Flashbacks and Foreshadowing


Flashbacks and foreshadowing are tools that we can use to add dimension to our writing. Flashbacks give us the ability to see into a character’s past in real time. Foreshadowing drops hints of what may happen in the future. Are either one required in order to tell an effective story? No. However, there are times when they can add depth to our characters or suspense to our plot, and trust me, we can use whatever help we can get.

Flashbacks interrupt the current action of the story to show a scene from the past. As such, we must always weigh the advantages to the disadvantages. Are the benefits we receive worth leaving our characters dangling in time while we go into the past? If so, don’t hesitate to use a flashback. If not, continue with your story line and find other ways, such as exposition, discussion, etc. to entwine the past with the present.

If you choose to use a flashback, you must tip the reader that you are leaving the present. This can be done with a transition statement such as, “John remembered the day his father died.” Then, use past perfect (“had”) two or three times to complete the clue that we are entering real time in the past. And you are in the past. Act out your scene with action and dialogue, and when you are finished, clue the reader that you are returning to the present by using past perfect once or twice, and, if necessary, another transition sentence (“But that was then and this was now, and John had to let the past stay in the past.”). Here is an example:

Danny remembered more about his mother’s death than he’d ever told anyone. The day she had died, she had called each of her sons to her bedside individually.

“Pour me a cup of fresh water, please,” she said, her voice thick with the Polish accent that decorated her words when she was tired or sick.

Danny filled the cup, careful not to splash it on the bedside table.

“Now, hand me my lipstick.”

But he didn’t leave. He stood in the doorway and had watched as she had swallowed the pills, three at a time, until they were gone.

Even now, Danny felt responsible for her death. He looked at his father and swallowed hard . . .

Note that once we entered the flashback, we stopped using past perfect (“had”) and just acted out the story. Otherwise, the “hads” weigh down the prose and suck the action out of the words.

Foreshadowing is even easier to use. It usually consists of only one or two sentences, and is especially effective when ending a scene or chapter. An example of foreshadowing:

Sam wished he could rid himself of the sick feeling in his gut that told him something terrible was going to happen, and happen soon.

Study what works in fiction you admire. Notice the tools the author uses to enter the past or foretell the future. Unless you are a writer, these techniques should appear invisible and smooth. But as a writer, you must learn to use these techniques to add punch to your own work. Good luck.

For additional tips, worksheets, and discussions, order your own copy of the The Plain English Writer’s Workbook.

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