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I wrote a short story. One recurring critique is that the flashbacks don't feel like flashbacks, so the readers get confused. The story is about a man who hears a piano next door. Nothing unusual—except the room hasn't been unoccupied since he moved in. The story alternates between present, past, present, past (this is another cause of the confusion). Here are two examples:

Example 1:

However, just as he closed his eyes, the song returned. Noticeably louder this time. But because of his exhaustion, he didn't do anything; he just lay there, letting the tune sink into his consciousness, mix with the dream that was about to come. And peacefully like that, he fell asleep.

* * *

Pianos always brought Ming bad memories. They reminded him of Ai-Ling, his deceased girlfriend. He met her three years ago in a musical instrument store (while searching new strings for his guitar). Usually, it didn't take him long. But that day something caught his attention.

Example 2:

"So, have you heard the piano?" Ming sat up and refilled his glass of wine. They alway drank wine after having sex.

Li-Mei shook her head. "But I think you can show me."

"Sure you want?"

"If I want to listen to a piano play in an empty room? Hell yeah!"

"All right, I'll show you tonight."

* * *

From that afternoon in the cafe, Ming and Ai-Ling became a couple. It happened naturally. As if they’d been connected since the day they were born. Plus they both had passion for music, so, though their tastes differed (Ming liked punk rock and Ai-Ling classical), they never ran out of topic to talk about. Their contrasting preferences balanced each other in a fine, delicate way.

Is that the case? If so, how can I fix it?

(someone suggested adding hads in the flashbacks. Like, Pianos had always brought Ming bad memories. Is that the best solution?)

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It's not clear to me that the scenes are flashbacks either. Can you add a little more description about where the scenes occur in time and why they happen in that order instead of being temporally connected? I'm having trouble understanding without that context. –  KitFox May 2 at 12:55

2 Answers 2

up vote 1 down vote accepted

Well... I can't tell what are and aren't flashbacks from your examples but I do have some tips on how to write a flashback. If you edit your question to have more context (see KitFox's comment) then I can edit this to better suit you. You don't have to do all of these things, but incorporating some might help.

  • Hook the reader. I guess you're always trying to hook the reader, but for flashbacks this is essential. If your reader is uninterested in your character or your character's motivation, a flashback to something that informs your character is meaningless. Definitely try to have flashbacks following strong scenes or at least have them take place outside of present day action. The last thing you want to do is be in the middle of enticing a reader and then ripping them out of the action to make them read something only tangentially related.

  • Make sure your reader knows you're moving back in time (or forward in time). One of the things that people tend to do when they can't seamlessly move back and forth in time via the text itself is to use some sort of ASCII/text image like ____ or *** or something like that. This doesn't really work because this isn't assuring your reader that you're moving forward or backwards in time. It's just an interruption that doesn't tell them anything in particular. For example, I could write:

The remaining officers on the scene gazed after the quickly disappearing ambulance. "Peter wouldn't hurt her. At least... I don't he would." Maria said. "After all... isn't Liz the only one who trusted him...?"

***

Liz threw the papers onto the chief's desk. "This is clearly the work of the Providence killer. And it's another person who slighted Peter Ashcraft! What more do you need? We should just bring him in!"

"We brought him in on the first two. They were related to him, but he was out of town." The chief said.

"But he must know something."

But when you read it, you wouldn't know when either of those lines were taking place. It could be happening literally seconds after each other. It could be happening days apart. If you say when things are happening, it makes things a lot more easy to understand.

The remaining officers on the scene gazed after the quickly disappearing ambulance. "Peter wouldn't hurt her. At least... I don't he would." Maria said. "After all... isn't Liz the only one who trusted him...?"

Two Months Earlier

Liz threw the papers onto the chief's desk. "This is clearly the work of the Providence killer. And it's another person who slighted Peter Ashcraft! What more do you need? We should just bring him in!"

"We brought him in on the first two. They were related to him, but he was out of town." The chief said.

"But he must know something."

