This is not going to be a how-to or why-to about using flashbacks. I can't stand the things myself, though they have their place, and some authors can make them work in some kinds of books. When I see a flashback done well, I accept it and go with it.
However, I would like now to meditate a bit on why flashbacks can shortchange the story, and if you're considering a flashback, you might consider that the effect of the way you reveal information (on the story and on the reader) might be more complex than you imagined.
So anyway, here's my thought. And I am NOT trying to argue anyone out of using a flashback. You might be one of those who do it wisely and well. I'm just thinking out loud, and that is, after all, why you pay me the big bucks. I do think out loud very loudly.
Okay. I had this
thought while reading Oedipus the King and some commentary by
Arnold Weinstein. O the play is one of the most inventively
plotted stories, intricately plotted stories in the canon, and bears
re-reading every year or so. Every time I read it, I find something
new to make me marvel. Anyway, it's a very plotty story, but it's
also character-driven. Sophocles was like Shakespeare in that—he
didn't think he had to choose either plotting like the DaVinci
Code guy or deep characterization like Henry James. ("But
nothing happens!" we told our Modern Novel professor after
reading The Ambassadors. "Except in his mind," Professor
Ellmann assured us, "and that's enough!" Well, not for us
post-teens, it wasn't.) Oedipus the King is not just a
tightly plotted story full of extreme action and danger and even
grotesque violence, but also a complex character portrait of,
perhaps, the first modern man. (I think Odysseus might be a rival
for that title, but he and Oedipus were almost exact contemporaries—
Homer has Odysseus meeting Jocasta in Hades, and it seems as if the
events of the play Oedipus happened while Odysseus was at
This is a play with a lot of backstory, most of which would have been known by its first audiences, because it's based on a popular myth. You probably know it—Oedipus was fated to kill his father and marry his mother (interestingly, this fate is a way the gods punish his miscreant father—it has nothing really to do with Oedipus), so when he's born, his father Laius has his ankles pierced ("Oedipus" means "messed-up foot") and sends the baby off with a shepherd to be exposed (left to die) on a mountainside. The shepherd (as in Shakespeare, btw, the working class is portrayed as more compassionate and humane than the nobility) can't bring himself to do it, so gives the baby to another shepherd who works for a neighboring king, and the second shepherd brings the baby to King Polybus and Queen Merope, who raise him as their own son and love him far, far better than his natural parents did.
But that's just the
beginning of the backstory. (Well, the real beginning is the story
of the crime that got Laius cursed, and it's thematically
fascinating, as it's again about the violation of a child.) Oedipus
grows up assuming his adoptive parents are his biological parents,
and when he's told by an oracle that he is fated to kill his father
and marry his mother, the horror of his potential future sends him
reeling away, determined never to endanger them by seeing them
again. Of course, you know the rest. In his flight away from his
fate, he runs right into it, killing his real father and marrying
his real mother, and reigning over the kingdom that was stolen from
him. All is well till the inciting event, a plague in
So lots of backstory, and the process of the plot is to unravel the knot of his own past as Oedipus solves the murder. That is, the plot action is the revelation of the past, leading to the solution of the murder, and the character journey for Oedipus is from unknowingness to knowledge, and Sophocles adroitly propels both with every event in the story. Let that be a lesson to all writers-- plot is character, and vice versa. Everything that changes the plot should change the character.
But that is not what I'm discussing today. I want to talk about how revelations are handled in this play. This is definitely an example of how limitations can liberate you. Sophocles was dealing with a very limited cast and rather restricted technology. He couldn't do flashbacks. (Ah, the great power of print… The Odyssey is about half flashback, but then, flashbacks take no technology or labor force in print!) I don't know that he'd have used flashbacks even if somehow he could have made them work on the Athenian stage. (Arthur Miller staged a flashback, I think, in Death of a Salesman. I saw one production where a video of the earlier event was flashed on a screen in the back of the stage, so it was quite literally a "flashback".)
