So you’re into a story, feeling the characters, loving the plot…and then you’re thrown into a chunk of a flashback. First reaction? Most people just want to read through them so they can get back to the real story.
So what does a writer do when they’re crucial to the plot and characters? Lately I’ve been struggling with that question. A lot of what I hear is that flashbacks don’t work but then again I’ve read writers who do them well. My WIP has a strong backstory that can only be told through flashbacks so I’ve been spending countless hours working and reworking them and this is what I’ve discovered so far:
1) Keep the Crucial: Once finished, the reader should be able to pinpoint the reason for the flashback and feel empowered with that new knowledge as the main storyline continues. Remember that their purpose is to provide information crucial to the story in a way that’s as compelling as the rest of your story.
2) Keep them Short: The flashback has a purpose, right? So get to the point. Make them only as long as they need to be and no longer. Similarly, they should be used sparingly as they can slow down the story (I’m still working on this).
3) Make them Clear: Flashbacks can be jarring and confusing (not to mention annoying) if it’s not clear what’s happening. If you’re going back in time, the reader should be aware of it. Sometimes starting a flashback at the beginning of a new chapter or using section breaks can be helpful. Some people have suggested using italics for the whole flashback but this just makes it hard to read. I prefer to use the narrative to show the reader they are going back in time.
4) Make us Care: The placement and timing of the flashback is key. It took me a while to figure this out but now I know that at the time of the flashback, the reader has to really care about what happened in this character’s past. In other words, the flashback must be built up so the reader is left with a hole that needs to be filled, a “why” question that needs an answer. This gives the flashback some weight and immediacy.
I don’t generally believe in writing rules so these I use more as guidelines for myself. I will continue to experiment with this so if you have any tips or opinions on writing flashbacks, I invite you to offer them here.