Déjà vu (Or- flashbacks: the curse English teachers are doomed to repeat)

In England, the national curriculum states that when children leave primary school at year 6 (aged 10/11) they have to take SATs. These are different from the American exams. (A cynic would tell you the English SATs are purely to judge the school and put children in their first sets for high school and the child never thinks of them again, but I never would say that…) This means that during year 6, they need to write A LOT. The sheer volume my class has produced trying to get evidence of writing across a range of styles is madness. It means every three weeks we’re doing something new.

Now I’ll save the rant about year 6 SATs and the sheer ridiculousness of what we expect from them as writers or another time (but let’s be honest, how many of us when we were ten knew what subordinate clause, fronted adverbial, subjunctive, past perfect tense etc meant?) Oh yeah, no ranting.

Anyway, what I’m getting to is: this is reason we ended up doing fiction story with a flashback!

That’s a genre you ask? Apparently it is! I’ll be honest, it’s one I’ve put off for the best part of two years because it’s hard enough getting a coherent story, especially one that still includes description and not action and gore. (Yes, my class can be pretty dark when they want to be!) So when I realised I had little choice but to do it this half term, I did a bit of digging.

What is a flashback? That bit is easy. Something that happened before that a character is recalling. So far so good.

Why have them? Well, we decided that this could be for several reasons. Perhaps there is some back information the reader needs but there’s no way you want to start the story there because it is too far removed from the story’s timeline. Maybe it’s to underline a fact and back it up, for example when Harry Potter mentions weird things happen around him and he recalls the time his hair grew back over night. It could simply be to remind the reader of something they may have forgotten, to fill in a gap, to relay something to another character or to show the emotional impact something has had on a character. One other main example that my class came up with is when the detective does the big reveal and explain exactly ‘how they did it’.

The class could think of several examples of flashbacks both in books or on tv, after we took out the ‘previously on…’ and said this isn’t really a flashback. We even had to discuss a ‘flashforward’ for example Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock Holmes when he imagines the consequences of an action to check whether to do it or when Doctor Strange checks the futures (my class have good taste in film 😊 ). It took a bit of explaining to show that this wasn’t a flashback as it has to be a past action.

This led us to the crux of the matter. How do you write one? I read all kinds of advice, most of which befuddled my poor brain and contradicted one another. Surely, you just write in past I thought. One resource said no, you write the flashback in present so it stands out. Whaaa? Nothing seemed to follow. Ten million teacher resource downloads later I realised I was looking in the wrong place. I should have been looking to the #writingcommunity instead! Thank you Writers Digest!!! You honestly saved my sanity.

So, the great folks down at Writers Digest explained it simply. Flashbacks go in the past perfect tense! If it’s short, write the whole thing in past perfect. If it’s long, just start and end with past perfect. That simple!!! I checked a few examples and they worked brilliantly! Add some nice ‘sliding in’ phrases as I liked to call them and you have yourself a flashback.

For example:

I stared at the computer. The lesson plan was blank and I had no idea what to do. It was the flashback lesson sequence all over again. I remember when I had searched all weekend for a good explanation. I had been close to putting my head through the wall when I had finally found a good piece of advice. My flashbacks have never been the same since.

Better than that, the children understood!!!! Yes, some ignored using past perfect but they could recognise it in other writing. We’re still half way through this unit so I’ll have to let you know how effective it is in the long run! All I need to do now is convince about 6 of them that the past present isn’t a tense and we’ll be singing. It’s fine it’s not like it’s two weeks to SATs.

Excuse me while I go sit in a corner and hyperventilate.

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