Monday, August 8

What "Stranger Things"Can Teach Us About Flashbacks

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

If you haven’t discovered the new Netflix show Stranger Things yet, do yourself a favor and go watch it. It’s a terrific and fun series that evokes all the things we loved about the ’80s, spooky horror movies, Dungeons and Dragons adventures, and Stephen King.

It also uses flashback extremely well.

If you’re not familiar with the show, it’s set in the 1980s and begins when a 12-year-old boy, Will, disappears after playing a game of D&D with his friends. This coincides with the mysterious arrival of a 12-year-old girl, Elle. Will’s friends find Elle when they’re searching for him. After that, strange (and stranger) things begin to happen. I won’t say more or it’ll spoil it.

Because this show is a mystery, clue after clue is dropped and dangled before the viewers. Who is Elle? What happened to Will? Slowly, bits and pieces of the puzzle are revealed through flashbacks and solid investigative work by multiple characters (Will’s family, his friends, the sheriff).

This show could have easily gone the way many have with long, drawn out flashbacks that setup or explain what’s going on. But it doesn’t. It skillfully handles the flashbacks by slipping them in the same way you would in a novel.

A character encounters something and it triggers a memory. That memory is a flashback relevant to what they’re remembering.

At first, the memories are small. They offer details, sure, but those details make you even more curious about what’s going on. They touch on emotion and feel very personal. You understand why the character is having that particular emotion and memory and that time, yet it makes you ask even more questions about what happened to this character.

How we can use this in our novels:
  • Trigger flashbacks by what a character experiences—a smell, a touch, a sound, etc.
  • Make them relevant to what is happening in the scene at that moment.
  • Keep them brief until readers are dying to know the truth and are willing to pause the story to get it.

(Here’s more on writing flashbacks)

Later on, once you’re hooked and having a blast trying to figure out the puzzle on your own, the flashbacks get a little longer, showing more of the big picture. Your opinions on the truth change as new information is learned, and even more questions are created. You thought you were on the right path to knowing what was going on in this sleepy little town, but now you’re no longer sure. What had seemed “so obvious,” totally isn’t.

How we can use this in our novels:
  • Let flashbacks change how a reader understands the story.
  • Create more story questions with what’s not revealed in the flashback.
  • Challenge the reader’s perceptions of what it all means.

(Here's more on reveals and leaving clues in your novel)

By the end of the show the truth is revealed and all the pieces fall into place. You know what happened to Will, who Elle is, and how all these people are connected. But even then, there’s still a lot you don’t know, and it isn’t until the very end that you feel you finally get it all (and even then, a new mystery is revealed to take the story further if there’s a season two—which I hope there is).

The story is smart all the way through (with a few exceptions), and the writers don’t dumb it down for the viewers. They let the viewers see the clues and then leaves it up to them to figure out what they all mean and how they all work together. The flashbacks offer information, they don’t explain and give it all away. Even when a flashback answers a question, it often creates another question. However, enough of the previous questions are answered before adding new ones, so you don’t feel as though you’re getting left behind. You eagerly wait for the next clue to test your theory on about what it’s all really about.

How we can use this in our novels:
  • Keep revealing information all the way to the end. The need to know is what keeps readers reading.
  • Don’t be afraid to make readers work for it.
  • Lead readers a step at a time through the story by the questions you ask, and answer, through the flashbacks.

Flashbacks can build tension and create mystery, as long as they’re used to tease and not explain. Use them well, and readers will be dying to get the next clue. Use them poorly, and you might inadvertently kill the reason readers would stick with the story.

Stranger Things
does a wonderful job with flashbacks, and it’s worth watching just to study how the writers structured the various revelations and clues in the story. Next year, this article will get a Refresher Friday update with spoilers so I can be more specific, but I don’t want to give anything away while the show is still new.

Have you seen Stranger Things? What did you think? What other shows, movies, or books do you know that use flashbacks well?

Looking for tips on writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel, and the just-released companion guide, the Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011).

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, and the upcoming Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. Great post on flashbacks. Will direct my writing students here. Thanks

  2. As a writer, I'm always looking for help with small things like introducing a flashback. As usual, I find them at the Fiction University. Thanks Janice, this helps.

    1. Most welcome. I like finding TV and movie examples, since it's often easier to watch a show than study a novel.

  3. Loved this show:) And you're right--it made great use of flashbacks. Excellent post.

    1. I can't wait for season two. But I wonder if it'll continue or if they'll do another story. It could go either way.

  4. I'll check out the show. I hadn't considered flashbacks for my WIP, but now I'm reconsidering a portion of my hero's story. Perhaps a flashback to give the reader a clue before he reveals his secret to the heroine. Something to think about.

    1. What I liked about how they did it, were the small memories and flashes of insight. I did something similar with my trilogy, and it was fun to see it in use like that.

  5. There is so much you can learn from Stranger Things and the flashbacks are just one small part. This show had one of those stories that made me say "I want to write THAT." It was so good it blew my mind, leaving me guessing all the time. I've never seen a show like it.

    1. It was fantastic. I think the shorter season and solid story arc works so well together. The writers can craft a compelling story knowing they have an end, so everything fits together like a long movie. I love what Netflix has done for the storytelling medium.

  6. Great post. I'm happy to see you use this show as a "good" writing sample. Like you, I'm looking forward to the next season. There are lots of directions it could go in.