The Harrow Was Not Writing Blog

Containing Flashbacks with Margaret Atwood

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September 26, 2017
Because of how much time traveling it does, the narration of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale offers a bunch of useful examples of how to use control and contain your flashbacks. 

THE CHALLENGE: 
Back when I started writing, I had that standard fantasy-writer habit of delivering flashbacks by skipping a line and italicizing the text. As I developed as a writer, I came to hate doing that, and so I often just launched myself into flashbacks in the narration. 

But that confuses readers. Often. They lose track. They have to read again–it disrupts everything! 

So how do you do this the right way? 

THE STORY: 
Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a sci-fi staple. If you haven’t read it, please do. 

One of the striking things about this story is how it manages to be simultaneously highly evocative and emotive, and highly precise. This is a rare combination–most writers really do lean one way or the other. It offers a great chance to experience sentences that are short but feel as full as long sentences. 

Also, the narration is always in control–gracefully delivering flash backs even right in the narration. Here’s an example (which I suppose I should warn you, is horrific):


It’s Janine, telling about how she was gang-raped at fourteen and had an abortion. She told the same story last week. She seemed almost proud of it, while she was telling. It may not even be true. At Testifying, it’s safer to make things up than to say you have nothing to reveal. But Since it’s Janine, it’s probably more or less true. 

But whose fault was it? Aunt Helena says, holding up one plump finger. 

Her fault, her fault, her fault, we chant in unison. 


Who led them on? Aunt Helena beams, pleased with us. 

She didShe did. She did. 

Why did God allow such a terrible thing to happen? 

Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lessson. Teach her a lesson. 

Last week, Janine burst into tears. Aunt Helena made her kneel at the front of the classroom, hands behind her back, where we could all see her, her red face and dripping nose. Her hair dull blond, her eyelashes so light them seemed not there, the lost eyelashes of someone who’s been in a fire. Burned eyes. She looked disgusting: weak, squirmy, blotchy, pink, like a newborn mouse. None of us wanted to look like that, ever. For a moment, even though we knew what was being done to her, we despised her. 

Crybaby. Crybaby. Crybaby. 

We meant it, which is the bad part. 

I used to think well of myself. I didn’t then. 

That was last week. This week Janine doesn’t wait for us to jeer at her. It was my fault, she says. It was my own fault. I led them on. I deserved the pain. —PG93


THE SOLUTION: 
There are two ways that Atwood seems to help us keep up with this flashback, which might have been alarmingly confusing, because both settings are the same, and the characters are the same. Both of them are really quite simple–it’s astounding how often seemingly complex problems can have simple technical solutions, in writing. 

First, we’re warned of the flashback in the setup. We’re told that Janine told the same story two weeks in a row. This is an important context clue that foreshadows our eventual transition into flashback. 

And the last is to simply include the marker of “last week” as–more or less–a set of brackets. We begin the flashback with [last week] and end with [that was last week]. This method derives its power from it’s clarity and precision, it’s simplicity. 

It’s the closing bracket that I usually fail to include, because it feels like repeating information the reader already has. But it isn’t–it’s informing the reader that the flashback has ended. Another mistake I’ve often made in my embedded flashbacks is that I burry that first marker of time, organizing the sentence as “Janine burst into tears, last week.” Sometimes even with another phrase on the end, like “Janine burst into tears, last week, when we said this.”

I’m sure this is some self-conscious reflex on my part, trying to hide the mechanics of my writing. But it just creates needless confusion and weakens the usefulness of the tool. 

FINALLY: 
So it’s important to remember how simple writing can be, on a technical level. I keep saying it, and forgetting it, invariably. 

For embedded flashbacks to work, it helps to offer context clues and foreshadowing, but it also includes simple markers for the beginning and end. 

Thanks for reading!

How do you handle flashbacks in your writing? Do you have a key flashback passage you turn to for guidance? What else strikes you about this passage or this book? Let me know.

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