Okay, so maybe your flashbacks don’t go back to pre-history, but they are an important component of any piece, particularly a novel but also memoir or a long short story.

I know you know this, so humor me while I provide an explanation. A flashback is a scene or scenes in a longer fiction piece which take the reader to a point in the narrative which occurred prior to the time in which the tale itself is situated. There are a whole bunch of good reasons to use them.

Flashbacks can be great support for the main plot

Just-in-time for the reader

One of the best reasons is to provide information/background/explanation the reader requires to understand the scene. This avoids the deadly piling on, at the beginning of the story, of all the history and research the reader will need.  You can easily lose people because they don’t yet understand the context in which these details fit. Much better to give them info at the point they need it. Enter the flashback.

An example (italics for main story; flashback in red).

The children were screaming and running around in what seemed a chaotic tag. The adults were in the kitchen—the clink of the glasses rising even above the din. Alice sighed.

It hadn’t always been so. What she remembered most were the silent mornings where you were supposed to be reading your Bible and contemplating your sins. She tried, she really did, but it was hard not to see the toboggan-ready hill of snow just outside her window.

So, if it is important to understand the contrast between Alice’s present reality and her past, best to keep the two together rather than a description at the beginning of the olden days.

Fill out a character

You may want to make the character more vivid or real by providing bits of his personal history to explain his actions in the ‘present’ of the novel.

“Why did you do that?” Veronica yelled.

Jerry turned away and walked out of the room into the sunlight.

It had been snowing that day. Heavy, wet snow. Great for snowballs. A bitch for shoveling. Nevertheless, he was looking forward to the day. Gemma was sure to be at class todayAnd then you go on to explain why Jerry acted so strangely.


A story that starts at the beginning and goes through in chronological order to the hopefully satisfying end can be perfectly okay. For example, if you are writing an action thriller with a taciturn hero, flashbacks may be out of place.

But for most stories, they mix things up in a pleasurable way for the reader. The bouncing around can provide an enjoyable variety in the form of the story.

Get boring bits out of the way

There are bits of any novel which are a drag both for you to write and for the reader to read but are nevertheless important to the story. You may need to explain the history of a critical object or element. A short flashback at the point the info is needed can sometimes make the conveyance easier to read and sometimes to write.

Use sparingly

While they can provide variety, too many flashbacks can confuse the narrative, sometimes to the point of being unsure what the main story is. A large number also tend to annoy the reader as it begins to feel as if they’re impeding the main action.

So, flashbacks are good but not always flashbacks. There are other more mechanical dos and don’ts that I’ll cover in the next post.

Not My Biography, Exactly


Not My Biography, Exactly

In the last post, using anecdotes as starter dough, I encouraged you to use your own biography as a launching pad for a story. The end product doesn’t have to resemble the initiating thought and may take you to an entirely different place than the ‘real’ story.

But while I think it is a great idea, there’s one caveat. This can be a way, however inadvertent, to slide into retelling the story so that your David wins against Goliath, your weasel against the lion.

The temptation in writing your own biography

In giving yourself permission to take off from the original memory into something possibly quite different, there can be a lure to weave the new story in a way where you look better/smarter/more prescient than you did in real life. I stood up to the bully and didn’t slink away; my ridicule was actually a gentle joke. It’s easy to shape things so that the story turns out as you wished it had or what you want people to believe.

Trust me, it almost always turns out to be way more compelling writing if you stick with the truth. I know it sounds as if I’m talking out of both sides of mouth—take flights of fancy  and stick with the truth.

But the truth I am talking about is emotional truth. I don’t care if you change your school yard to another planet or make the stakes earth-shattering rather than hurt feelings. But I do care whether the underlying emotion is real. If you can capture the feelings when you let the bully to beat up another kid, so long as you were safe or the consequences of being less than what you aspire to, then the story can take off in any direction you like and still be true.

Memoir or fiction?

You would think that how close you need to stay to the truth would depend on whether you are writing fiction or a memoir. More truthful for a memoir, not so important for fiction.

