Everyone loves a good story. No one likes to be ripped out of it when they’re enjoying it most. There are already plenty of distractions in everyday life—ringing phones, car alarms—you get the idea. The last thing a reader needs is for the story itself to be the distraction.
The big problem with flashbacks is that they disrupt the flow of time in narrative. They take the reader out of what is happening currently and throw them into the experience of something that happened in the past, a fate that’s already been decided. Unless the entire narrative occurs in one long flashback like in Titanic, the events happening inside the flashback are old news. The real story is in the present.
Not only is it jarring to switch back-and-forth to the past, but there can be little suspense in visiting flashbacks. Did you just see the main character’s dad baking cookies in the kitchen before the flashback? He obviously didn’t die in the car crash four years ago. There has to be some greater point you’re making inside the flashback—something that cannot be accomplished better in any other way.
Writing a flashback is like asking your readers to travel back in time with you. It’s quite the journey, so you’d better make it worthwhile. If you must use a flashback, make it interesting enough that it’s enjoyable to read, but make sure your present story is one readers will want to return to. There has to be continuity in the overall timeline of your story. It’s also important that both your present story and your flashback are crucial and captivating parts of the narrative. Otherwise, you have no business telling either of them. If the past ends up being more interesting than the present story, you need to look at where your focus is. Are you really telling the story that needs to be told? It’s possible that the real story—or an entire separate one—is waiting where you thought a simple flashback was.
Don’t be lazy with flashbacks. That is, don’t use them to reveal large chunks of a character’s backstory and motivation. If you decide to use flashbacks in your work, use the right details to transition smoothly from present to past. Flashbacks are memories. Think about what makes you remember something—a certain smell, a sound, an old artifact from your childhood. Use realistic triggers to soften the transition into the world of your character’s mind.
Only write flashbacks when they are the best way to show an important part of your story. Overusing flashbacks can confuse the overall sense of time and dislodge the reader from the narrative. If you choose to use multiple flashbacks, make sure you do it for a purpose. The well-known television show, Psych, used comedic flashbacks to the main character’s childhood at the start of each episode. This pattern established an expectation from the audience and made the flashback normal. Because this was the defined format for the show, the flashbacks did not seem jarring from the main narrative. They also tied directly into the events that would unfold later in the episode. This is an example of stylistically used flashbacks with purpose. Although this worked for the serialized television format, you will need to consider what is best for the flow of your novel.
One thing not to do is employ flashbacks as a means to help the reader remember something they have already seen. Not only does that repetition add nothing to the story, it shows disrespect for the audience’s memory. Readers who are truly interested in the story will pay attention. Don’t cater to an audience that doesn’t care. If you do, and you employ frequent flashbacks to previously shown events, you’ll risk boring your true audience.
The main rule of flashbacks is this: If you can do it well and for a purpose, then do it. Otherwise, consider your other options.
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