One of the most important but overused tools in the writer’s pouch is the flashback. Although flashbacks dig up the past, they should always move the storyline forward. Too often, they do not really advance the plot or the characterization.
Another challenge with using flashbacks is integrating them into the story. Too often they stick out, sidetracking the reader and giving her an instant case of ADHD. Given the challenges of this technique, I believe flashbacks can still be used to good effect.
In my short story, “Funerals in Small Southern Towns,” a beloved mother, Mary Elizabeth Jardin, has suddenly died. Driving the story are the family conflicts that take place over the three days leading up to the funeral between the Stuckeys, Mrs. Jardin’s inlaws, and the Jardin children, notably Ashby Jardin, Mary Elizabeth’s son.
Charlotte, Mary Elizabeth’s youngest daughter, is married to Roy Stuckey. They live in a nearby town and Ashby lives three hours away. In the opening passage of the story, I set up the difference in the backgrounds of the Stuckeys and Mrs. Jardin. Only Mary Elizabeth's social skills have enabled the two families with differing backgrounds to coexist.
Although an omniscient narrator tells the story, Ashby’s point-of-view is primary. The reader hears his inner thoughts, mostly in flashbacks. Here is a flashback of Ashby’s that takes place during the phone call from his sister Charlotte informing him of his mother’s death.
“Ash, I have some bad news,” Charlotte began.
“Mom…didn’t make it.” Charlotte’s voice sounded unnaturally deep.
“What are you saying?”
Ashby’s relationship with his mother had not always been good … Close in age, Ashby and his younger brother Jackson fought constantly. One particularly contentious fight took place in the basement one school night when Jackson would not relinquish the telephone so Ashby could call his girlfriend. Mary Elizabeth unfortunately interceded just as Ashby had thrown a punch at Jackson. When times got tense between her and Ashby, she was not above reminding him that he had once broken his mother’s nose. All Ashby could think of at this moment was her broken nose, even though she had long since forgiven him.
“She didn’t make it out of anesthesia,” Charlotte continued, “her heart stopped.”
“Oh, my God!” Ashby let loose a torrent of sobs and wailings.
I deliberately chose to interrupt the conversation to show Ashby’s first thoughts about her death to build suspense and to provide some background about their relationship, emphasizing Ashby’s sense of guilt surrounding his mother. The flashback carries the story forward by putting Ashby’s reaction to his mother’s death on hold while it develops Ashby’s sometimes complex past relationship with his mother. The attempt was to allow the past to enrich the story in an unobtrusive way. I believe the flashback works.