How to Handle Flashbacks with Care

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The word flashback often causes many writing instructors and editors to say, "Eesh. Not this again." When handled carefully, flashbacks are effective storytelling techniques; however, using them with reckless abandon can significantly confuse readers.

My philosophy? Never throw out a potentially useful tool in your story. There's always a fine line to consider when utilizing flashbacks, just as with other storytelling techniques. Authors should always be careful not to use too many flashbacks, especially in the beginning of a novel. As a writer, you never want readers to ask, "Why didn't the author start here, in this setting or in this time?" Messing with chronology and pacing is no joke. You want readers to focus on the plot and characterization, not the order in which things occur or how certain information unravels.

For a quick check to cut or keep flashbacks, ask the following questions:

1. Are they essential to the plot? If so, why are they there?

2. Are they engaging? Do the scenes enrich the overall story and move the plot along, or do they tend to drag? Be weary of info dumping and author intrusion (that is, telling readers background information without weaving it into POV, therefore drawing readers out of the story).

3. Is the purpose of your flashback scene to unveil historical information, deepen characterization, or make the plot more complex? Do you intend to let readers in on a secret that other characters do not know about?

Knowing the answers to these questions will strengthen your story and help you discern when to cut and when to enhance flashback. Let's say you decide to enhance flashback to dramatize a certain scene. How are you currently conveying that information, and how can you improve it? Perhaps you are using dialogue to paint a picture for readers. You may be able to draw readers in more by fully dramatizing the scene through flashback. Any opportunity you have to show readers what is happening or what happened in the past is better than telling it.

When and Where?

Deciding when and where to use flashback has been a hotly debated topic among writers and editors. Some believe it is best to use flashback in the beginning of a novel, so readers have all the information they need moving forward to fall in love with the plot or the characters. There is something to be said about this method, particularly in that it may help readers process the current storyline better.

However, others believe it is best to hold off as long as possible, so readers can be hooked on the story and characters and not be distracted by the past. I tend to agree with this idea; after all, the past is in the past, right? If a book must begin with back story, perhaps it would be best to include it in a prologue. What is going to work best for your story is entirely up to you (perhaps with the collaboration of your editor). Some stories carry more complex "baggage" or personal histories; and often, this information is intriguing and will keep readers turning pages.

The unreliable—or even unlikable—character

What it comes down to is this: Why should the reader care about the flashback? What will it show him or her about the character? Often, flashbacks are important for characterization. Perhaps you want readers to sympathize with an unreliable or sometimes questionable character. Characters should never be black and white, and the best way to create well-rounded characters is to develop their desires, strengths, and flaws. If you have a character with certain flaws or motivations that are pretty difficult for readers to stomach, you may want to take readers deeper: show them why the character is the way he or she is today, in the present story. Pull readers into the mind of your most unlikable character—that's when things really get interesting!

Tension

It is best not to use back story or flashback when tension is high in the present storyline. As a general rule of thumb, try to incorporate flashback when scenes slow down; otherwise, you are stopping the action, and that is rarely a good thing. Also, when you do employ flashback, do not give away too much information in one chunk or scene. No more than two paragraphs will almost always do the trick. A little mystery goes a long way!

When past-perfect tense gets exhausting. . . .

Past perfect tense is appropriate for flashbacks, but don't bore your readers by using past perfect tense throughout the entire scene. A few past perfect sentences will draw readers into the past, so there is no need to continue with this exhausting tense. For example:

     Sarah tilted her head back against the car door window. She closed her eyes and thought about her father. She remembered the day he'd brought back a bag full of gifts after long business trips. He had just started working at the big consulting firm downtown and had apparently wanted his children to know it was a good change. He had opened the front door singing, announcing his arrival every evening that week.

     "Kids! Your successful and dashingly dressed father is home!" He called from the living room. "Come downstairs. I've got gifts for you all."

     Sarah hopped down the stairs and rushed into his arms.

Flash Forward: Pulling a Marty McFly

A flash forward is a technique in which the author jumps forward in time to where the most important part of the story takes place. A flash forward is typically a complete scene, whereas flashbacks only hint at something in the future. Usually, the author wants readers to ask, "How did we get here?" or "What went wrong?" Flash forwards tend to be effective when authors want to increase tension throughout the whole novel. If the scene does not generate tension or help readers turn the pages, you may want to consider revising it or removing it.