Instead, Sophocles used revelation—nuggets of fact and truth dropped by actual characters. That is, the revelation happens not in the past, but right there on the stage as part of the present action of the play. Even the most distant past (like Jocasta recalling—deceptively—the loss of her baby) is brought forward to be part of the present. The story of how the baby got adopted is brought by a herald/former shepherd (who also brings word that Polybus has died so apparently Oedipus has another kingdom now), and the corresponding Theban story (how baby Oedipus ended up taken to that mountain) is revealed by another shepherd (who also fingers the shocked Oedipus as the killer of Laius).
Let's not fall into the sophomore's guffawing trap of "too much coincidence!"—that the shepherds both reappear serves the purpose of echoing the doubling of roles (Oedipus= husband AND son, etc.), not to mention was necessitated by the tiny casts allowed to Greek tragedies back then.
Okay, here's a link to a new translation of the play: http://www.users.bigpond.net.au/soloword/Oedipus.htm. The two translations used most these days, by the way, are by Fagles and Fitzgerald, but they aren't in the public domain. This one is copyrighted to George Theodoris, and apparently he's offering it for public use. Anyway, the Fagles translation is the one I've taught most, and that's definitely worth buying. (The Fitzgerald is quite beautiful, but done in a rather anachronistic meter.)
I want to concentrate on the effects of having the revelations happen in real-time, so that they are revelations not just to the audience (who actually probably knew the story) but also to Oedipus. (Some of it is not that big a revelation to Jocasta, and that itself becomes part of the story action, and propels Oedipus to his final extreme action. Later with that….)
Real Time Reveal
At the very end of the first act, the herald arrives from Corinth, searching for Oedipus to tell him that Polybus has died of old age; that is, he was not murdered by Oedipus as (O thought) the oracle predicted. Jocasta seizes upon this as proof that gods and oracles cannot be trusted. Notice this—right away, the herald's first revelation starts to have character effects. Jocasta and Oedipus actually have a bit of an argument, with him insisting that he still cannot go home because he might end up marrying his mother, that he at least must still heed the oracle.
The herald, listening with interest to this quarrel, asks if that was why Oedipus "left us" so long ago. That struck me on this last reading-- the herald, a servant, after so long still feels the sorrow of the inexplicable disappearance of the young prince. Oedipus responds with a confession that he hated to leave— "I loved those two" (his parents)—but did it to protect them and the kingdom from the sacrilege of patricide and incest. That is, having someone who knew him back then, knew his parents, reveal the first bit of information engenders real emotion, and in real time. The interaction between the herald and the man he remembers as the young prince is a much more dynamic way to reveal the information than a flashback or a mere memory would have been.
The herald protests, saying that Polybus wasn't Oedipus's father:
Herald: He was as much your father as I was.
Oedipus: But how can a stranger be equal to a parent?
Herald: Because neither he nor I had anything to do with your birth.
Oedipus: Why then did he used to call me his child?
Herald: Learn this, my king. Old Polybus received you as a gift from my hands.
Oedipus: How then having received me from a stranger’s hand he loved me so much?
Now read back over that revelation, and see the immediate response from Oedipus: "How then having received me from a stranger’s hand he loved me so much?" That is, the revelation would seem to be (and is) important to the plot of the mystery solution. But as important is the effect on Oedipus—right there, right now. He says, "He called me his child!" and "He loved me so much!" The first thought Oedipus has is not of murder, not of fate, but of love—that his father could love so well someone who was not his birthchild.
In fact, this revelation being revealed in real-time, and by someone who clearly cares for the family and remembers the young Oedipus fondly, elicits a change. Oedipus to this moment has been alternately angry, driven, purposeful, and arrogant, a king yes, but not a son. Now this revelation brings out the loving son in him, the son who marvels at his father's ability to love.
(This becomes all the more important in the next act, when the other shepherd, the Theban one, tells of the unloving actions of the "real" parents.)
