In my trilogy, the protagonist and deuteragonist share a mental link, allowing them to communicate with each other telepathically. A side effect of this telepathy is that they enable the duo to observe a series of dialogueless flashbacks that delve into their respective pasts. These flashbacks allow the audience to form an emotional connection with these characters and understand them better, as these sequences recount essential events in their lives that irreversibly shaped them into the people they are.

There are three key reasons why these flashbacks lack dialogue:

  1. I can't write good dialogue to save my sorry hide, and most of the dialogue I've come up would leave Ehren Kruger and George Lucas awestruck

  2. It makes my job of disguising the deuteragonist's identity from the protagonist and audience significantly more manageable, without making characters use her real name continually and killing all sense of mystery right out of the gate (it's hinted that she is Jeanne d'Arc and the protagonist discovering her identity via her flashbacks is a significant plot twist)

  3. I don't have to come up with some very contrived reason as to why characters staring in the deuteragonist's flashbacks can speak perfect modern English

In his flashbacks, it's revealed during the protagonist spent his youth in fending for himself in poverty and only managed to survive by falling with a gang of homeless youth. Though he was initially standoffish, he eventually grew immensely fond of their company and fell in love with a girl who gave his life meaning. However, that ended when a close friend betrayed him and nearly killed him, leading him to believe that humans are predatory animals that only care for themselves. Although he doesn't use what happened to him as an excuse to justify his nihilistic and selfish behaviour.

The deuteragonist's flashbacks borrow heavily from Ali Alizadeh's The Last Days of Jeanne d'Arc, which unapologetically explores the harsh and brutal reality of the Hundred Year War via Jeanne's perspective in media res. Throughout the novel, Jeanne faces the hideous slaughter her idealistic mission unleashes by getting a front-row seat to the many atrocities committed by the Anglo-Burgundians and her fellow Armagnacs. Rather than being flat-out misery porn, these flashbacks depict the deuteragonist coming to terms with the consequences for her actions and strengthening her resolve to end the Hundred Year War by using her faith as a shield.

This leaves me with two problems:

  • My reliance on showing rather than telling means that I'll be unable to get specific plot elements across to the reader

  • I can't use dialogue for characterisation, making difficult for me give personality to side characters featured in these flashbacks

How can I write around these issues?

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Instead of using dialogue, try telling a story through imagery. If it's a telepathically-induced flashback, perhaps it's a lot more abstract than, say, a direct retelling. Memories themselves are already more subjective and abstract than what actually went on in the past, so if you give it a dreamlike quality, then you probably don't need dialogue.

As Matthew Dave pointed out, you don't really need dialogue for that kind of flashbacks. They are memories shared in a common, telephatic link; you can write them as a series of vivid images - cities, situations and people surfacing in the mind of the protagonist as the memories come.

Depending on how abstract and dreamlike you want them to be, some of the flashback may come out like a stream of consciouness: a series of quick sentences giving the "sense" of what its happening, without resorting to a full description.

For example, about the protagonist falling into a gang of street urchin:

"Suddendly, he remembered. Waking up in the corner of a dark alley everyday, the strong scent of dog piss enveloping his ragged blanket like a tight embrace. The faces of the others from the gang - Pinwick pox-ridden face, Eyewick, ever sneering with his missing teeth, Corny covered in dirt. Walking in the market streets, launching hungry stares at the bright coloured fruits everywhere ..."

Of course, this could be either more or less descriptive, depending on your need and your preferences. Playing with emotions, images and input from all five senses will get your point across. And after all, a memory doesn't need to be objective: we all remember our specific point of view about what happened. So you don't need to exactly report what has been said, you can just remember the general attitude of a person.

Think of your flashbacks like you think of any other scene. The fact that this is a flashback shouldn't make a significant difference.

There are five senses you can engage: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and there are your character's emotions regarding what's going on. Since you are writing a flashback, you can also add the meta-thought - what the character thinks of the past situation from the perspective of the story-present.

So, first, the senses. What does your character see? What does he hear? You can linger over the texture of the clothes on his back, or the pavement he's lying on, etc. Since this is a flashaback, you don't necessarily want to engage all senses. However, smell and taste are particularly famous for triggering memories and flashback (consider the Madeleine effect), so it's not a bad idea to engage those.

Next, what is your character's emotional response to the scene? Fear, anger, pain, loss, or alternatively a rare moment of peace? Flashbacks are usually associated with emotions rather than with thoughts.

You wish to provide characters with personality, without writing dialogue. You can instead describe their actions. Sharing a piece of bread, giving a helping hand, or alternatively laughing at another's weakness, exposing and exploiting it - those can speak louder than words.

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