The FLashback

Another fiction device, the flashback, is valuable in the toolbox of the fully prepared creative nonfiction writer. The flashback is another example of how you can rework chronology, re-create time. This device, however, is subject to abuse. It should be used for artistic reasons, not to fill in something you forgot to set up earlier.

Starting out a piece in the middle of things and then going back to pick up the story for a subsequent straight chronological development is not a true flashback. This device is often called a "frame." Starting in the middle is more a "flashforward." A true flashback interrupts a narrative or a scene, but we're soon returned to where we were.

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The flashback device, while available to the nonfiction writer, is not too often used. I really had to search to find these examples of its proper use and several methods for using it. In Bruce Catton's A Stillness at Appomattox, in the midst of a discussion of how Confederate General Early had sent General Gordon in behind the federal troops to open an attack, we find a flashback to the day before. The flashback is signaled by the opening words of the second paragraph in the excerpt below.

So the army moved. Very early on the shivery, misty dawn of October 19, with fog hanging in the low places and the darkness lying thick in the graveyard hour between moonset and dawn, the Confederates rose up out of the gorge and came yelling and shooting on the drowsy flank of Sheridan's army.

The day before, certain election commissioners from Connecticut had come into the Yankee lines to take the presidential vote of Connecticut soldiers, and they remained in camp overnight as special headquarters guests. They liked what they saw of army life, and to their hosts at supper they expressed regret that they could not see a fight before they went home. The officers who were entertaining them said they would like to accommodate them, but there wasn't a chance: "It seemed very certain that Early would keep at a respectful distance."

At the end of the subsequent paragraph, author Catton takes us gradually and smoothly out of the flashback with the image of the commissioners leaving more rapidly than they'd arrived.

Then, suddenly, artillery began to pound, the infantry firing became sustained and intense, and a wild uproar came through the dark mist—and the election commissioners quickly found their clothes and ballot boxes and horses and took off for the North just as fast as they could go.

Loren Eiseley, the anthropologist who wrote a number of creative nonfiction books about science (The Immense Journey, The Unexpected Universe, and The Invisible Pyramid) also wrote his autobiography creatively (All the Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life). That fascinating book follows a generally chronologic structure, but the author occasionally inserts a flashback to earlier times in his life. In the chapter "The Laughing Puppet," he writes about his problems dealing with college. When other students stumbled into a course they immediately hated, they'd go directly to their adviser and legally drop the course. Loren Eiseley would simply walk away from it, leaving a black mark on his record. Bureaucracy intimidated him. Having set us up with this attitude of his, he writes a flashback to take us back to his high school days. He signals it through the simple phrase, "Once, in high school." Since readers know that Eiseley is talking about his own college days, they know this is the beginning of a flashback:

Once, in high school, I had written, more or less blindly, an essay for an English teacher. "I want to be a nature writer," I had set down solemnly. It was a time when I had read a great many of Charles G.D. Roberts' nature stories and those of Ernest Thompson Seton. I had also absorbed the evolutionary ideas of the early century through Jack London's Before Adam, and Stanley Waterloo's Story of Ab. None of this had come before high school. It had come from books I brought home from the local Carnegie Library to which I used to pedal my coaster wagon. "I want to be a nature writer." How strangely that half-prophetic statement echoes in my brain today. It was like all my wishes. There was no one to get me started on the road. I read books below my age. I read books well beyond my age and puzzled over them. In the end I forgot the half-formed wish expressed in my theme.

I had to seek food, shelter, and clothing. I remember a philosophy professor for whom I had once read and graded papers____

Eiseley reminds us that the high school flashback is over by bringing up the philosophy professor in the first sentence of the third paragraph. A thoughtful writer always makes certain that flashbacks are clearly entered and exited.

Structuring an article or book around chronologies, or their reworked versions, remains popular with creative nonfiction writers because life does proceed chronologically (it can't help it). Other structures may be chronologic, in that they move forward in time, but sometimes the emphasis or intent is not so much upon the march of time as upon how the person functions over time.

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  • awet
    How to write flashbacks in fiction?
    7 years ago

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