But Oedipus is not the only one emotionally affected by this revelation. Jocasta, listening in, is starting to understand… and immediately starts damage control. Oedipus wants to find the Theban shepherd -- the herald received the baby from a Theban shepherd-- and Jocasta dismisses this notion. Oedipus assumes that she is being a snob and doesn't want to learn that her husband was "third-generation slave" though that wouldn't matter to him at all. (See, I told you he was modern… what an un-Athenian notion!) But Jocasta, with dawning awareness of what might come of this, tries to halt the revelations, and that itself is a revelation. (What we conceal is what we reveal, remember.) Whatever the other shepherd might have to tell, she doesn't want it told. (The chorus intones, "I wonder if perhaps some new disaster will emerge from that silence of hers," implying that the silence itself will cause some disaster. Jocasta's need to conceal the truth will end up telling the truth—about her own part in Oedipus's fate.)
As Arnold Weinstein points out, this forces character action and reaction that simply could not happen if the revelation didn't happen in real time and onstage. It is not just the fact but the way it's revealed – publically, not in someone's head like a flashback might be—that causes change and elicits emotion that deepens the characters.
The Other Shepherd
Then in the next act, Jocasta's worst fears come true. The Theban
shepherd is brought to the palace, and his own story is going to be
revealed. But notice how reluctant he is, compared to the
Oedipus: (Indicating the Herald) Look at this man here. Have you ever seen him before? Met him anywhere around there?
Shepherd: (Feigning ignorance) What? Which man?
Oedipus: This one here. Have you ever seen him before?
Shepherd: No. At least, not that I can remember him… immediately.
Herald: Well, then, tell me. Can you remember giving me a baby to raise as if it were mine?
Shepherd: (Angrily) What’s going on? Why are you asking me such things?
Herald: (Indicating Oedipus) Because, old man, this is that boy! This man here, my old friend, is that little boy! Look closely. It’s king Oedipus!
Shepherd: He doesn’t know what he’s talking about, my Lord. It’s all hot air! Hot head, hot air!
Oedipus: So far, my questions were put to you politely, shepherd, yet you have not answered one of them. Perhaps your own tears will make you talk.
Shepherd: By the Gods, my Lord, don’t hurt me!
Oedipus: Someone please tie his hands behind his back!
Shepherd: Damn my luck! What is it, my Lord? What is it you wish to know?
Oedipus: Did you give the child to this man?
Shepherd: Yes. I wish I had died that day.
Oedipus: You’ll die today if you don’t tell the truth.
Shepherd: It’ll be even worse for me if I do tell the truth!
Something else to learn from Sophocles--
never stage a scene twice. This is another "shepherd-revelation"
scene, but see how differently it develops. The
But there's a connection too, in the cliffhanger ending there. In the earlier scene, Jocasta tries to halt the truth-telling. Now it's the truth-teller himself, the shepherd, who has to be forced into revelation. Watch the reversal here, when we learn what Jocasta was concealing:
Shepherd: Damn this luck of mine! Here comes the worst of it!
Oedipus: For me, too, old man, but I need to hear it!
Shepherd: They said it was his own child but… your own wife would be able to tell you better about this.
Oedipus: So… was it she then who gave you the child?
Shepherd: Yes, my king.
Oedipus: And why did she do that?
Shepherd: To make it disappear.
Oedipus: Its very own mother asked you to do this?
The linkage between the two very different revelation scenes is in that "mother/wife" mention. In the earlier scene, the mother Oedipus didn't want as his wife was his beloved Meropi. Now the wife he doesn't want to be his mother is Jocasta.
But more than that is happening here, and again, this is a result of the revelation playing out in front of us on the stage and on the page. In the earlier scene, Jocasta clearly fears that some truth will come out. Well, here it is outed. It's not just that Oedipus is both himself and this child grown up, or even that the oracle was right (therefore, Oedipus must have committed the murder of Laius). Those are terrible enough. But it's the emotional revelation here that she has feared.
In the earlier scene, Oedipus learned something good along with the bad: That his parents not only loved him, but they loved him in a way that amazes him, given what they knew and he is just learning—that he is not their natural child.
