When writing flashbacks, a well-crafted, vivid one can have powerful impact on a story. In Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, her flashbacks offer poignant windows into her internal struggle. They explain why she embarks on a journey to begin with. In the film Slumdog Millionaire, flashbacks of the protagonist’s impoverished past inform and ramp up the tension of the game show at present. In The Godfather: Part II, the juxtaposition between the early 1900s and the 1950s creates a fascinating, dramatic parallel between the mirroring ascents of father and son.
When used wisely, a flashback can bring a lot to your novel: boost emotional resonance, infuse richness, and add essential depth. However, flashbacks are so tricky to get right that I know some editors or writing teachers who caution first-time authors against using them altogether! A weak flashback can confuse readers or even derail your story.
Steer clear of the three mistakes below for a firm grasp on the art of flashbacks.
Flashback traps to avoid:
1. Having the flashback tell the story.
The biggest thing to remember when writing flashbacks is that they are tools to advance your story—not substitutes for it. A flashback is really meant to illuminate something important about a character’s backstory, and not stand in for their story itself. Think of flashbacks as devices that should only be used when there is no stronger way to get necessary information across. If there are too many flashbacks, it can start to feel like a cop-out story-telling tactic. Too long a flashback that takes over whole passages will feel more like a diversion, not a device. Your readers will ask: “What timeline should I worry more about—the past or the present? Why didn’t the author just make these flashbacks the story focus?”
Survey your entire story arc and pinpoint how many flashbacks occur throughout. Examine if the occurrence of flashbacks overwhelms the main story’s timeline. Be prepared to cut; short and sweet is always better.
Ask yourself: Does the flashback give the reader a deeper knowledge of the character that they wouldn’t be able to understand through description, exposition or dialog? Does a long flashback take up more than half of a scene or chapter? Can you bring what’s explained in the flashback to the timeline of the present?
2. Writing flashbacks as a crutch for exposition.
As a novelist, you do a lot of homework about your characters. You know your character’s deepest fears, darkest memories, and what past events still impact her the most. Often, authors rely on calling up a memory to introduce key aspects of a character. This can get tricky. If you insert a flashback too soon, before readers have a clear picture of the character, the present events can get drowned out. Or, readers face an overwhelming amount of detail.
Most of the time when authors think the story needs a flashback to explain a character detail, simple exposition will do. Consider this: A reader “meets” a character just as you would get acquainted with someone you’ve just been introduced to. In your initial interaction, you wouldn’t hear every detail about this person’s ex-girlfriend from years ago unless it tied directly to what they were experiencing at present, right? You may want to tell readers all about this character’s backstory, but if the flashback is feel randomly inserted, the effect is jarring, not helpful.
Ask yourself: Do I really need an entire flashback? Would a quick, one- to two-lined memory? What is the flashback revealing about the character or story that can’t be conveyed any other way? Keep in mind that flashbacks should arise just as memories do. Make sure you have an external stimulus—a character hearing a song reminding him of that ex-girlfriend, for instance—to trigger a flashback in a fluid way.
3. Getting stuck in flashback hell.
Have you seen the film Inception? In its climactic scene, the protagonists enter four layers of settings: a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream. First-time authors can fall victim to the same kind of habit. Sometimes flashbacks are easier to write—so easy that you can lose the forest of the story for the trees of the scene. I’ve actually read manuscripts where a character has a flashback and—while in the first flashback—goes into yet another flashback. This non-linear structure can shatter the story line. Talk about disorienting!
Another common trap when writing flashbacks is forgetting to bring characters clearly back from the flashback into the present. You can end up with a confusing, muddled scene. Remember: Never end a chapter while a character is still mid-flashback.
Ask yourself: What is the essence that I’m trying to convey here? How can I do that in the present moment and convey it in a neat, concise way? What’s my clear transition back from a flashback?
Do you have problems with flashbacks? Reach out to me below.
These tips are derived from my book, The Novel-Maker’s Handbook. Read more tips like these along with other great writing advice, by purchasing your copy today.