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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Treatment Tuesday - Triggers (i.e., Flashbacks) 101

This week's assessment comes from Joe.* He's a writer, of course, but isn't writing in with specific questions to his manuscripts. No, even better, he's asking a question that I think many of you writers will benefit from hearing the answer.

Joe wants to know: How can things that I've heard called 'triggers' or something to that effect, be used within a story line?

Joe's reference to triggers (which is indeed the right word) describes the phenomenon of things that we see, smell, taste, touch, hear, or just sense that might cause us to relive or remember something in our lives, either good or bad.

Triggers has come to have many associations within the psychological field, in particular with two main issues: substance abuse and trauma.

A trigger for a person who uses methamphetamine could be emotional, such as feeling alone or depressed, or it could be the action of running into certain friends who also use. A trigger for a person who has experienced a trauma could be the exact same thing, but instead of triggering them to use a substance, it triggers an anxiety response, such as flashbacks, panic attacks, and avoidance of anything that reminds them of their trauma. (To read more on post traumatic stress disorder, click here.)

Use of triggers in fiction does not have to be limited to people with addictions or traumatic pasts. A person without either could also experience a "trigger" that takes them back in time, like a nostalgic reminiscence. For me, the scent of Jergen's Original cherry almond-scented lotion makes me picture a bottle on the back of the toilet in the bathroom at my grandmother's home. I'm also reminded of hugging my grandmother and smelling that scent. It's nostalgic, a powerful memory triggered by my olfactory sense.

Joe further asks: How can one use these to make a character give pause to his/her life and either 1) do something about it, b) delve further into depression/reprobate behavior/insert issue here that they are currently using to cope, c) do nothing and let it go each time, waiting on it to return to roost, or d) decide that this "ghost" of their past needs to be put behind them once and for all, as they've been haunted by it for too long and it's time to "clean house" and move on?

And of course the answer depends on the arc you want to send the character through. Some novels depend on the character arriving at a healthier conclusion not to be haunted by their past, but some are the opposite. Villains typically bear the brunt of not reaching emotional wholeness, as the book pivots on their inability to see around their own pain or trauma and want to inflict that on others, etc. Some characters will never be motivated to "clean house" while others will see relief in any fashion they can find: therapy, drugs, violence, spirituality, religion...the list goes on.

The best way to use a trigger--or flashback, if you will--is to show the reader something about that character that they wouldn't have gotten in the present time. It needs to be purposeful, not whimsical on the part of the author. If you pick something in the present day that is going to trigger your character, you need to have the backstory firmly imprinted in your mind to know why.

Here are some considerations when thinking about putting in a flashback scene:
  • What will it say about the character? 
  • Will it exhibit the damaged place they come from? 
  • Will it showcase the perfect family they once were a part of only to juxtapose it against the crumbling fiber of a failing marriage in the present? 
  • What glimpse will it give the readers about the character's existence in the past? 
  • Will the character act very differently in the flashback--out of character--because the event changed them forever? 
  • Will it evoke a very present reaction of tears or anger, which will also show something about the character's coping mechanisms?
Once you figure these questions out, then you'll know whether to move your character through it or stunt their emotional growth for the story.

Just FYI---various literary devices can be used to transition the reader into the flashback:

1) a space within a scene to denote the jump back in time
2) a ### or other marking to denote an entirely new scene
3) use of the past perfect (had talked) before moving back into present to allow the reader to experience the flashback along with the character
4) italics (although this is overdone if the flashback goes on for pages; pulls the reader from the story)
5) whatever your editor or house requires

Hope this has been helpful when considering the use of flashbacks and triggers in fiction. I'll welcome any comments or questions below...hopefully I'll have an answer!

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Michelle said...

Ooooo! I can already envision my character's triggers: The smell of leather, the sweet scent of hay and the sound of boot heels on a wooden floor... Thank you!

Shannon said...

I don't have much to add other than this is a really good time to be reading that article. I'm editing a few chapters where triggers are going to be an issue. Thank you!

Karen Wallace said...

Interesting, glad I found your blog.
Warmly Karen

Roberta Walker said...

Thanks - after reading a couple of pages of italics in my own ms, I already knew it needed to go, but now I see other options!

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Both comments and questions are welcome. I hope you enjoyed your time on the couch today.