You have to let your reader know when things are happening. You can add it into the narration or have an interruption, but you can't just use a visual representation of time progression alone.

  • Use a different tense in your flashback. You don't even have to stick with the new tense. you can start off with past perfect and then move into past tense.

"She had had a couple of drinks before he sauntered over.

"Hello beautiful," He said.

If you have a short flashback, like one or two lines, using past perfect tense all the way is probably your best bet. but if it's particularly long, consider writing the beginning in past perfect tense and then shifting into past tense.

  • Make it natural. Consider flashbacks in real life. For example, do you ever think about some specific childhood memory after looking at a picture? That's pretty much a real life flashback. An organic flashback, more or less, has some kind of trigger. You could use the trigger to segue easily into a flashback.

He hadn't heard Classical Gas for years. He could still remember the first time he heard it. His father had been busy that week, but still had managed to find the time to bring him to the old park. The place was in complete disrepair, but there was an old stage where bands played during town events. That day, some nameless musician was playing that song...

  • Make the flashback text different from the regular narration's text. This works better if there aren't many flashbacks, but if you're having one or two flashbacks, you can separate them from the regular text using formatting. For example, you could make all of your flashbacks be written in italics. Or you could center the text for your flashback sequences. If you make the reader notice this is different then they are more likely to be able to tell the difference between regular narration and flashback narration.
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They don't feel like flashback to me either.

Ice-9 gave you some good options, let me add some more.

How to enter the flashback: there are two opposite ways, "by the hand" and "throwing into deep water". Your approach sits squat in between the two, falling short of either.

First one eases the reader into the flashback slowly, explaining how, when the flashback is entered, bringing the events forth.

Ming sat in his armchair, leaning into the smooth leather. He closed his eyes, and visions of the past came to him unasked. His thoughts wandered towards the events three years ago, that afternoon in the cafe, when he and Ai-Ling became a couple.

It happened naturally. As if they’d been connected since the day they were born. Plus they both had passion for music, so, though their tastes differed

That way the reader is clearly told that a flashback begins. This is good way for reported-speech flashbacks, or like in your case, general/abstract ones, compressing larger periods or telling of facts of the past. It's good when the character tries to recall things, puts a conscious effort to bring the memories forth. These aren't really flash-backs. They are just reminiscences.


For real flashbacks, use "Throwing into deep water". It's more "juicy", draws the reader in, and can be just as clear, but can't be applied everywhere. You start a new section at 1:1 (real time) playback speed, up close to the characters, reporting their activity honestly and without fancy flourishes. The entered scene must clash violently with where you left off, getting the reader to scramble for hooks, where (and when) it is located. Give these hooks. Season, location, maybe date through some subtle means, but keep it entirely disconnected from 'current times'.

The sound of piano brought Ming some bad memories. He looked at his guitar hanging on the wall. A thick layer of dust collected on its surface untouched since Ai-Ling died three years ago.


Several sets of strings for guitar lay spread on the counter. The shopkeeper left Ming with his choice, and began servicing other customer. Ming picked up one of the plastic sleeves - for the fifteenth time in past half hour - and opened it, knocking the string inside with his fingertip, rubbing it with his nail to feel its texture. He'd never spent so much time selecting strings for his guitar before.

"I can help you pick the right strings, if you tell me what you play, and how you play." The voice behind him was female, young, with a little rasp. Ming didn't turn around. Somehow, curiosity passed him by.

"Punk rock. I'm not easy on the guitar. I need new strings way too often."

"Then you will love Muza. They are hard, strong, and they sing with anger. My name's Ai-Ling, by the way." The girl stood next to Ming now, and he turned his head to her. [description follows]

Notice: close detail, literal dialogue, no introductions, no "smooth edges". These are obtrusive reminiscences that come unasked, and push into our minds against our efforts to the contrary, vivid and detailed. That's why they feel 'stronger'. Try this, it's not all that hard. Rough cut, completely disconnected scene transition, only bare background details connecting the two scenes.

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