What is flashback? It’s someone remembering, in the present, what happened in the past. If you tell of bygone events in narrative summary, it’s exposition (telling). If you dramatize them as a scene, it’s a flashback. The virtue of flashbacks is that, unlike exposition, they’re showing, not telling. They have action and drama.
However, many writing experts advise not to use flashbacks, or to limit them Of course this is one of those “rules” that has exceptions. In writing, never say never.
Here are the reasons for trying to avoid using flashbacks:
1.They’re not as strong or vivid as present-time scenes, simply because they’re done with. Readers tend to take the past less seriously than the present because it’s over. We’re only hearing about it rather than seeing it happen—even though it’s presented as a scene.
2. Any flashback, no matter how well written or interesting, can distance your reader from the action. This is because flashbacks shatter the illusion that the reader is a fly on the wall, witnessing events as they happen, right now. Are you more thrilled by a kiss you experience today or one you remember from a year ago?
3. Flashbacks disrupt the story’s timeline and can stop the momentum. And if there are a lot of them, they can leech the vividness out of the whole story and invalidate the story’s present.
So, whenever you feel the need to fill in backstory, ask yourself first:
• Is this needed to move the story along?
• If the answer is yes, then ask yourself, can this be written as a real-time scene?
• If no, try to determine if you gain more in depth and clarity than you lose in immediacy.
Every story has its history or backstory. But we can’t start every one at birth and include all of the traumatic childhood or life events that shaped the character and made him what he is today. You might choose to write up this background in one or more scenes—just for your own personal knowledge of your character—and not use much or any of it in your story.
When to use Flashbacks.
This is not to say that you can NEVER use flashbacks. They can be done effectively. Like with so many writing techniques, it’s a matter of moderation.
Again, according to the experts, don’t open with a flashback. (Of course there’s an exception to that rule, too.) But the danger of opening with a flashback is that in the early stages of a story, interest is a fragile thing. Your reader is in search of entertainment, and he’s not sure yet if he’s going to find what he wants in your particular story.
Sometimes flashback might be the only way to develop your plot. But make sure to spend the largest proportion of your time in the present.
So, if you’re going to use a flashback, make sure the running plot in your story is strong, clear and well-established before splitting off to do anything else, whether following a subplot or embarking on a flashback. Make sure the flashback is vivid and interesting in itself. Connect the flashback plot with the present plot.
Next month I'll talk about how to handle flashbacks when you do use them.