I’ve been teaching a class for OIRW about deep point of view during November. We’re now nearing the end of the class and I’m going over excerpts from participants’ works in progress as part of the class. One of the things that has come up in going over the excerpts is how to best handle memories in fictional writing, so I thought I’d talk a little bit about that for this blog post.

There are two similar and yet different ways to show a character’s memory. One way is to summarize the memory. When summarizing a memory the character remains aware of the present day world and is simply remembering important things from his past. This method is good for providing general information. It is generally not the strongest way to build emotional empathy for the character because the memory is highly summarized and the reader is reading ABOUT the experiences rather than experiencing the event ALONG WITH the character.

The second way to show a memory is to create a flashback. A flashback carries the character and the reader back to the point in time that the character is remembering and recreates that memory as if it is happening in the present moment…along with all the thoughts, feelings, and sensual experiences the character had at that time. With a flashback, while the character is in the flashback, he is not aware of his present day surroundings or any of the things that he has learned or that have happened since the time the thing he is remembering happened. If he is remembering something that happened when he was six years old, the memory is created as if he is six with the same level of knowledge, development, and insight he had at six. With a flashback the character is MENTALLY in the past experiencing the event as if it is happening all over again.

Flashbacks are a powerful way to show important memories and they can be a great way to build emotional empathy for the character since the reader is essentially there with the character as he remembers the event. Rather than reading about the event the reader experiences it through the character’s eyes as the character experienced it at the time it first happened. Flashbacks can be a powerhouse when it comes to motivating character behavior, beliefs, and actions because they allow the reader to to fully see and understand the impact of the past on the character and the character’s present day psyche.

The lines between a summarized memory and a flashback can sometimes be a bit fuzzy and something in the middle between the two can emerge and this often works. When thinking about how to approach memories in fictional work, it makes sense to think about the job that the memory is supposed to do in the scene. Is the memory just providing information or do you want the reader to have an emotional reaction to the memory?

Readers have stronger emotional reactions to more specific details so whether you choose a memory or a flashback, if you want the reader to have a strong emotional reaction use specific details. Most of the time, when you want the reader to identify deeply with the character flashbacks will be the better choice as they allow you to take the reader back to the time and place when the event happened and to show it in full detail. When you just want to give information or when what you want to show doesn’t have a strong emotional impact on the character then a more summarized handling of the memory will often work well.