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Memory Versus Flashback

In fiction, what is the difference between a memory and a flashback? A memory summarizes the past, but a flashback shows an actual scene from the past which is integrated into the present-day story. The important word here is SHOW. When you write a flashback, you go further than just describing your main character as he remembers something. You transition from a scene set in the present to a full-fledged scene with action, sensory impressions, and even dialog set in the past and then back to the present again.

You might say, “What’s the difference between a memory and a flashback? Aren’t they roughly the same? They both introduce the past into the present, right?”

Yes, but not in the same way. In memories, the viewpoint character remains in the present-day action while summarizing the past. For example, Dave hung up the phone and sighed as his gaze dropped to the yearbook. He and George had been science nerds in ninth grade who always ate their brown bag lunches in the chemistry lab since no one would sit with them in the cafeteria. He could still taste the bitterness of chalk dust inhaled with his baloney and mayonnaise sandwiches. Dave might be remembering the past, but he is still standing in the present with one hand on the phone and the other on his old yearbook. Similarly, if Dave tells someone an anecdote, he is still in the present, summarizing his past. For example, “George and I were ninth grade science nerds. We ate sack lunches in the chem lab because no one would sit with us in the lunchroom. I still hate the taste and smell of chalk dust.”

But a flashback is an actual scene set in the past, completely fleshed-out with sensory detail to enable the reader to fully experience it, and written as if it is occurring right now. Its action is not summarized as with memories or anecdotes. The writer needs transitions to lead the readers into the flashback and back out to the present-day scene in order to make the time shifts clear. Otherwise, the flashback will read like a present-day scene that is disconnected from the context of all the other present-day scenes.

Think about all the movies and television shows that you’ve seen that include flashback scenes. They always signal the change from present moment to past and back to the present with a visual trick such as making the scene dissolve into blurriness for an instant or showing the past scene in black-and-white as opposed to the full-color present. Likewise, the fiction writer must use transitions such as a scene break (a few blank lines and possibly a row of asterisks (***) to set off the past scene from the present. Or the writer might use the contrast of italics for the past scene and regular font for the present day scenes. Another way to introduce a flashback is with contrasting verb tenses such as past tense (Dave hung up the phone. He remembered what a nerd he used to be) with past perfect (his nerdiness had started back in ninth grade.).

Writing simple memories within a character’s viewpoint is not hard to do, but creating flashbacks is an advanced writing technique. Many new writers find it difficult to master, but it offers the chance to reach the reader on a visceral emotional level that far exceeds the impact of a mere memory or anecdote.

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