Flashbacks are scenes from the past used to illuminate a character or storyline happening in the main plot of your book. Flashbacks are tricky because they pull the reader out of the chronological order of the story to recount something that happened long ago. They can be disorienting…or cheesy if you’re not very careful about how you handle them. Here are tips for writing flashbacks.
Only Relevant Scenes Should Be Flashbacks
Never write a flashback just to write a flashback. If there’s a better way to recount a situation from the past or explain a character’s motivations, it might be less cumbersome than including a flashback. After all, a flashback is a full scene written as though it were taking place in the present. Spending the time to recount, word for word, something that happened (and to interrupt what’s happening in the present) should only occur if it’s pivotal to the story.
“Understanding the past” or “establishing character” or “showing wounds” might not be good enough reasons for a flashback. After all, you’re pulling your reader out of the forward momentum for the plot. Make sure the flashback is integral to your main plot or it might not be worth it.
This could seem minor, but don’t forget to anchor your flashback by explicitly telling the reader how long ago something happened. Many people italicize or in another way indicate the flashback sequence is happening, but letting the reader know where and when it’s occurring helps.
The other element of anchoring is to also let the reader know why this flashback is important or why your protagonist is thinking of it now. Make sure something in the present prompts your character to reflect on the past, and let the reader know why it matters in the present.
Don’t Over Explain
Obviously flashbacks are used to illustrate how an event in the past effects whatever’s going on in the story now. However, let that sequence do the talking. There’s no need to summarize or explain why it’s important. Make sure the flashback’s relevance is self-evident. As an example, don’t say, “And that’s why I’ve never held down a job” or “from that point on, I became frigid.” Let your reader draw her own conclusion.
Recollections or Flashbacks?
A recollection is a summary of something that happened in the past. A flashback is the actual scene of it taking place. For certain stories, a flashback is more meaningful because its written as it happened. There’s a greater immediacy there. On the other hand, a recollection has a certain distance to it, which will prevent it from having as much importance in the reader’s mind.
If you remember these tips for writing flashbacks, they should make your manuscript stronger.