Writing a Back Flash

Back flashes don't affect a story's forward movement. They keep readers in the present while revealing something about a character and a past event that's affected him/her

Back flashes don’t affect a story’s forward movement. They keep readers in the present while revealing something about a character and a past event that’s affected him or her.

A back flash provides information about a character’s past either through dialogue or the character’s thoughts. It’s the best option for writers when they want to reveal something about a character’s past. Be careful not to write long back flashes, however. Instead, include snippets of information about a character’s past as the story progresses.

Back Flash in Thoughts

When Walter saw the accident on the road up ahead, a pain stabbed his heart. As he lifted his foot off the gas pedal, he pointed at it. His friend and passenger, James, stared at the scene’s police cars and ambulance.

            “Amelia,” Walter muttered.

            “Amelia?” James said. “Oh, yes. I remember.”

            Walter passed the accident in silence. It happened two years ago. Amelia Easterling and he were engaged, and then that horrible accident happened at the movie theater. He’d hit a large van backing out of its parking space. The crash killed her instantly. Oh, how he missed her!

            He pulled into a grocery store’s parking lot. He had to get his mind on other things. “Let’s get our soda and chips fast.”

            James slammed the car door behind him. “Right, Walter. I’m hungry.”

Back Flash in Dialogue

Walter nudged his friend James when they entered the grocery store. “Hey, look over yonder. That pretty lady examining the oranges.”

            James halted near the cash registers. “Yeah. She looks sorta like Amelia. I’m glad you’ve recovered from that accident you had. It wasn’t your fault.”

            “We were arguing at the time, James,” Walter said. “I was driving, so it was my fault. I should’ve been paying better attention to the traffic. She’d still be alive if I’d been doing that.”

            James smiled at the lady as she headed for the vegetables. “Let’s go introduce ourselves.”

            Walter shrugged. “Why not?”

USE FLASHBACKS CAREFFULLY, BUT HEY, DON’T FORGET THE BACK FLASH!

Characterization: Writing Quirky Characters

As stated in my previous post, character biographies are essential to creating three-dimensional characters.

Another technique for 3D characters: give ’em quirks. A quirk can be anything from being obsessive about punctuality or neatness to flopping on a couch first thing every morning to watch ESPN or always walking around the house barefoot. The late, great American novelist and historian, Shelby Foote, once said in an interview that he wrote in his pajamas. Now I’d call that a quirk.

The Author Who Lived in His Pajamas – The Author’s Cove: John “Jack” Cunningham on Writing & History (theauthorscove.com)

So, give each of your characters habits and traits that are peculiar to them.

For example, C.S. Forester’s naval hero, Horatio Hornblower, possesses a quirk about baths–he likes having his men hose him down on deck whenever he takes one.

Rex Stout’s fictional detective, Nero Wolfe, is a homebody. He’d rather tend his orchids than step outdoors onto the busy streets of New York. His assistant, Archie Goodwin, does all of the running around and investigating.

Observation of people helps us create similar believable, and quirky, characters. How do others talk? What mannerisms and gestures do they use? Any pet words or phrases? Any quirks? Keep a running list of these things. That way, they won’t be forgotten, and then we can turn to them when we write our character biographies. Let each character be his/her own unique personality.

So, give ’em some quirks. Make each character his/her own unique personality, then watch them jump off the page.

Source on Shelby Foote: Coleman, Carter and Donald Faulkner and William Kennedy. “Shelby Foote, The Art of Fiction No. 158.” The Paris Review, Issue 151 Summer 1999, http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/931/shelby-foote-the-art-of-fiction-no-158-shelby-foote.

Characterization: How to Create Three-Dimensional Characters in Fiction

All right, here comes my confession. During my early writing years, when I began writing fiction, I struggled with creating believable characters, particularly female characters.

Olivia d’Haviland and Errol Flynn in Captain Blood. The novel was written by Rafael Sabatini.

I erred in numerous ways, and it took me many years and much practice to hone my skill. Yet even as I write this, I’m still learning and honing. For me, of all the elements of fiction, good fiction, characterization is the hardest.

