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In a novel, particurlarly fiction, what are the basic ways to reveal something that happened in the past? What ways, (flashback, protagonist telling, etc.) are the most used and most effective? Specifically, what is the technical distinction between the protagonist having a flashback, and a flashback that is only for the reader?

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Interesting question. Here's my take:

  1. Dialogue

"So in ninety-one, I was following the Grateful Dead around the country. I swear, the last two minutes of 'Black-Throated Wind' from that MSG show was one of the highlights of human history."

  1. Third-person omniscient information dump

Fans of the musical band the Grateful Dead widely regard their show from 9/10/91 at Madison Square Garden a top performance in the band's illustrious history thanks in part to a cameo appearance by renowned saxophonist Branford Marsalis.

  1. A true psychedelic-style flashback (usually first person)

I hadn't taken LSD in 25 years. One minute I was with my friends reliving our wilder days now that our kids are grown ... The world spins, and lights flash all around me. Confusion dominates my psychology because there is no saxophonist in the Grateful Dead, right? Apparently there is tonight! I can't imagine a sweeter sound.

  1. Dream states

Either 3) or 4) have to be done extremely well not to appear sophomoric. You might try the movies Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or Memento for some very interesting takes on the subject.

All four are common in fiction and their effectiveness varies with author and scene. I tend to use mostly dialogue, but I dabble in the others. Information dumps are specifically for the reader.

I'll add 5) Third-person limited thinking about one's past. This is usually done in past perfect, and it can make for confusing sentences

Joe thought about that time from 1991. He had used drugs, to be sure, but he had known at the time it was a special moment either way. Only later did he realize how special it was. Would he ever feel that way again?

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I think we should distinguish between what I would call a personality flashback and a plot flashback.

A plot flashback occurs when, for whatever reason, the narrative begins after the events of the story begin.

A personality flashback occurs when there is an aspect of a character's personality that is best revealed through an anecdote from their past which illuminates who they are, but is not itself an incident in the story.

I think that if you are having a hard time with a plot flashback, it is most likely a symptom of not starting in the right place. I think the most natural way to do them is in the case where the protagonist is not aware of the back story until some critical juncture in the story. Telling it then is natural and it is what the reader wants and expects.

I think personality flashbacks similarly need to be used where they are critical in the development of the character's personality. The key thing is, though, that they should not cause a reset of the reader's view of the person. They should explain, not reset, what we have already seen of the character's behavior.

In both cases, timing seem to me far more important than method. When I see it done badly, it always seems to me that the problem is the author's impatience to get all the pieces on the board, resulting in flashbacks as the wrong time, not the particular narrative technique that was used to convey them

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  • Ok, thanks! The details in my particular case are such: Reuben is a young prince who's kingdom is torn from him when he is only twelve. The story begins when the capital of the city is being burnt by the enemy. Reuben's moral weakness is that he believes that his power his given to him for his own good and not the good of the kingdom. The flashback (Which is not actually Reuben having a flashback, but simply the reader seeing what happened previously) takes place just before his kingdom is taken, and is there to strengthen the reason for his weakness/need. – SpiralStudios Jan 25 '16 at 19:08
  • I would use a Prologue in this case describing your past event--probably in third-person omniscient unless you want to take, say, Reuben's dad's POV or a young Reuben's POV. – Stu W Jan 25 '16 at 20:03
  • Yeah, that's what I was planning on doing. Thanks for the confirmation! – SpiralStudios Jan 26 '16 at 0:11
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Have you thought about giving Prince Reuben a companion, such as an older "Sergeant of the Guard," who's been behaving like the prince's adviser since the lad's been a teen? The "Man-At-Arms" has been acting as a combination bodyguard, teacher, and foster-father; rather than bowing and scraping like some sycophantic subordinate "Squire."

When something requires a detour to an explanation, there's the crusty old duffer, who says words to the effect: "Prince Reuben, I know you were a mere child, more interested in the intricacies of a rag-teat than the obscure details found in Treaties of the Realm, when Baron Obstreppio was granted all the low-lands adjoining the so-called Marsh of Miseries, in exchange for his pledge to provide seven Legions annually to be the defenders of the Valley of Mere against the raids of the wild men of the Mountains of Woe . . . ." and so forth.

Yep! I know that was hopelessly corny! Just giving an example of how you might use the old man as a handy font of all knowledge, and the constant live-in teacher of Prince Reuben.

He has saved Prince Reuben's life on several occasions, and the lad feels affection and respect for the old soldier, which softens his attitude toward the old man, when the old gentleman occasionally loses patience with the admittedly arrogant young punk and tries to show the lad the difference between the "statesman" he knows Prince Reuben can grow to be, and the arrogant punk he occasionally threatens to become.

And that is another old man's suggestion of a way to reveal vital facts, part-way through the third chapter, without dropping some Owlsley!

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  • Interesting idea! I have something similar to that in my story, but not serving the same purpose. I think that my flashback will work well how I've already planned it however. It is not much of an information dump, but more like interactions between several characters, that let's the reader in on the inside information. – SpiralStudios Jan 26 '16 at 0:09

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