Flashbacks can be a great tool for incorporating character backstory into your narrative. They can also disrupt the flow of your story and confuse your readers. So, how do you determine if and when a flashback is the right choice for delivering information? Here are some tips.
A scene from the past is crucial to current events.
This is true when we are delivering any piece of backstory. Backstory information always needs to be relevant, whether that relevance means giving our readers deeper insight into our character’s personality and choices, or it has a direct effect on the ongoing plot action.
When we to choose to spend the time and show a scene as a flashback, it really needs to be worth it. If you can deliver this piece of information in the regular timeline effectively, you probably don’t need to do it as a flashback.
This is insight about a character that our readers need to experience.
In other words, we need a ‘show’ not ‘tell’ moment, one which just so happens to have occurred in the past. A particularly traumatic or formative incident might have more punch if the reader is experiencing it along with the character. Using a flashback, we have an opportunity to create a visceral experience for our reader even though this particular event has already occurred.
Flashbacks can help or hinder pacing.
A sudden interruption in a story’s timeline can be jarring to readers. To minimize this effect, consider a trigger for the flashback that pulls the character, and thus the reader, back in time. That trigger should make sense and flow naturally into the narrative. For example, digging through a box of old photos, the character has a sudden, powerful childhood memory of her grandparents’ farm. But that memory needs to reveal something important if we’re going to portray it in a flashback. Perhaps it’s the day she became trapped in the cellar, or witnessed a farmhand burying a body!
Be sure readers are already invested in the present.
Readers have to care enough about our character, or the plot action, in the current timeline to be interested in digging into the past. A reader should be eager for that glimpse into the past, and the moment should feel satisfying.
Don’t overuse flashbacks.
Again, if a crucial piece of backstory information can be delivered during the current timeline with enough life and color to do the job, that’s probably a better choice. If you use the flashback literary device too often, your readers will get whiplash from the back-and-forth motion!
For more on developing your character’s backstory, and other ways to incorporate it into your narrative, check out this post: Building a Character’s Backstory.