Notes on Craft: The Thing About Flashbacks
by Olakunle Ologunro
If this is your first time reading this letter, you can flashback to the previous letters in the series here.
This week’s letter is for flashbacks.
When you think about flashbacks, what comes to mind? I’ll be honest, I think of two things. First, I think of the Nollywood typical treatment of flashbacks. Yoruba Nollywood, especially. You can watch a movie where everything is a flashback. Or a flashback that contains three more flashbacks.
I kid you not.
The second thing that comes to my mind is a sprint in a former direction. A runner turning back to swiftly pick up something. And that’s how I often like to approach my definition of the word, as well as my relationship with the entire concept. A sprint in a former direction, usually to pick up a[n old] detail, or to draw the readers’ attention to something that is important to the story or the character’s personality.
The definition of a flashback is simple, easy to grasp. It is when you, the writer, take the reader out of the present story and go back into an earlier time in a character’s life, or an earlier event in the main course of the story.
Here’s an example from one of my favourite short stories to read, “Someone Like Sue,” by Rebecca Curtis.
This is what I was thinking:
The fact that Sue didn’t have a job didn’t surprise me. The last I knew, after college, she’d been working at a large department store. But I always thought she’d lose the job, especially because she was so small—she only weighed ninety pounds and she was only five feet tall. Her smallness seemed to point to something about her everyone could see, that she was untrustworthy and could be easily beaten up. Not many people had trusted her in college, and a lot of people had beaten her up.
In this story, this character has just received a phone call from a woman who calls herself Amy but who the character believes to be Sue, her old friend from college. The character is sitting down after the call when her husband comes to her to find out who called. But our character is thinking, and in revealing her thoughts, the author flashes back to her college days to reveal her relationship with Sue, and the kind of people Sue and our character are.
By using flashback, the author achieves a number of things:
- She reveals details that help the reader understand Sue and the character, and thus gives the story more depth because the reader now understands the motives of each character.
- Interiority. The reader is able to see the character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions to the situation.
But her friendship brought me a lot of benefits, like the way we held hands when we entered a party, and how all the guys thought that looked good, and when I thought about the money I’d loaned her that she never paid back, I knew that in a way she thought I owed her the money, because of all those times we’d held hands.
Reading the whole paragraph to the end, the reader is able to see how the character feels about Sue, what she thinks about their relationship and her reaction to Sue’s lie that she is now Amy.
- The flashback helps us understand the current conflict even further. We, the reader, now understand why Sue might pretend to be Amy, and why the character struggles between giving her the money or not.
- The author has also been able to tell the story in a way that is not 100% linear. She takes the reader to the past and back, and this time, the reader returns with even more details that make the story more interesting and gives a new dimension to the previously expected outcome.
Flashbacks can take a number of ways: an object can be used to start a flashback. A word, a gesture, a sound, all of these can bring about a flashback for the character.
As a writer, the best approach is to use flashback as a tool to complement and strengthen your work. Make it richer, more interesting. But also be wary of too many flashbacks. This will do the complete opposite of what you have in mind.
Ask yourself questions. How does this flashback change your story? What does it add or take away from it? How has it changed your character? What do they now know?
A very simple way to do this is to apply it to yourself. If, right now, you had to flashback to a specific period in 2020, what would that period be? Why? How will the flashback change your present circumstances, even if for a minute?
Let me answer that. If I had to flashback to a specific period in 2020, it would be the lockdown period. Why? It was the one time where I felt absolutely listless, I could barely read or write. I’ll emerge from this flashback with complete gratitude for where I am right now: able to read and write again, to enjoy the solace that stories bring.
Now, will you also take the test?
Read: “Someone Like Sue” by Rebecca Curtis.
See you soon.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Olakunle Ologunro is a Nigerian writer. His work has been published in Brittle Paper, Agbowo, the Queer Africa anthology, and the Gerald Kraak anthology for work that provokes thought on the topics of gender, social justice and sexuality. He is an alumnus of the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop and a finalist for the 2020 Adina Talve-Goodman Fellowship from One Story Magazine. He won the inaugural Kreative Diadem Prize for short fiction.