Now he learns something bad along with the… um, bad. Not only is he the child given away—thrown away. But it was his very own mother (now his very own wife) who handed the child over. Jocasta chose to protect her husband by giving up her son to death. Now that son is her husband—but in this moment, he is the surrendered son.
In the herald's scene, Oedipus's preoccupying issue is shown by his continued questioning about his adoptive father's feelings. Now he asks three times about Jocasta's action. Neither of those are reactions the plot-information might elicit (that is, Oedipus is supposed to be trying to fit these pieces into the murder puzzle), so the diversions are revealing. What most concerns this very directed, very cynical man, at this very moment playing out before us, is parental love and its absence.
If the revelations didn't happen in real time, as plot action, Oedipus would never have revealed this—he might not have realized it himself until the revelations forced this on him.
(Of course this all affects the plot too. As he realizes that his wife/mother abandoned him as a baby, he becomes enraged enough to kill her. Another act of parricide—interrupted only because Jocasta has committed suicide. Oh, yeah, to complete the horror, Oedipus uses her brooches to poke out his own eyes.)
Positioning the two shepherds as the revealers becomes doubly important (everything is doubled in this story). Not only are they the ones with the essential information bits, they are the ones whose compassionate actions saved the baby targeted for murder by his own parents. So the revelations they bring also reveal one of the play's many themes—that love has nothing to do with blood. The child Oedipus is mostly kindly treated by strangers—the shepherds and his adoptive parents—and learns also that his blood relatives were quick to sacrifice him. (This skepticism about the "bond of blood" is amplified in the two other plays in the Oedipal cycle, when the elderly Oedipus gives himself over to the kindness of strangers, and his children are mistreated by his/their uncle Creon.)
So… what's this have to do with flashbacks, you ask?
Just that a
flashback's appeal is that it presents the past in a scene, as if
the action of the past is happening right in front of the reader.
But consider that—it happens in front of the reader. It's not
happening in front of the characters. It might happen in one
character's mind (that is, be a flashback of a memory), but it's not
happening in the real-time of the characters. So this can separate
the reader's experience from that of the characters—the reader is
experiencing something outside the true action of the plot. Even if
it's one character's memory, it's not being experienced by the other
The Limitation of "Show, Don't Tell"-- Sometimes Telling is DOING
So remembering the flashbacked memory might change that one character's understanding and even actions, and presumably he can then tell the other characters what he'd learned from experiencing the memory. But as the revelation, whatever it is, isn't the result of characters interacting, its effect probably won't be the sort of chain reaction that comes from the revelation occurring (as in Oedipus) as a result of plot action. It will be a static event in the plot rather than a dynamic one.
(Even more static, I think, is the orphaned flashback—a scene from the past just occurring, set within the narrative but not attached to the viewpoint of any character. The reader gets the information from the past, but how much effect can the revelation have if no character experiences it?)
Yes, flashbacks can explain some facet of the plot or character to the reader. By showing a flashback of the heroine's mother playing "Fur Elise" on the piano, you will alert the reader to the significance of that tune floating by in other scenes later. By showing a short scene of him as a child locked in a closet, you'll explain to the reader why Tom's got claustrophobia. But plot disclosure is not plot action, and character explication is not the same as character development. Action and development come from the dynamic of characters interacting with each other and with plot events, propelling them to change.
For example, if the hero has to tell his lover about the closet experiences, the revelation will have an impact on their relationship. She might understand now why he refuses to move to a small apartment in the city. Or she might insist he go to a therapist. Or maybe just telling her about this experience helps him to overcome the conflict.
That kind of propulsion requires a real event, one that happens right there in the story, in the interaction of character and plot. So if you're considering showing some backstory in a flashback, stop a bit and think of other ways this information could be introduced in the story, so that the revelation can lead to some character change, action, and reaction.
And read Oedipus
again, and be humbled. What an amazing story, full of
fascinating characters, interactions, and motifs… and it was written
in the 5th