As info-dumping’s only slightly more-attractive cousin, a flashback can be really unproductive if not executed correctly. The primary reason for this is because it disrupts the natural flow of the narrative, pulling the reader out of the momentum. Flashbacks also might confuse things if the tangent is unnecessary. In my opinion, the best kind of flashback puts the story on pause, allowing the reader to take a breather but then keep moving forward when it’s done. It also can work hand-in-hand with plot twists, bringing something to the forefront that never would have surfaced otherwise. Length also matters, as do a handful of other elements responsible for making the flashback an asset instead of a setback. Below, I’ve outlined five things that determine whether your proposed flashback is worth the read.
This is the most logical reason for including flashbacks, so this is where I’ll start. Basically, is the flashback explaining some detail your reader is desperate to know? It can be a really effective tool for repairing plot holes, or adding additional depth to an otherwise flat story. Maybe it explains why the couple broke up all those years ago, or why the main character hates the sound of balloons popping. Make it matter; don’t just throw it in there as a bargain-bin accessory.
No one wants to read a plot twist that takes pages and pages to sift through before returning to the main story. Keep it short and sweet. Flashbacks should be quick excursions – not full-on side quests. Too long, and it’ll tempt your reader to skip ahead and miss something important. But too short, and they might miss it completely. Use your discretion, and ask beta readers for input too. For more help, read this article about plot twists.
Does this flashback offer useful imagery to your story? Maybe it builds on the five senses. Freshly-baked pancakes bring the character back to the day her grandma passed away. An early-summer breeze wafts through, reminiscent of a college graduation. A subtle brush of velvet flashes to a prom dress that was never worn. Even brief moments can bring the most powerful moments to your narrative.
The shock factor should be high, but the surprise should be minimal. By this, I mean that it has to seamlessly connect with what you’ve already written. You can’t suddenly decide that your character was diagnosed with an illness if that’s irrelevant. Whatever you add as a flashback has to make sense while still coming out of left field. It’s that delicate balance that you must figure out, and a good way to do that is to reexamine your plot. Remind yourself what you hope to accomplish, and what your reader might expect to happen within those limits.
As mentioned above, the shock value is the most important element of effective flashbacks. It could function alongside a plot twist, or even provide poignant sensory imagery that leaves your reader gasping. And where you go after the flashback matters – as in, don’t go anywhere. To resume the story as it was, drop your reader right back where they left off. Refusing to let them pick up where they left off will be frustrating, because they already invested so much of themselves into it.
If you keep all these components in mind, there’s no reason why your flashback won’t be effective. In fact, I’d argue they’d enrich your story, and bring you readers to new places they would’ve never imagined without your help. As a writer, that’s always what we seek to do, after all. Make them feel every ounce of pain, pleasure, and uncertainty that your character feels. While not spending too much time in the past since it’s easy to trip on the present, a calm reflection can add so much.