Maintaining interest while you interrupt yourself: making flashbacks work

Honestly, we don’t like flashbacks in books. We find it annoying to be reading along, caught up in some plot strand, then to be tossed back into the past somewhere and asked to be interested in whatever was going on back then. Flashbacks interrupt the story. They put authors, who use them, at a disadvantage. Hence, they should be used carefully and be well-reasoned, not just thrown in to mop up information the author can’t think of a better way of presenting.

We recently read a novel that was told largely in flashback and very successfully: CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER by Tom Franklin. Flashbacks aside, Franklin has a lot going for him: wonderful writing, a fabulous setting in rural Mississippi and two compelling lead characters. The book is told from both of their points of view and there are flashbacks in both heads.

Franklin weaves a complex web, and that is one reason why his flashbacks are successful. They are tightly woven into the structure of the book. After reading it, we could not say to ourselves, this part was in flashback and this part in real time because they all blended together in one whole that moved fluidly from past to present and back again.

It helped that one of the characters was shot and went into a coma at the end of chapter one, so he was no longer present in the present. That Larry might be remembering and reliving his past while on life support made sense.

The other character, who is investigating the shooting of Larry, kind of sneaks up on his first flashback. Silas is looking through a box of Larry’s old photos when he unexpectedly comes across a picture of his own mother:

One photo at the bottom showed baby Larry in a woman’s lap. The woman from the chest down, but with black hands. A maid, he thought. He found a few more, her dark arms bathing Larry in the sink, her hand putting in his pacifier, the woman never the point of the shot, in the pictures as a chair would be, or a table.
Only one showed her face. And the thing that stunned Silas, the thing, he couldn’t believe, was that this woman was his mother.

When Silas was thirteen years old, his mother’s boyfriend….

By having Silas discover his mother’s photo in an unexpected place, the author has created an interest in her so the reader, not only doesn’t mind flashing back, but is eager to go there to find out about Silas’ mother.

Finally, there are good reasons for both characters to flash back. The past is an integral part of the plot. And as you can see from the example above, the pasts of these two characters are interwoven. Instead of interrupting the flow, flashbacks in CROOKED LETTER help carry it forward.