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This flashback is from a short story I'm writing (unedited first draft):

I met Limei last summer. Our class had organized a graduation trip to Green Island, where we stayed for fourteen days and fourteen nights. One of my friends had dragged her along. He barely knew Limei, but he apparently wanted to make a move on her. The reason she had accepted escaped me. Probably because she didn't have many friends at that time, so an invitation like that was a big chance for her to make new acquaintances.

She'd been specially quiet on the trip. She would would just sit alone in the beach, staring listlessly at the blue ocean. My friend had already lost interest on her by then, saying that talking to her was as fun as talking to a lettuce.

I sat next to her one day, without being quite sure about why. She wasn't exactly my type, but I had to admit she had a attractive facial features; big deep eyes, a well-shaped nose, and smooth red lips. I wasn't the kind who usually approached strangers either. So what did I want from her then?

"Seagulls," Limei suddenly said, still gazing to the front.

I stared at her for a moment, confused, and then turned to the sea. There was a flock of seagulls flying above us, moving randomly from one spot to another, but never leaving the group.

"You like seagulls?" I asked looking at her again. Her jet-black hair was blowing with the wind.

"Not really," she said, shaking her head. "I was just...wondering."

One of the seagulls descended into the water, in an attempt to catch a fish. But came out with nothing.

"I was wondering—why do birds, like seagulls, have to migrate every year?" she continued. "Why don't they stay in the same place like most animals do?"

"Well," I said. It was a difficult question. "I guess each animal has developed their own survival strategies. Maybe it doesn't matter what the strategy is, as long as it works, it will remain in the specie. And the genes responsible for that behavior will pass to the next generation."

Limei turned to look at me with a inquiring look. I wasn't sure whether I had answered her question or I had just annoyed her with my attempt of displaying knowledge in evolutionary biology.

We remained silent for a while watching the seagulls. I had no idea why Limei was being more open to me than the others. Or could it be that she had actually many things to talk about, just that no one had sat beside her and actually listen to what she had to say?

"Hey, I'm curious," I finally said, "why did you accept Jung's invitation for coming? I bet you don't particularly like him. And besides, you don't know any of the other guys."

She looked at me again, and then fixed her eyes into the sand. I let out sigh, cursing myself. I'd always had a special talent for asking inappropriate questions. An awkward quietness surrounded us. I pretended to be immersed in the fly of the seagulls.

"I...just wanted to to leave my house," Limei suddenly said with a sigh.

"Family problems?" I asked.

Limei shook her head. "It just that my dad's work requires him to travel constantly abroad. So, I spend most of the time alone at home. And it feels really strange to be just by myself in that big house. The empty space inside is so much that sometimes I feel like I can barely breath." She raised her head. "I wish he spent more time at home."

Her mini declaration had shocked me a bit. I wanted to ask: what about your mom? But I decided to skip the question. Something told me that she wasn't around anymore.

"But I guess that's the reality of things," Limei continued, gazing up at the seagulls in the sky. "Everything's always in constant movement. Nothing in this world remains still."

Not sure if I'm mistaken, but I think authors usually just use telling in flashbacks instead of dialogue (e.g. We talked about this and this, and she also told me about this other thing...)

Is this usually the case? Or it isn't?

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I have no idea what's usual and what's not, but, as long as the flashback is important you can go about it in whatever way you see fit. If the dialog is important, then include it. If it's not, then just describe the events, or the outcome of the discussion, or whatever it is that's important in the flashback. –  Tom Apr 7 '13 at 18:27
    
"...it will remain in the specie..." change that to "species" as that is both singular and plural. Specie is invalid. Hope it helps. –  Outlier Apr 7 '13 at 23:25
    
@Outlier Thanks for spotting that! –  Alexandro Chen Apr 8 '13 at 2:39

3 Answers 3

up vote 3 down vote accepted

I don't see a problem with what you have done.

Flashbacks (like any literary device) can be implemented in many different ways. Some authors prefer to simply tell the flashbacks as you mentioned, but I assure you that that does not necessarily establish an implicit norm.

I have read many texts and short stories that have dialogues in flashbacks. In your case specifically, I think you made effective use of a flashback to establish the background information. But again as Tom stated, I don't really know what's usual as I've seen a lot of different implementations. All that matters is that you achieve your desired effect.

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A flashback is usually a memory. Whatever is in that memory should be in the flashback. (Even if it is not the character's memory, I still treat it as a memory). If that memory contains a lot of dialogue, don't you think you should include it so the reader gets the full effect of what you're trying to convey? I hope this helps!

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If a flashback is a paragraph or two, you can (sometimes) get by with telling. But if a flashback is longer than that, it has to engage the reader in the same way that current-time events do. And that usually means you have to show. And that means that, once you transition into the flashback, it reads just like any other scene.

Note that the term flashback is not limited to short flashes. Scene- and chapter-length flashbacks are common. I've seen flashbacks that take up the middle third of a book--for example, Richard North Patterson's Caroline Masters.

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