Flashbacks in fiction are one of those gizmos in your utility drawer that can give you grief. It’s like Gorilla Glue or razor blades. Sometimes you need them, but try duct tape or scissors first!
I’m reminded of the time I bought six expensive cushions for my outdoor table set and tried to take the manufacturer’s tags off them with a razor blade. Cushions got slashed, but by God, there wasn’t that little strip of paper in the seam!
Flashbacks bring on stage events that take place before the novel opens. They may be very short–a few sentences–or very long, but they dramatize a past action.
It’s not a flashback if you tell about something in narration (He went to Harvard and ended up marrying Gracie when he was twenty) or if this fact is revealed in present-moment dialogue. Instances like these are simply antecedent action. A flashback is a scene dramatized.
Why do we use flashback scenes? In general it is to show character, especially motivation. Characters come onto the page trailing their history, origins, and defining moments. Sometimes an event that occurs before the opening of the book directly impinges on the story. This is called back story. You can understand why it is powerful material. The question is, how much to show of this?
(Let’s set aside stories that are mostly flashback, and those that alternate between past and present stories. In these kinds of stories the author is deliberately using the flashback as a structural element. )
Flashbacks are tricky. If longish, the flashback brings the forward momentum to a screeching halt. Furthermore, the material may be so powerful that the present story suffers in comparison. It furthermore asks the reader to go back in time and start what is in effect another story. This can be annoying, bumping the reader out of the comfortable dream of the reality you had been spinning.
So we should be cautious when using a flashback. By all means examine your motive for using one. Does it enrich the story despite the price for using it?
Here are some faulty reasons for using a flashback (remember that a flashback is a scene.)
- You have run out of plot. The novel is on course to run 230 pages. There’s all that cool stuff in your notebook that you labored over to develop character.
- The major character remains flat, despite hints at a motivating back story. You bring the back story on stage so the reader will empathize more. (The flashback may indeed help, but it’s a crutch if you take it as permission not to make your character vivid in present action.)
- You have failed to craft a plot with high tension. That back story was visceral. Let’s add that in to spice up the emotion.
- The explosive back story is only hinted at in Act 1. When you’re ready to reveal it, you fear it’s anti-climactic to just “tell it.” (But maybe not. A great time to reveal back story in dialogue is in a sex scene at the Midpoint of the story. Many example of this, including Chinatown.)
- You have misconstrued which story you want to tell. You’re pulled by both the present story and the back story. To avoids the decision, you tell both.
Do you have some pet peeves on the misuse of the flashback? Send them.
The effective flashback.
I know I’m going to get comments from people who love flashbacks. So please understand that I love them too. But like metaphors, they can both carry us deeper or bump us out of the fictive dream.
Here are some principles that I use to determine whether now is a good time to indulge my urge for a flashback. I’m not saying they all have to apply, just that I consider these things.
- The material is so compelling, so good, that to deny its existence would be a crime against the story.
- I can pull it off quickly. It won’t much stop the action, because I know just the moment to dramatize.
- The scene is not already complex. It has not digressed much previously, with things like description and information. The flashback in fact will deliver a nice pause in the forward momentum.
- I have found a good reference to key off of: a triggering sensory detail that leads to a related memory (olfactory sense is in fact tied to memory in our brains.)
- I have planned flashbacks as a structural element in the story, planning a simple story arc for them. I realize the pacing issues that may result, but I’m confidant that my present-time material is just as dramatic and meaningful as the flashbacks.
- I’m ready to pull every flashback out of the story on the rewrite. It fueled me as a writer. But I may find that the reader won’t need them (as scenes) on the page.
There’s no shame in falling in love with back story. Let it bring you into the compassionate heart of your story. But pause before bringing it on stage.