A Trio of Flashbacks
Most scenes unfold chronologically, but some literary techniques interrupt the flow of narrative time. The flashback (or analepsis) is one of them. When well-written, it provides valuable context to the reader; written poorly they cause confusion and frustration.
How can we use this technique well?
Who better to answer this question than SFWA Grand Master Samuel R. Delaney? Delaney uses analepses often and well in his Hugo-nominated novel Nova.
Once & Now
A successful analepsis clearly signals both the departure from and the return to the main narrative. Early on in Nova, Delaney uses a classic form of signaling: time words.
Once, the Mouse had asked Leo just when New Mosque had been built. The fisherman from the Pleiades Federation—who always walked with one foot bare—had scratched his thick blond hair as they gazed at the smoky walls rising to the domes and spiking minarets. “About a thousand years ago, was. But that only a guess is.” The Mouse was looking for Leo now.
The word once signals a departure from the main narrative. Now signals the return. Notice that once is the first word of the analepsis and now is the last. The boundaries of a flashback don’t get that much more clear than that, which is why you’ll often see this form of signaling.
The analepses in Nova grow more experimental as the story progresses. Here’s a later example:
Katin was looking through the cards he had picked up. “This is what you’ve been playing with, Tyÿ? The Tarot?” He looked up. “You’re a gypsy, Mouse. I bet you’ve seen these before.” He held the cards up so the Mouse might see.
Not looking, the Mouse nodded. He tried to keep his hand from his hip. (There had been a big woman sitting behind the fire—in the dirty print skirt—and the mustachioed men sat around under the flickering overhang of rock, watching while the cards flashed and flashed in her fat fingers. But that had been … )
“Here,” Tyÿ said. “You to me them give.” She reached.
“May I look through the whole set?” asked Katin.
Her gray eyes widened. “No.” Surprise was in her voice.
“I’m … sorry,” Katin began, confused. “I didn’t mean to …”
Tyÿ took the cards.
“You … do you read the cards?” Katin tried to keep his face from freezing.
Instead of using words like once and now, Delaney uses parentheses to signal where the flashback begins and ends. He counts on his readers to pick up on that. This analepsis takes the form of Mouse’s memories that arise naturally to interrupt a section of dialogue. Then, the dialogue resumes, interrupting the interruption.
So what purpose does this flashback serve? It makes the reader curious about Mouse’s backstory. It is a promise from writer to reader that there will be more on the subject. A promise that Delaney delivers on later.
Toward the end of the novel, there is another flashback. This time, Delaney uses future technology to frame the analepsis: a device that visually records and replays the entire room—a great way to include genre elements into a literary device!
The Mouse grinned and hopped toward the living room. The party had been recorded, rerecorded, and rerecorded again. Multiple melodies flailed a dozen dancing Tyÿs to different rhythms. Twins before were duodecuplets now. Sebastian, Sebastian, and Sebastian, at various stages of inebriation, poured drinks of red, blue, green.
The analepsis continues and is well worth a reread. Besides providing Delaney with the chance to write some vivid descriptions of the party as it occurred, it also creates space for some light characterization: Tyy spent the party dancing; Sebastian spent it drinking.