When characters are well-written, they’re three-dimensional. They seem to leap off the page. This doesn’t just happen, though. It takes lots of thought, lots of planning, and lots of mental “elbow grease.”

One key to creating these “living, breathing” characters is by getting to know them. Who are they? What motivates them to do what they do? Are their motives believable? What are their likes and dislikes? Where were they born? How old are they? What level of education do they have? Where were they educated? What events in their past influenced how they now behave? These are just a few questions we must ask when drawing our characters with words.

We don’t have to answer every question in our story, but knowing our characters’ backgrounds and what makes them tick is crucial if we want them to be three-dimensional instead of cardboard cutouts.

What’s the best way to get to know them? Write their biographies.

Must we write a biography of every character, major and minor? We can, but I’d concentrate on the major characters.

Is there a short way to do this? Yes, though it’ll still require some thought. First write a list of important questions about your characters, then go back and answer them. This will start you on the right road toward toward getting to know them.

These character questions also help us keep our story consistent throughout it. For instance, if we’re writing about a character named Mary and we forget her eye color, we can refer back to the “Mary Bio Questions” to find it.

A Few Questions for Our Characters

  1. Birthplace:
  2. Age:
  3. Nationality/Race:
  4. Height:
  5. Weight:
  6. Physical Build:
  7. Eye color:
  8. Hair color/Hairstyle:
  9. Shape of face:
  10. Father’s name/Occupation:
  11. Mother’s name/Occupation:
  12. Education:
  13. Religion:
  14. Personality:
  15. Admirable traits:
  16. Negative traits:
  17. Likes/Dislikes:
  18. Bad habits/vices
  19. Best thing that ever happened to them:
  20. Worst thing that ever happened to them:

This list, of course, can be expanded, and it’s something I recommend. If you haven’t already done so, try it. It’s well worth the effort and, in the long run, saves time on revision.

Beats, Part 2: Character Enhancement

Last week, I discussed the dangers of overusing beats. Though we must use them, we must also be careful to place them at the right spots in our narrative’s dialogue.

Another “beat issue” we need to avoid is this: writing trite. Trite words and phrases and figures of speech are easy to spot. They’re the first things that come to our mind while we write. Why? Because we’ve heard them so much and read them so often, they’re stored in our subconscious and usually pop out on the page during our writing process. Using them in our first draft is fine, but we do well to change them during our revision.

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

What are some trite beats? A few examples: he smiled, she shrugged, he laughed, she giggled, he clenched his fists, she sighed, he frowned, etc.

Personally, I think using such beats occasionally is fine, but they shouldn’t be prevalent in our story.

Good beats enhance our characters. They are fresh, original. Through well written beats, readers gain a better understanding of our story’s actors, which is why we need to know them intimately ourselves. Readers will observe their personalities, quirks, character traits, likes and dislikes, etc.

Here are a few examples:

John spooned the whipped cream off his strawberry shortcake and disposed of it in a sandwich bag. He wrung his hands. “Ah, now I can enjoy my dessert.”

Here, instead of telling readers in a straightforward manner that John doesn’t like whipped cream, they first see this by his beat and then by implication through his dialogue.

“I’ll be back.” Jane crept over to a corner in the library, pulled out her cell phone and punched in the number. The sign at the library’s entrance said “no cell phones.” Well, she wouldn’t get caught.

Here, we learn that Jane doesn’t abide by the rules. The library she’s in does not allow cell phones, but what is she doing? She’s using one! Without our telling readers she doesn’t care about rules, they observe this trait through her actions.  

One more “beat issue” to avoid: do not use them after a tagline(speaker attribution), such as in the following example:

Wrong: “I’ll be back,” Jane said. She walked down the hall to answer the doorbell.

Correct: “I’ll be back.” Jane walked down the hall to answer the doorbell.

Use beats, by all means! But use them carefully and wisely, and write them in a fresh manner.

Till next week, everyone.