What Came Before

Flashbacks - How and Why to Write Them

by Jack Windeyer

hubble image of star forming
NASA & ESA - Star Formation Captured by Hubble

So you want to write an analepsis (flashback)? Well then, which kind are you going to write? There’s the internal analepsis which flashes back to a section of time that the narrative has already covered. Then there’s the external analepsis, which flashes back to a time wholly outside of the narrative. Since most short stories cover a short period of time, I’ll assume it’s the latter. Consider the following passage from A Lingering Scent of Jasmine by Pat Murphy:

She watched him through half-closed eyes. She was sleek and poised in french jeans and a golden leotard, her hair tied up in a scarf with just a few strands floating free around her face.

She had not always been so confident. Tony had met Diane three years before, when she was a drama student, working part-time at the steakhouse that he managed. One afternoon, her car had refused to start and she was late for an audition. Tony had driven her to the audition and she had cried on his shoulder when the director gave the part to another girl. A week later, he celebrated with her when she got a part in another play. Eventually she moved into the house in the Berkeley hills. For two years, they had lived together happily. She had needed him then: for reassurance, for comfort.

He claimed that she had stopped loving him the day she was mentioned favorably in a review. She had changed: lost weight, learned to use makeup. She had turned into a slim-hipped, honey-tanned California girl with a laugh like the sound of Almaden Mountain Rhine wine pouring into a tumbler—sweet but a little vulgar. A lady with a mind like a racing car engine. Not a Swiss watch—this lady was built for power.

She had started bringing her actor friends home: people with names like Vancouver John and the Lizard King. That’s when the fights started.

“You don’t spend time with me anymore,” he had complained. “You’re too busy with your friends.”

“That’s not true and you know it. You’re just feeling sorry for yourself. I’m doing things I want to do and you resent that. You wanted me to stay the way I was—a shy, weak, little girl. You wanted me to...”

“I wanted a woman I could love.”

“You wanted a woman who wouldn’t change.”

When Diane got a chance to tour with a traveling company she and Tony agreed—in a reasonable, calm fashion—that their life together had come to an end.

Now she was back.

There’s a lot to love about this passage.

First, as with any interruption to the main narrative, you must clearly signal the change to your reader. The sentence “she had not always been so confident” is the reader’s clue that they’re heading to the past.

Why does Murphy include this flashback? It usually comes down to exposition. The reader should learn something new about the characters or setting. In this case, we learn many new details without feeling like Murphy is dumping backstory on us: we learn that Tony manages a steak house, that he is insecure and likes to feel needed, we see Diane transformation through his eyes, and we learn that things ended between them. Not bad for 10 short paragraphs.

Just as it’s important to signal a departure from the narrative, it’s also important to signal the return. Murphy does this well by placing the short, signaling sentence all on its own: “Now she was back.”

Using a word like now to end an flashback is a tried-and-true method, but there is room for creativity in how you signal the return to the main narrative.