Sunday, October 14, 2012

Using Flashbacks

As I make my way through Shelley Pearsall’s new novel, Jump Into the Sky—I’m almost halfway through the WWII story about a young boy in search of his father—I can’t help admiring how she uses flashbacks as a way of deepening the reader’s emotional connection to Levi Battle, the 13-year-old boy who serves as her main character.

It isn’t easy for an author to find just the right balance between creating the forward momentum needed to advance the plot and the backward pull of flashbacks that deepen our understanding of the character.

If you push too hard in one direction, you risk a story that’s so slick on the surface that the reader’s attention may slide off the page. And if you push too hard in the other direction, you risk a story so weighted down by information that a reader may feel as if she’s sinking into quicksand.

Finding the right balance so a reader keeps turning pages rather than feel bogged down in a story isn’t easy, but Pearsall is a master of flashbacks and uses them to great advantage in her latest work.

A deft author can employ flashbacks to: 
  • easily and unobtrusively incorporate important information as part of a story; 
  • reveal a character’s emotional longing for someone, some place, or some thing, adding to a reader’s understanding of the character;
  • give depth to a character so that a reader can see beneath the surface of what’s happening and gain a glimpse into the way a character’s mind and heart work; and
  • enhance the strength of the character’s voice so that we trust that voice on a deeper, more intimate level.
The passage below is an example of a flashback from Pearsall’s Jump Into The Sky. Notice how it’s woven into the story, a single paragraph used to describe the character’s memory of a past event, sandwiched between the forward momentum of the unfolding story and Levi’s reluctance to leave Chicago for the first time in his life. It’s prompted by the sight of flat rooftops on the apartment buildings which Levi can see from the train: 
There was no way I was closing my eyes, though, Not with all the things there were to see outside the window as we rolled out of the city. Criminy, Chicago was way bigger than I ever thought. 
Sometimes we used to go up to the flat rooftop of Aunt Odella’s building on hot summer evenings and sit up there cooling off with some of the neighbors. We’d chew on ice chips, play cards, and survey the neighborhood like proud kings. Like we owned it all. Big Man, the king of south Chicago, I used to think when I was looking down on everybody below. 
Now I could see how we were kings of nothing but a street or two. Heck, there must’ve been thousands of families sitting on their rooftops just like us, chewing on ice chips and looking down at the exact same things. The crowded neighborhoods stretched for miles.  
Here’s another example of how Pearsall uses a flashback to great effect a bit later in the story, this one prompted by the smell of pinecones:
Still feeling kinda stunned, I eased open my door and jumped out. Big pinecones the size of mortar shells covered the ground everywhere you looked, As my feet landed on the soil, a smell like Christmas came drifting up, which made me start missing my good life back in Chicago. Started thinking about how me and Archie and the rest of the neighborhood gang would have snowball fights in the winter that could make your face sting for hours. How Uncle Otis would always bring us gifts on Christmas Day and Aunt Odella would always tell him he’d spent too much. 
Swallowing that cold lump of memories right back down, I yanked my suitcase outta the truck. No time for feeling sorry. A bunch of bugs swarmed around my face like they were trying to cheer me up. Gave them a good hard swat. 
Of course, in the hands of a less skillful writer, flashbacks can prove daunting. If used incorrectly, they can impede the flow of the story, pulling a reader too far back into the past so that it’s hard to regain forward momentum.

Or the information contained in the flashback may seem insignificant (and, hence, a waste of time for the reader). Or the flashback shows us a side of a character that makes the character seem more shallow and uninteresting rather than more compelling.

But readers of Pearsall’s work will find themselves in the skillful hands of a writer who knows how to use flashbacks to their best advantage to deepen her work and the reader’s experience of her story.

For more information about flashbacks and how to use them, visit:


Richard said...

Good advice on using flashbacks. (Please turn off your word verification for comments. If it doesn't post within two tries, I quit.)

Bruce Black said...

Thanks, Richard, for the kind words... and for the tip on word verification. Glad you kept at it, and hope you won't encounter a problem in the future.