This article by Joanne Grant is from the February 2021 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc.  (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership. 

One of the many magical qualities about fiction is the ability to step back and show the reader an exact moment that had a great significance to characters, or the plot, in the present. It’s the literary equivalent of a time machine! However, there is some debate about the use of flashbacks. Some feel it is a clumsy way of telling backstory, when this could be shown in the present, while others feel a well-placed flashback can provide much needed context for where the characters are in their current lives as to their conflicts and motivation

As with so much about writing, I would argue that flashbacks are all in the execution. A badly placed or obsolete flashback can frustrate the reader – which is a crime indeed – whereas an effective flashback can enrich the front story, create tension, and compel the reader forward.

Here are some practical tips to avoid being found guilty of some of the most common of flashback crimes.

Crime #1: Flashbacks kill the pace!

If you are going to interrupt the forward momentum of the story by including a flashback—it better be for a good reason. Otherwise you are essentially killing that all-important pace. Here are some practical points to consider when it comes to pacing.

When to include them?
Ideally, do not include a flashback until you have established a brisk pace, ensuring your reader has had time become invested in your story and characters before they are transported back in time. Insert a flashback too soon and you may stop that pace before it’s really gotten going.

How long should they be?
The length of a flashback will affect pace—too long and the reader may become impatient, flicking forward to get back to the main story, or too short and they may question whether it was even needed. To keep it just right, ask yourself, is it advancing the plot? Is this necessary to be revealed here? Question whether there is a way to share the same information with the same impact in the front story—if there is, you probably shouldn’t be adding it into a flashback. And is it actually engaging to read? You may be using a flashback to convey information but you still need to keep you reader entertained!

How to transition in/out of them?
To keep the pace flowing and smooth, how you transition in and then out of your flashbacks is important—nothings disrupts pace like a clumsy transition between scenes! It is convention to use italics for flashbacks, but this alone is not enough to orientate your reader so ease into scenes as you usually would for scene transitions. You could explicitly spell out how far back the flashback is with time markers such as “six years earlier,” or orientate the reader in a specific period in time such as “it was the Summer of ’95.”

Also, think about what your trigger is that logically leads back in time, and similarly the trigger to return back to the present day. If your flashback is directly from a character’s point of view, you may want to use a “Proustian moment”—where a physical sensation such as taste or smell triggers a memory—which makes sense of why the character is having this flashback. You can use a similar technique to move the character out of their reminiscence and back to the present.

How many?
Flashbacks can be a great literary device but be mindful about chopping and changing between past and present too frequently, unless this is the convention of your chosen genre. This could cause a start/start feel to your pace. While there is no fixed rule as to how many, what is the purpose of each flashback?

Crime #2: Flashbacks are boring!

Your reader runs the risk of being bored by your flashback if you get the timing, length and frequency wrong, but what about content? The main accusation thrown at flashbacks is that they do nothing more than tell backstory which isn’t interesting to read, especially when it can be shown in the front story in a more engaging way.

So how can you avoid this? First of all, recognize that your flashback scene has to be as engaging as your front story, but it must also serve a specific purpose, one that cannot be achieved any other way. Here are some of the key purposes of flashbacks which are by no means boring!

Character motivation and empathy
A scene that shows character motivation adds a deeper understanding to why characters are behaving how they are in the front story. By showing it in real time, the flashback can also help to create reader empathy towards a character that may not have otherwise been felt. This can be especially impactful if the character has been significantly changed by a past event. It allows the reader the rare insight into who the characters were before their life took them on a different track. Learning this information can be enjoyable as well as illuminating to the reader.

Create tension and foreshadowing
Secrets and foreshadowing in flashbacks create tension that, as a result, can spur the reader forward. There can be delicious tension added to the front story by revealing something significant from the past. For example, providing information to the reader that isn’t yet known to a key character or other characters puts the reader in-the-know and compels them eagerly forward to the point of reveal in the front story. Everything you write should propel the reader forward—even if you are going back in time!

Crime #3: Flashbacks don’t add anything!

Like everything in your story, flashbacks must add something. If the information conveyed can be included in the front story without disrupting the linear narrative, then why would you add a flashback?

It’s all about the emotional core!
There is certainly room for added drama, tension and character development, as already highlighted, but for me, flashbacks pack the biggest punch when they tap into emotion. A well-executed flashback will speak to the emotional core of the story and will link into the character’s internal and external conflicts. Flashbacks also can provide an immediacy of emotion that isn’t possible any other way.

Ironically, one of the accusations against flashbacks is that they lack immediacy because by definition, the events have happened in the past. However, when done well, you can overcome this. For example, a character can explain how they felt when something happened to them, but show the scene from the past in real-time and the reader then can witness the characters experiencing it first-hand.

This can have true power and impact, especially when what happens is an event that is a key turning point for the character. Seeing this scene can help a reader deepen their empathy and understanding of a motivation and therefore return the reader to the front story with a new and reinvigorated perspective on a character.

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So, did you find yourself guilty or not guilty when it came to the flashback crimes? Hopefully you will have thought of new ways to address writing flashbacks, or maybe you are still very much firmly in the ‘say no to flashback’ camp. Either way, it is a good reminder that when you are utilizing any literary device, especially one with magical powers—approach it with respect, understand its purpose and wield its magic sparingly!