I recently opened up an old project and found myself writing new scenes from the story’s distant past. When I drafted a new first chapter that occurred 14 years prior to Chapter Two, I knew I had a problem. I was leaning too hard on a flashback.
That’s not to say flashbacks always weaken a story. They often contain backstory that helps readers understand a scene.
Flashbacks have pitfalls, though. They interrupt the story’s forward motion. Because they’re in the past — often considerably so — they lack urgency and slow your pacing. Readers have to take a break from current events to process the flashback.
Despite these hazards, flashbacks can pack a lot of power. Sometimes your scene can’t go on without one. Here are some dos and don’ts to help you harness that power without creating snags for readers.
Do know why you’re including this flashback.
Every detail in your story should serve a purpose. Every chapter needs to justify its existence. This is especially true of flashbacks. Their contribution to the story needs to offset their disruption of the flow.
Effective flashbacks provide necessary context for readers to understand the scene currently unfolding. They reveal information or past experiences — often emotionally charged ones — that inform the point-of-view character’s behavior and reactions. In other words, they’re there because the reader needs them, not because you had fun writing them.
Don’t lead with a flashback.
Your story needs to start strong — and in the present. Starting with a flashback scene forces readers to start over when they reach the present-day beginning of your story. Just when they’ve gotten hooked into the story world, you’ve pulled the rug out. It’s tough enough to write a first chapter that hooks readers. Don’t make yourself do it twice.
Instead, establish a reason for readers to care about a flashback first. Let them get to know your point-of-view character. Give them context so when the flashback comes, they understand its significance.
Do include a natural trigger.
Flashback scenes need a trigger in the present. A phone call in the middle of the night might bring back memories of a previous call that brought bad news. A child’s first choir concert might inspire a parent to remember a childhood performance of their own. Flashback triggers can be trivial, but they’re necessary. Otherwise your flashback scene will feel like a non sequitur at best, an irritating interruption at worst.
Don’t write about multiple events or experiences in a single flashback.
Each flashback should expose a single event or experience. Don’t use a flashback to give readers a general window into a character’s past.
For example, if you’re recalling a character’s childhood Thanksgiving dinner, focus on one detail that supports readers’ understanding of the current scene. For example, my dad’s side of the family always insisted on passing serving dishes clockwise around the table. I remember this every time I’m seated at a large table with people passing things any which way. However, this doesn’t also bring back memories of what my grandmother’s rhubarb bread tasted like or how she had these huge plants next to the table that everyone bumped into. Keep your flashbacks specific and relevant to the trigger.
Do keep tense consistent.
There are a few ways to handle verb tense in flashbacks. You can use the same tense as your real-time action if you give readers have a clear indication of what’s flashback and what’s not. Flashbacks can also adopt a different tense than current events. Just keep it consistent. All flashbacks should share a single tense, as should all real-time scenes.
Like any story element, flashbacks can be used to great effect in your writing. They also slow your pacing and can distract readers or muddy your plot. Use them like you’d use any other tool: wisely and with purpose.