Well, maybe, but it isn’t as easy as all that. For one thing, the two genres are often conflated. More than one author has used actual events in his fiction and we have all read memoires which we know have got to be more fiction than fact.

Sometimes this conflation seems purposeful. I didn’t want to be President anyhow; I was never wrong. But other times, the mixing of the genres may not be intentional. As I mentioned in my last post, I wrote a whole sub-plot which I thought was auto-biographical until my sister pointed out the event had happened to her rather than me.

But examples of this bleed between genres don’t have to be as blatant. You may use an anecdote whose interpretation is obvious, only to discover that another participant in the event remembers it completely differently. One of you is talking fiction but you’ll probably never figure out who.

Truthfully, I just can’t get worried about what genre you call your manuscript. As long as you keep close to that core of emotional truth wherever the story takes you, your writing will have the ring of reality to which readers respond.

Using Your Anecdotes as Starter Dough


Using Your Anecdotes as Starter Dough

We all have anecdotes. Memorable moments, good and bad, which swirl around in memory. Carol Shields suggests that, like Alice Munro, you use your experience as starter dough[1]. For the non-bakers among you, starter dough is a piece of dough kept from a previous batch which is used as leavening for new bread. By careful tending, starter dough can last for years or decades and continue to provide the umph for bread. Great analogy, no? Remembrances from your life can be the starter dough to create the new bread of a story. It is a jumping off point to add the ingredients you want.

Norman Mailer, author of both fiction and nonfiction, had a similar although somewhat different take. He came to the world’s attention with The Naked and The Dead, a novel set in World War II. I saw an interview with him, discussing its writing. I paraphrase, but he said that he had never been in a war but he knew what it was to fear for his life. He used that life understanding to inform the writing of the novel.

So great writers have used their lives to infuse their writing with reality.

Starter dough anecdotes—an example

Although this seems like good advice, I realize that it may be a bit difficult to imagine how that might happen. So, an example might be helpful.

My novel, Kimono Spring, is a semi (emphasis on semi)-autobiographical novel. In it, the seven year old protagonist, Julie, is picked to play a child in an amateur Japanese theater production where her father is the lead. Julie only has two lines but her father won’t translate their meaning. The reader figures out that Julie is playing an illegitimate daughter and her father is loath to tell her that. But because she doesn’t know what she’s saying, she confuses them during the performance and forces the other actors to improvise around her blunders.

As anecdotes go,  it’s all right, no? I used my memory of the event and embroidered it. I mentioned it to my sister who was three years older than me. She instantly took exception and said it was her not me who had been in the play. Well, honestly it did make more sense that they would use a ten year old rather than a seven year old. I guess I was so jealous of my sister getting the role that I implanted in my memory that I had been the star. Even to the point of remembering mixing up the lines.

So, in this case, it turned out to be borrowed starter dough. But it allowed me to take off into a whole sub-plot of the novel.

How do I do this in my writing?

In the example above, because I ‘remembered’ confusing the lines, I had to come up with a reason why she fluffed them. To add to the mix, I showed a seven year old preening in her role while the reader realizes that the father is slowly falling in love with a woman from Japan also in the play. This ‘memory’ allowed me to expand into story.

You can do the same with your recollections. Although I’d suggest using your own starter dough. Next post: Where starter dough and truth collide.

[1] Shields, Carol, Startle and Illuminate: Carol Shields on Writing Random House, Canada, 2006, p.17

Tone—What Attitude Looks Like in Writing


Tone—What Attitude Looks Like in Writing

Last post, we talked about how the attitude or tone of your writing can enhance or detract from the pleasure readers take in your work. This can be difficult to pick up so I want to work through some examples.

Some examples of different attitudes

Remember, the tone or attitude of your piece is usually carried by the narrator. This can be the main character telling the story from her point of view, or it can be how the setting,  actions, and speech, etc., are depicted.

So, let’s use the same setting—a children’s outing on a beach—and show how different tones affect the feel of the writing. As mentioned before, the attitude you think a piece takes  is often subjective, so you may not agree with my label for all of the following snippets. But focus on how different words and the choice of diverse elements of the scene can affect the tone.

