You know how sometimes you’ll be talking to someone, and they’ll say something that reminds you of something you once experienced? Sometimes you might start thinking about that memory, instead of listening to what they’re saying, and before long you have to ask them to repeat what they said? That memory, triggered by something else, is essentially what a flashback is. As often as our own memory may flashback to a past event, though, you don’t want to overuse it when writing.
When to Use a Flashback
Flashbacks should be used when it will be the best way to reveal something of a character’s past that has not been known before. We may know that a female character shies away from being touched by men, and has managed to avoid it up to a certain point. When a man does touch her, very innocently, she is suddenly back in a childhood home where she was abused, or some other similar circumstance. Flashbacks must always give us insight to the character, not just a trip down memory lane for the sake of it.
Do not use it too close to the beginning of a story. If it’s meant to reveal something, you need to wait a little while and whet the reader’s appetite. If the flashback is too soon, they really won’t care about why it’s needed. Make them curious first.
Pros and Cons of Flashbacks
A flashback can be an effective tool when used and written properly. If the reader needs to know the reason a character acts the way they do, flashbacks can be a way of showing that. Flashbacks also mimic the way we think everyday, so it can make a character seem more human. Flashbacks can also make the reader more aware of what might be happening in other people’s lives, because fiction mimics reality in many ways. By seeing an incident that we were not aware of in someone’s past to make them the way they are now, we can learn to be more sympathetic of the people we interact with in real life.
One major disadvantage of flashbacks are that they can be so easy to write, they can become overused. If you find this happening, perhaps the story would best be told in the time the flashbacks are happening – basically, tell the story as it’s happening, not from the present looking back. If a flashback lasts too long then the reader might forget that it is a flashback, and be confused when the story returns to the present. Keep flashbacks brief and to the point.
Transitioning In and Out of Flashbacks
Cueing your readers to where a flashback starts and ends is essential to using flashbacks effectively. Since flashbacks cause the reader to relive a memory with the character, it needs to be triggered. This trigger can really be anything, but the reader must be aware of it. As mentioned above, it can be an unexpected touch, or it can be a smell, or the sight of something that seems familiar. A specific color could even be a trigger.
Anna stepped on the bus, noting how crowded it was today. She swallowed nervously as her heart began to pound and her palms became slick with sweat. There were not many seats left for her to choose from, and all of them were next to men. Anna felt that all-too-familiar invisible band begin to tighten around her chest as she tried to take deep breaths to calm herself. It’s a public bus, she told herself, nothing would happen here. That meant nothing when two large hands wrapped around her arms. Anna barely felt the warm body that collided with hers as she froze in the bus aisle.
It didn’t matter that these hands were gentle, and that a softly spoken apology followed the collision. The bus and the people around her had already vanished from sight as she was suddenly back there. His hands were wrapped around her arms, tightly enough that his fingers left bruises that took days to fade. Anna tried not to tremble as he shoved her into the darkness.
“P-please!” she begged him, “I don’t have any money.”
Harsh laughter echoed in the alley around her. Anna cringed as large, grimy fingers began to wander. Her body began to shake.
“Please!” she whispered desperately to anyone who would hear.
This voice was not harsh. It was out place.
She was shaking, and Anna realized it was coming from outside of her body. Hands were still wrapped around her arms, and she jerked away violently before she realized that she was on the bus, not in the dark alley, and everyone was staring at her. The gentle hands released her right away.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
Anna didn’t bother to turn around and face the man. She was too mortified.
Can you see the trigger for her flashback, and then what also pulls her back out of it? The character being pulled out of the flashback must be as obvious as when they entered the flashback, so that the reader knows what is going on.
Have fun with flashbacks, but treat them like dessert. You should only have it as a treat every now and then, not for every meal, otherwise your reader will get sick of it.
Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Seventh Edition by Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French
3 Tips for Writing Succesful Flashbacks by Nancy Kress
The Five Rules of Writing Effective Flashbacks by Diane O’Connell
Flashback Scenes: Dos and Don’ts by Darcy Pattison
Previous Three ABCs of Fiction Writing:
Conflict Equals Plot – What’s going to happen?!
Dialogue – Who said what?
Emotion – Feel the love!