Flashbacks in essays

Last week, we looked at a sample essay where the events were presented in a chronological order. When writing an essay in a chronological order, you present the events according to time.

Some writers like to use the flashback technique. This means there is a shift in the narrative to an earlier event that interrupts the usual chronological order of the story. The flashback can occur at any part of the narrative.

Look at the sample extracts below (which are based on last week’s narrative essay) to see how the flashback technique can be used.

Sample A

The man, seated on the bench in the park, looked old and haggard. Silent tears trickled down his cheeks as he thought of his wife, Jennifer and his two children. He wondered if he would ever be reunited with them. The thought of Jennifer reminded him of his college days.

He had been the most popular student in university. He had been like a Greek God with a well-sculpted body and features that even men had envied. Every girl had admired him openly but Jack had only been interested in Jennifer. Upon graduation, Jack had been hired by a leading accounting firm while Jennifer had joined a private university.

He smiled as he remembered how beautiful his bride had been on their wedding day. In fact, everyone had commented that they were a perfect match. Both had worked hard and they had flourished in their respective careers.

In the extract above, the introductory paragraph focuses on the main character. Notice that he is sad as he reflects on his fate. The last line of this paragraph tells us that he is going to reflect on previous events that led to his sad condition.

The flashback technique is used by linking the last line of the first paragraph to the second paragraph where the character reflects on events that had happened during his youth.

Do pay attention to the use of the simple past tense in the first paragraph and the past perfect tense as the character reflects on his life.

Sample B

The man, seated on the bench in the park, looked old and haggard. Despite the numerous wrinkles on his unshaven face and his dishevelled appearance, he still looked quite handsome. He gazed into the distance and smiled wryly. He had lost everything – his wife, his children and a well-paying job due to his foolishness.

“Yes, I, Jack Raymond belong to that category of foolish men who waste away their lives all for the love of a woman,” he reflected sadly.

Silent tears trickled down his cheeks as he thought of his wife, Jennifer and his two children. He wondered if he would ever be reunited with them. The thought of Jennifer reminded him of his college days.

He had been the most popular student in university. He had been like a Greek God with a well-sculpted body and features that even men had envied. Every girl had admired him openly but Jack had only been interested in Jennifer. Upon graduation, Jack had been hired by a leading accounting firm while Jennifer had joined a private university.

In this extract, the first paragraph is more well-developed that the one in Sample A. There is a lot more focus on his appearance and his thoughts. His appearance and his actions tell the reader that something is not quite right. The last line of the first paragraph confirms this.

The first three lines of this paragraph are written in the past tense – notice the verbs!

The last line is written in the past perfect (had lost) – suggesting that something had happened prior to this that led to the man’s sad condition.

The chronological order of events continues in the second and the third paragraph.

The fourth paragraph is where the flashback is obvious. The flashback technique is cleverly introduced by linking the last line of the third paragraph to events that happened a long time ago.

Some writers like to use the flashback technique in the beginning and then again at the end. This way they tie up the events well. Look at Sample C below.

Sample C

The man, seated on the bench in the park, looked old and haggard. Despite the numerous wrinkles on his unshaven face and his dishevelled appearance, he still looked quite handsome. He gazed into the distance and smiled wryly. He had lost everything – his wife, his children and a well-paying job due to his foolishness.

He had tried hard to locate Jennifer, but no one knew where she was.

A little girl’s laughter brought him back to the present. He looked up and realised that it was getting dark. Slowly, he stood up and walked away full of regrets.

In the sample essay below, the writer uses the flashback technique to weave the present with the past. Only attempt this if you are competent linguistically.

The patient in Ward 4 lay comatose on the white sheets. The nurse walked in, according to schedule, to monitor her condition. The doctors were baffled. The operation had been a success but the patient had not regained consciousness. It was as though she had sunk into nothingness. Unknown to them, her mind was like a television screen with images from her past flashing across her mind.

She saw herself laughing happily as she ran across the field, the retrieved kite in her hand. She was about thirteen, and just learning how to manipulate situations to her advantage. She had fooled her mother and teachers into believing that she was not the perpetrator of the fight, but rather the victim. Like a Cheshire cat, she had smiled wickedly at the punishment her poor classmates had been subjected to.

“How is she? Is there any chance of her recovering?”

Ah, the sweet voice of her colleague, Jane. Unlike her, Jane was kind and forgiving. Jane never held grudges. There was not an ounce of jealousy in her. Unconsciously, her mind went back to the past.

Read more @ http://thestar.com.my/education/story.asp?file=/2010/10/31/education/7301299&sec=education

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