They say the way back is often the way forward, but only if you stick to the path. Flashbacks have a bad reputation in fiction as lazy plot devices and a substitute for engaging character development. They don’t have to be, though. A flashback may be the most memorable part of your story, but only if you understand what it is, what it does, and what it should never do.
What Is a Flashback?
It sounds like an obvious question, but the answer is a little more nuanced than you might expect. A flashback may only take a single sentence. Many of the best actually do. Whenever you see a sentence starting with “She remembered” or “He recalled” or any similar phrases that lead into a brief description of past events, you’ve entered the Flashback Zone.
Of course, flashbacks don’t necessarily have to be short. Some books are almost entirely composed of flashbacks, and many rely on these jumps in time to effectively reveal the story. The Old Man and Sea does this brilliantly. That said, keep in mind that flashbacks are easy to abuse, and shorter jaunts through time are safer than extended adventures through old history.
It Needs to Serve a Purpose
If you want a flashback in your story, or you find yourself writing one, stop and consider what the device actually achieves. Like any other part of your prose, it needs to serve a purpose. Ask yourself: “What does this scene accomplish?”
How does it move the story forward? Does it interrupt the action or propel it? If you removed the flashback, would it mangle the story? Make sure the audience cares about what’s happening and that the sentence, scene, or chapter that makes up your flashback pulls them along as relentlessly as the rest of the narrative.
This Is Not Your B-Roll
Here’s the thing: flashbacks should never be scenes you left on the cutting room floor. Flashbacks are so often abused by writers because they give us the illusion that self-indulgence is suddenly permitted. You can start your story in the middle of the action (where you almost always should) and still jump back in time for those heartwarming character details and funny scenes you love so dearly.
Conversely, flashbacks shouldn’t be used as lazy editing tricks. Don’t use them to explain details you forgot to flesh out in your first draft. This kind of shortcut leaves readers frustrated and impatient to continue with the story.
Don’t Spell Out Character Development
Do not stop in the middle of an action sequence to remind the audience of how much your character hates spiders. Rising action isn’t the time for flashbacks to throw in extensive, over-stated character development. Character development should weave into the story, not bring it to a screeching halt. Sometimes a little mystery is good. When someone says they don’t like pineapple on their pizza, they don’t stop to tell you the details of their family trip to Hawaii. No one cares. If your character needs fleshing out, challenge yourself to avoid flashbacks altogether.
A great flashback incorporates memory into immediate concerns. It isn’t a shortcut to great character development, a way to revive the darlings you killed off, or a clever exposition trick. While a flashback may (should) involve character development, exposition, and engaging content, it must do so in the confines of the story you’re telling right now, not the story that happened before your tale began.