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Few examples:

Saki first became aware of her sixth finger at the age of five. Her aunt had come to visit the house that afternoon, bringing Rika (Saki's favorite cousin).

(...)


At the time, Saki was dating a classmate named Kazuo. He'd just been transferred from Niigata, and assigned to Saki's class.

(...)


The second incident occurred in Saki's freshmen year of college. Her drama club was getting ready for the opening of their play.

(...)

They are all first sentences of flashbacks. Are the references to "when" the events happen (highlighted in bold) necessary? Or I can remove them without changing much the story?

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There's no way to tell without context. Everything around these statements will affect whether the reader has a sense of time or not. –  Lauren Ipsum Jul 22 '13 at 16:53
    
@Lauren Ipsum How can I add the context? Including the whole paragraphs or writing a summary of each? –  Alexandro Chen Jul 22 '13 at 16:54
    
Well, you might be able to do it with paragraphs, but honestly, it's the kind of thing I usually find has to be considered in the context of the whole story. Saying "later that afternoon" is fine if you know what day it is, but I've worked on books where I've gone four chapters without being able to figure out what month I'm in, so "that afternoon" is insufficient. I can't tell you whether your question is too large for this site. –  Lauren Ipsum Jul 22 '13 at 17:37
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3 Answers

I use flashback to explain my character's present predicament. The flashback is a specific incident. I have found that if I make the flashback complicated (i.e. with multiple timeframes), I then risk the ability to seamlessly transit back to the present. In this regard, I always indicate somehow the start and end of the flashback.

In you example, I am unsure how "that afternoon" adds greater clarity. For a reader, I think Saki became aware of her sixth finger at the age of five is sufficient. In other words, it helps if you focus on the bigger picture (e.g. how this awareness affects Saki's present).

Of course, a lot depends on the context of your story but in any case, phrases such as "At that time" are vague and become meaningless if the reader loses the thread of the story (which is very possible if you take them into the flashback).

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It's not necessary to make it clear, specially because sometimes you can "play" with it confusing the reader to create impact. There are plenty of examples. It's quite common in movies but I don't exactly remind any in books right now.

But, that doesn't mean in your context it is valid.

When somebody uses subterfuges like that, he is prepared and whiling to do so. He creates all the conditions to do so. You can't just decide to use a flashback without making it clear and without preparation, or it will just be confusing.

Basically, it's all about context.

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In principle, if it doesn't matter, if the idea is just that this happened sometime in the past, then you don't need to bog the story down with details about exactly when. I certainly wouldn't go into some long description if it doesn't matter. I mean, I wouldn't say, "In the third year after she graduated college, on the tenth of June, at 3:15 in the afternoon, ..." if none of that makes any difference.

That said, I'd add two big caveats:

(1) You need to make clear that this is a flashback. I've read a few stories that had a flashback with no introduction, I didn't see any clue that this was a flashback and not ongoing narrative, and I had to read quite a way before I realized, Oh, wait, this is a flashback. In one case I was about 3/4 of the way through a book before I realized that the entire story was a flashback from the first chapter. I was puzzled about how the events in that first chapter fit with everything that happened -- I thought -- after it. I think that kind of ambiguity is very, very bad. It breaks the reader's connection to the story. And usually the easiest way to tell the reader that something is a flashback to throw in a time reference. Be very careful about saying, for example, Well, it's obvious that it's a flashback because I say, "As she entered the high school ..." As a reader, just telling me that she entered a high school doesn't tell me that this is a flashback to when she was a teenager. She might be going to a high school re-union, visiting her children's school, attending some community event at the school, etc etc. Especially if you say that anything after the first sentence of the scene makes clear it's a flashback. If I have to read three paragraphs before it's obvious, that means that I then have to go back and revisualize those three paragraphs.

(2) While it would vary with the story, I think you almost always need to establish at least a general time frame. Is this happening when she is 5 years old or when she is 25? Is flashback A before flashback B or after? Etc. As you are writing you no doubt have a picture of the scene in your mind. But the reader can't see that scene unless you tell him. Again, you want to avoid having the reader have a certain mental picture of the scene, and then say something that invalidates that scene. Like, if you just tell us "Many years ago, she ...", I might in my mind picture a woman of 25 going through whatever events. Then if suddenly you tell me that her mother told her to put away the coloring book and go to bed because it's a school night, I'm going to get ripped out of the story and have to go back and re-visualize the scene I've just been through.

There are times when you deliberately want to confuse the timeline. Like if the idea of the story is that the character is an old man who is lost in his memories and can't distinguish the present from the past. But any ambiguity in a story should be careful and deliberate, not an accident.

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