Happy The sun sparkled on the water. And bounced off the metal grill of Dad’s car. It was hot. Really hot. Just perfect. We ran down into the water, yelling and screaming, and flopped ourselves down onto the sandy bottom.

Sad The children ran down to the beach. I sat up. Was that Danny? The sun was in my eyes. I squinted but couldn’t see. Then I sat back and shook my head. Of course it can’t be.

Angry I swotted the flies away from my drink. Damn sand always brought them out. And what the hell were those children screaming about in the water? Making an unholy cacophony. Parents these days don’t have any control.

Nostalgic It must have been a day just like this. Warm, almost hot, sun. And there must have been children much like these gambolling now on the beach. Older perhaps, but just as lively. And as carefree.

Sarcastic/Mocking A summer idyll. I don’t think so. I bet those parents think they’re making life-long memories for their kids. And feel a glow because of it. When all the kids will remember is how their parents done them wrong.

You see how focusing on different elements of the same scene can alter the tone of the piece. A happy piece doesn’t necessarily fix on the flies; a nostalgic one may use the present scene as a springboard into the past.

Whether or not your whole novel or memoir has a particular tone depends of course on whether it is sustained by its continued use.

What attitude do you want to convey?

Depends on your writing style and your intent for the piece.  But generally, I would advise against an a priori decision. Just write a good story. Tone, if there needs to be one, will probably emerge.

In fact, it is more likely that you’ll inadvertently transmit a tone which doesn’t fit or impedes the enjoyment of the story itself. So, unless you purposefully want to communicate a particular attitude and are clear why you want to do it, I think generally you’d be wiser to let the story engage the reader rather than overlay a tone.




The tone of a novel can be a tricky one for both readers and writers to pick up. This post will discuss what it is and how to identify it in your writing.

What is tone?

Tone is usually carried by the narrator of the story. The narrator, even if not named, tells you about setting, describes the characters, lets you know how things are rolling out, etc. Sometimes, the narrator’s tenor can be fairly neutral and therefore in the background. But it can also be witty, sarcastic, sentimental, mocking, etc.

I want to make the distinction between a mocking tone and a mocking character.

Character: “You think you’ll get away with that, you cretin?” Ada flipped her hair.

Tone:I’m very empathetic,” Ada said, running her artificially nurtured nails through the assisted gold of her hair.

Tone comes, not from what the characters do or say, but how the narrator describes what they do or say.

Why does it matter?

If a particular attitude can be carried off in a novel, it can be very entertaining. A wise-ass narrator who has opinions on his characters can work.

It is, however, very hard to sustain a particular manner throughout a long piece like a novel. For one thing, your story may call for some serious or even tragic events. If you’ve established the tone as sarcastic, the best you can do is treat these scenes comically.

A strong tone can also distract from your story. It can look as if you’re saying to your readers: Hey, look at how clever I am, how amusingly I’m telling you this. It can be irritating and get in the way.

Finally, a particular tone is sometimes camouflage. You want to write about the tortured relationship with your mother, but you do it in a flippant, even amusing manner. If you didn’t experience the events as amusing, then you’re not being emotionally honest with yourself or with your readers. And they’ll pick it up, even as they’re laughing.

So you may have created a compelling story with vivid characters and fascinating plot twists, but a tone that is off-putting will make the reader lose interest. It is a way of breaking the continuous dream you’re trying to craft. And being readers, it’s not their job to identify where you went wrong. It’s yours.

How can I tell how my writing is tending?

First off, and annoyingly, tone is usually subjective, just like comedy. I think the tone is hilarious; you think it’s contemptuous. Even so, you still want to most of your readers to ‘hear’ your story the way you intended it. This is where writing groups and ideal readers come in. Ask them to read for tone (you might have to explain what that is). And like all feedback, listen well and then decide yourself whether it applies. After all, it’s your writing.

However, I know that this is a tough area so the next post will go into more detail on your writing’s attitude.