Learning about a characters past, or the events that have lead to the current situation can be a fantastic moment for the reader. A flashback sheds light on complicated arcs and personalities, for the reader and audience it expands the story exponentially. For the writer, it is a fantastic way to show how much thought you actually put into everything; dark pasts, convoluted histories and the inner workings of the world. Most of the time, this is a simple movement of scenes, a concurrent movement from the present day of your story to one that takes place somewhere in the past in the blink of a chapter. A plot thread is dangled for the audience, and shortly thereafter a scene takes place that elaborates. Simple enough. Of course there are other ways to get around this, ways to integrate the events of the past into the storytelling of the current, turning events into tangible, real parts of the story, going from a tale a character to tells to part of the real world we are creating within our fiction.
The first example, and real inspiration for this article, comes from the 2015 video game, Fallout 4. While the fact that the game itself proves to be slightly more linear than previous titles in it’s series is a detriment to its own gameplay, there are lessons to be learned from it that can be transferred to other writing techniques. In the first few hours of the main story, our character is on a mission to find his missing son, and the journey eventually leads him to a confrontation with the grizzled mercenary, Kellogg. The encounter can only be played out one way- you have to kill him.
While, again, the funnelling of the scene can be frustrating for fans of the series, that so often promoted numerous solutions to a single problem, it moves the player to a scene that the developers were obviously very keen on showing everyone, regardless of their choices. After the characters death, his brain-augmentation-chip is retrieved, and the player must take it to a shady place known as the Memory-Den. The Memory-Den is a theatre-like location filled with apparatus that can be used to access a persons memory.
Using Kellogg’s chip on the machine allows the player to walk through tangible representations the villains mind. These are presented to us as spider-web-like platforms of energy, where we walk from one scene to another, all from Kellogg’s past, starting from his childhood right up to where we first meet him, through a different perspective. The idea from a narrative point of view, is to shed light on what makes the character tick. It’s how we get from a child with an abusive father, to a mercenary who had his wife and child killed, to the cold-blooded agent for the Institute. The scenes tell us enough to flesh out the important parts in his life, but through its medium, also allow us to experience it first-hand. This also allows the procedure of entering memories to be a prominent feature in the game world. The Memory Den is now a part of Goodneighbor, used for people to reminisce about times when they were happy, and for one Silver Shroud obsessed Ghoul to relive the memories he had before the war, which becomes a key component of his character.
Similarly using memories as tangible elements in a fictional world, is the Pensieve from Harry Potter, specifically, Harry’s quest to learn about Voldemorts past, in the form of memories that can be extracted via wands, in The Half Blood Prince. This begins in private lessons held by Dumbledore, where he shows the upbringing of Harry’s nemesis, and his first meeting with the child, and in previous stories, the relationship between Harry’s parents and Professor Snape.
Where this becomes interesting, is when it propels the rest of the story as a quest to retrieve Professor Slughorn’s last memory, one that reveals the nature of the Horcruxes, which in turn leads to the events of the last book, and eventually, Voldemort’s downfall. This enables the memories to become physical ‘MacGuffins’- or plot centred objects and devices, and in turn, each hold a piece of the puzzle.
Video games can be unique in how they handle environmental storytelling; through details in the locations that hold cryptic clues to either the story at large, or small stories existing within the bigger picture, bestiaries and information logs that flesh out the world, or audio diaries, which explain the machinations of particular characters through their own words.
However, we can still implement alot of these practices into other mediums. The first example that may come to your head about environmental storytelling and audio diaries may well be Bioshock, or the Arkham games. Both of these examples exceed perfectly in feeding the audience little, rich details that expand the world beyond the visual into something that could potentially exist, and with audio diaries hidden around the areas, not only promote the exploration of these locales, but fill them with breathing, thinking characters and personalities.
Using these techniques for prose or screen-writing can prove an enjoyable challenge, and can help to create a world that was lived in before the characters, and by proxy, the audience wander into frame. Hidden notes and diaries the character may stumble into or ignore, or details in the described environment all can point towards a world much like ours, with thousands of differing lives and motives culminating and clashing. While these methods do not produce actual flashbacks as we know them, it is possible through careful planning to lay breadcrumbs that allow the reader or audience to imagine their own scene concurrently.
One last video game example, would be the use of a character interacting with the world to create a scene. In the Arkham games, it is possible to use Batman’s detective vision to piece together a scene of a crime, little by little, to recreate the entirety of a moment the character was not there to physically witness. These scenes then usually play out for us to see.
One step further, is to allow the player to gain control through these moments. In Resident Evil 7, certain VHS tapes can be found, and when inserted into a VHS-player, allows the character to experience the events happening through a new perspective. This acts similarly to an audio diary, where the environment must be explored to find them, but also fills in the gaps around the story, as well as adding new steps of intrigue to the whole narrative.
However the best example of this, is a game that focused its entire mechanics around the idea; Halo 3:ODST, a game where you take control of the Rookie, who after a disastrous crash, lands up isolated at night, with your teammates nowhere to be found. As you explore the dim, hostile city, you will come across several clues and objects that your teammates were here, and when you interact with them, you play a chapter as one of those characters.
The chapters differ as they take place during the day, while the Rookie was unconscious, setting a new atmosphere, more action-packed and less sombre, with the mystery of what happened to the characters already set up, it’s all about the momentum of getting the player to that ending point, thus solving the mystery. What also makes this interesting, is how some of these can be accessed at any time, which allows the writers to set up intertwining mysteries that can be discovered at any time. One character may show up in one scene injured, but we won’t know how that occurred until we get to the next scene.
While the latter example can’t be transferred to other mediums, the physical act of a character finding objects that transfer to a new scene is something that can be implemented, and offers a smooth transition for the audience.
A final physical example would be the use of the characters surrounded by the flashback. This can be done by incorporating fantastical elements, such as magic or sci-fi, or even a lateral trick to bring something new to your audience. In an obscure choice of film, is an example from the 2004 animated adaptation of Appleseed, where our main character Deunan is brought to a facility in the middle of the sea, and activates a hologram that details her about a past she never knew about.
Although the majority of the movie plays out as a convoluted mess, this scene combines the past and the present, by having the central character experience it first-hand for an emotional payoff. The hologram allows Deunan to experience the past, but having no baring on its passage. This is a usage of the tech within the world, and allows the character to experience something fully, as well as deal with the crushing realisation of being unable to change the events they are experiencing, but the connection of course proving too strong to not try.
To summarise, flashbacks don’t have to be simple transitions. By making them a physical part of the world, something the characters can interact with over the course of the story, we give ourselves new and interesting dynamics to play around with. Items that cause memories, or memories as tangible subjects that can be held and experienced, give us new and challenging ways to implement them into the worlds we create, and give the audience something new to experience.
Have I missed any examples of fresh and interesting takes on flashbacks? Let’s talk about it!