Help with writing flashback & race/gender scenes?


I’m currently writing a supernatural detective story but I’m having difficulties with the flashback scene. I’ve read different novels where some flashbacks are given an entire chapter others are a paragraph or two, whats the best most sound method?

Second, the main bad guy of my story used to be someone else but in both cases he was black, I don’t want to be obvious when someone reads the first few pages who the new bad guy used to be. I have specific looks for how I want the characters to be seen in the reader’s mind but I don’t want to bog it down or give away too many clues. Is it a good idea to mention other attributes of the character and leave skin tone out of it or glance over the skin tone & focus more on the attributes like height and build?

Thanks in advance for any help and for reading this post.

Not a “writer” but I am a “reader”. I don’t think there is a “best” as a rule, but there may be a “better” within the context of the rest of the story. Meaning that the multi chapter flash backs used in the Wheel of Time series would not work for anything Jack London or Mark Twain wrote. Except that Mark Twain DID write a multi chapter flash back in Puddin’ Head Wilson because it worked. And Jack London wrote an entire novel as a flash back in Martin Eden.

The glory of scrivener is that you can try it both ways and see what works. Write the short version as a set of scenes, snapshot it or label the documents that make up the short version, then add documents and make the long version. Use a collection or ten to try different orders until it “feels” right. Then let someone rip it apart (editor) and then you can put it back together.

Just my opinion.

If “blackness” if critical to the character then I don’t think you can really leave it out entirely. You either need to say “black guy” or indicate black guy (something like “member of the black panthers”) if it is key to understanding things. Or you could make it the big surprise ending. If that is your goal then you need to really hide the “he was black”. Not sure what the goal is, but much like the flashback, it really depends on what works for your story.

To repeat, I am not a writer, just a reader.

An astute one nonetheless, and a voice to be listened to on such an issue. (How many “writers” could easily reference Wheel of Time and Puddin’head Wilson and Martin Eden?)


Are you suggesting that my bookshelf is somehow … abnormal?

On a side note, as a 40yr old freshman in college, I find that my … informal yet classical education … is causing me, and the professors, great consternation. My fellow students seem to find it confusing when someone starts off with “are you sure that is what Darwin meant?” or “when I looked up the reference in The Prince Machiavelli seemed to be contradicting this authors interpretation.” I need to find a way to “think like I am seeing it for the first time” and stop turning in 8 page rebuttals when a 1 page review of the text is all that is expected.

But back to the real topic at hand … I am taking my first ever “how to write” type class. We are using Fiction Writer’s Workshop by Novakovich ($12US Amazon). Starting at page 207 (second edition) are a series of short stories. I spent the entire day Saturday reading and digesting 115 pages of short stories.

I’m making a point, I promise.

What I discovered after taking revisiting about 10K words that I had written was exactly what I said above. There is no “right way” there are only degrees of better. What I thought had been a complete failure to write a descriptive “scene” based on my lack of “the sky was clear blue”, was much better as “Sugar maples, silver maples, red oaks and stands of birch created a shifting feeling in the solid earth of the path, ripples of light providing a glimpse of the coming ripples of water.”*

I guess the fixation of rules and methods is beaten into us from our infancy. It’s your world. Only you can discover the best way to show it to me, or any other reader for that matter. Figure that out and writer your own rules.

BTW, I can’t remember which forum member it was that originally suggested last paragraph, but I think I have paraphrased it accurately. There is nothing new under the sun. :slight_smile:

  • [size=60]For the record, I think the sentence and the entire story is utter trash, but the idea that I got the clear sky, the feeling of the path being his “stream”, the breeze, the various types of trees in there without the use of a single direct analogy … hope?[/size]

Tricky word that, “abnormal.” Taken frequently as an almost-euphemism for “subnormal,” it really means only “not normal.” Could be better, could be worse, might be only “different.” And difference is the context here, if only in the fact that you have read several books.

Reading the forum lately, one might be forgiven for supposing that many people believe the key to successful writing is access to a program which provides every bell and whistle they can imagine. They – and the English language itself – would be better off if any person desiring to write a story were required first to prove s/he had read at least ten books. Any ten, including cook books. At the ten-book level, aspiring writers would be allowed pencil and scratch pad; at twenty-five, pen and notebook; and so on, with Scrivener kicking in at around two-hundred.

But it is late, and I am old and grouchy. What I intended was simply to applaud your comments, now in both posts.


A subtler way of addressing racial issues might be to not mention skin colour at all, but to give the character a name that implies it. A little Internet research will highlight first names which are more common for different communities.

You can then switch it for the other incarnation: ie mention it outright and upfront that he is black but have a generic name. That might be enough to throw people off the scent.

Thanks. I appreciate the compliment.

When I get my “London-esque nature conquers man” story a bit further along I will post it here as an example of what the good folks here can help an illiterate (technically) person achieve. Then once the evisceration is done, I intend to print it in a 12pt font on canvas and frame it.

  1. I like the story.
  2. It feels like art to me. For the first time ever.
  3. It represents a milestone that I expected never to achieve.

My suggestion, since it appears the bad guy is hopping from body to body, is that he is (at first) distracted by seeing the back of his hands, which are several shades lighter or darker than before. Depending on how he’s dressed, how strangers react to him could also bring his thoughts back to skin color.

If his is the mind of one black man in the body of another, he’ll look at other people in a different light than if he was originally Caucasian, or Mexican, native American, Chinese, or a fallen angel. That could inform his interactions, what he attributes their reactions to, etc…

With flashbacks the key is to avoid overuse of the word ‘had’. You’ll need to use ‘had’ a couple of times to signal the fact that you’re going back in time, but thereafter write it as if it was in the present tense.

As far as your character’s appearance goes, how you deal with it will depend on the narrative voice you’re using (first person, third person etc) but in either case be direct. If it’s first person, give them an excuse to look at themselves (say, in a bathroom mirror) and comment on their appearance. If it’s third person, have your main character describe them.

Thanks for the help everyone. I have a few different ideas from this thread. I’ll write them down in story and see which fits better.