A flashback is a trip back in time. The story leaves the main narrative line to tell a tale that happened before the narrative began. Flashbacks come in handy in both fiction and nonfiction, but they can be confusing to the reader. An excess of them may mean that the author couldn’t figure out more graceful ways to incorporate bits of backstory into the narrative.
This is an area where editors and guinea pigs (also known as second readers) can be helpful, but I digress: This post isn’t about flashbacks in a finished work. This is about the kind of flashback that happens when you’re in the throes of first-drafting.
The other day I was cruising along in Wolfie, the novel in progress, when my mind started to wander. The scene up ahead looked boring. I didn’t want to write it. In it my protagonist, Shannon, and her sixth-grade protégée, Glory, run a temperament test on Wolfie, the Alaskan malamute they’ve rescued from getting shot. One option was to describe the test step by step. I yawned just thinking about it. I’m writing a novel, not a dog-training manual.
Much as I love to write scenes in order, I’ve learned that it’s OK to skip over or skirt the scenes that just aren’t happening. So I sent Glory home to look after her little brother, Matt, while their parents are otherwise occupied.
So the next morning my trusty Pelikan was laying down line after line of brown ink on the page. It wasn’t terribly interesting — sibling interactions that probably won’t survive the first draft — but I had this idea that Glory might try to temperament-test her brother and that sounded like fun. They were out in the driveway. Glory had set up some plastic cones. Matt was pedaling his racing car around them. Then Matt decides he wants to play on the swing set. He leaves his pedal car in the middle of the driveway. Glory reminds him — with more than a dash of big-sister exasperation — that it has to be put away. Matt scowls —
— and Glory is thrown back a couple of hours, to Shannon’s living room, where she and Shannon are temperament-testing Wolfie.
Oh my. The brown ink flowing out of my Pelikan created A Scene. It did everything I want a scene to do: show my characters in (inter)action, move the plot forward, and turn the heat up — raise the stakes, if you will, for the characters, for future readers, and of course for me. It didn’t sound a bit like a dog-training manual.
I write my first drafts in longhand because my handwriting is barely legible and my zealous Internal Editor can’t fuss at what she can’t read. My writers’ group meets every Sunday night, and since my fellow writers can’t read my handwriting either, I’m typing this first draft into Word as I go along. I edit lightly while I type, but I don’t second-guess myself about the big stuff; I do make notes about things to consider when I launch into serious rewrite. This typescript isn’t really a second draft. I think of it as version 1.5.
In Wolfie 1.5, however, that serendipitous scene will appear in Shannon’s living room, not in Glory’s driveway. Wolfie will be there. Little brother won’t.
Why didn’t that scene show up in its chronological order? Damned if I know. Writing is full of mysteries, and like the songwriter Iris DeMent, I’m content to “let the mystery be.” (Great song, by the way. Take a break and Google it.) Some scenes don’t show up in order. They show up when they’re ready. All you have to do is keep your hand moving across the page, or your fingers on the keyboard.