and this is now" point. If you're writing a very long story, or a novel, transitions back and forth are often necessary and can be elegant and subtle as long as you don't introduce them with a drum roll.
Expository Flashbacks When you have a lot of background information to account for, flashbacks are enticing. In the interest of expediency, you might be tempted to bunch all the background information together like this:
Kit flung open the door. "Betty!" she cried, enfolding the bony form of her only cousin.
"Wait" Betty stiffened. "I have something to tell you first." Kit looked at her cousin, whom she hadn't seen in years. They had been each other's best friend back on the farm in Montana, young girls who had sat night after night on their grandfather's porch counting fireflies and following the magnificent arcing path of the bats that lived across the road in their uncle Cyrus's barn. Their childhood had been one of loss and redemption. They lost their parents in the same spectacular crash on the Monson Road that people still talked of twenty years later. Earlier that summer they had been shuttled off to their grandmother's farm in Shapleigh where their uncles had identical farms all the way up and down the River Road. Their fathers, the youngest of the eight Harding brothers, were deep into some business deal that required travel and, it seemed, the corralling company of their wives. The girls didn't mind; they loved their uncles, each other, and that string of verdant farms. It was there they had found solace from their grief, in the blond fields of wheat and the borders of stooped trees and the magical, female comfort of each other.
"The farm burned down," Betty said.
Informational flashbacks like this knock a story flat. You open a door to the readers (literally, in this case), then shut it while you fill in the background. In the meantime, we're itching to find out what Betty wants to tell Kit. Their shared childhood may be critical to the story, but it does not have to be described at this particular time, nor all at once. Blocks of information tend to be short on specifics, anyway; the descriptive details start to fall away and get replaced by dull exposition. You'll notice that the above flashback, though it contains a few nice phrases and some pretty images, delivers information that feels irrelevant, at least at this point in the story. Who cares, right now, that their parents died? What difference do Uncle Cyrus's bats make, right now, when we haven't even heard Betty speak? Background details are best given in the present flow of the story, on a need-to-know basis. Give your description a chance to breathe, instead of choking it into one thick chunk. Move your story forward by dispensing description little by little in a series of brief, delicate flashbacks:
"What do you mean, the farm burned down?" Kit asked. She sat on the plump sofa, pulling Betty down next to her. "You don't mean Grandma's farm."
"I'm sorry," Betty murmured. "There's nothing left. The barn, the outbuildings, the house, nothing. Burned." She looked at Kit. "Nothing to show but a couple of charred porch rails."
Kit put a hand to her mouth, stunned by an image of that beautiful old porch. She and Betty had spent hours there, especially at night, watching the bats dip over the road that separated their grandmother's farm from their uncle's. The night their parents died they had sat all night in the sloped shelter of its roof, their thin arms twined together, watching the empty road.
"I don't believe it," Kit said, shaking her head. "How can a place so beautiful be gone?"
You can continue to fill in details like this as the story progresses. Then, when you must stop to flash back, the flashback becomes a forward-moving narrative in itself, one that concentrates on the important things because the chaff has been weeded out:
"Sometimes I think God hates us," Betty said. "Seems like heartache has followed us all our lives."
Kit nodded. The night their parents died had been hot and starless. The two girls had spent the entire day in Uncle Arden's barn, petting the horses, making little forts out of hay. When they made their way back to the house it was long past supper and no one had thought to call them. From far down the road she could hear the frantic blue whine of the sheriffs siren. The driveway was jammed with uncles' cars, every light in the house was blazing, and someone was shouting into the kitchen phone.
This flashback, which could easily go on to describe the rest of the night's events, works well because it comes at a point in the story where the readers are willing to stop a moment to delve into the characters. We have already met Kit and Betty and gotten several hints about their closeness and shared experience through snippets of flashback. Because you've planted the relevant details, we are now ready for the full story. The flashback provides that full story in the nicest sense of the word: it is a story, with a beginning, middle, and end, containing its own forward motion.
The Past Perfect A cautionary note on the use of flashbacks: Beware the past perfect! The past perfect can get you into a flashback, but sometimes you can't find your way out. In the following flashback, the past perfect is in italics:
He had been a good worker in those days. He had had his own truck and a crew of two. Every morning he had gone down to the post office and waited around for the first stirrings of village life, and by nine o'clock he had always had a job. He had gone home every night with money in his pocket. . .
Well, you get the idea. For some reason inexperienced writers slip into a deer-in-headlights relationship with the past perfect when writing flashbacks. Once they latch on, they can't move away. But the continued use of "he had done" and "he had said" serves only to
remind readers again and again that this is a flashback and not the real story, which makes the movement of the story sluggish and uninteresting.
Don't be afraid to move out of the past perfect quickly, even immediately. In the following example, the simple past tense provides the flashback with a forward movement of its own. (The introductory past-perfect verb is in italics.)
He had been a good worker in those days. He had his own truck and a crew of two. Every morning he went down to the post office and waited around for the first stirrings of village life, and by nine o'clock he had a job. He went home every night with money in his pocket. . .
In most flashbacks the past perfect is required only briefly—for the first one or two verbs—to establish a movement back in time. After that, let the simple past tense pull the flashback forward, especially in flashbacks with a lot of dialogue—nothing is more distracting than "he had said" and "she had answered."