Most writing guides argue against the use of flashbacks for the following reasons:
- They’re unwelcome breaks in the main story. After a long flashback you have to do some work in re-establishing the central plot.
- They lack drama. A flashback, by definition, is telling the reader about stuff that’s already happened. It’s old news.
- They can betray a lack of skill. Flashbacks are often used to introduce information that the author should properly have included in the main story-line.
While I’d agree with most of this, I’d also say that writing a flashback is like any other kind of job – if you’re cooking dinner or painting a door, you can either do it well, or do it badly.
A bad flashback is usually the product of laziness, the writer finding they need to include some additional information to shore up the plot and using a flashback as the most convenient way of squeezing it in. Used this way, a flashback is equivalent to a parentheses, a big lump of text crowbarred into a sentence inside a pair of brackets. I’m sure we’ve all watched old TV melodramas where the protagonist looks into the middle-distance as they remember something, then the screen goes wibble-wobble-wibble-wobble and we’re taken back in time to that day in the lake-house when Jimmy hid the bloody knife in the drawer…etc.
However, there are some occasions when a flashback is legitimately the best way of delivering important plot points or otherwise summarising background information.
We should now point out that there are two types of flashback: those where you’re plunged back into a substantial scene complete with dialogue and ‘real-time’ action; and those where the protagonist merely recalls past events.
Substantial flashbacks can be tricky. If you indulge it too many of them, you risk rupturing the whole storyline. And for you to use them at all there has to be a good reason why you’ve not presented your scenes in chronological order. Isn’t it better to start at the front and jump forward, rather than start somewhere in the middle and keep jumping back?
In contrast, the other type of flashback – the small-scale recollections – are far more common and useful. They’re good for taking quick peeks into the past to deliver information that helps set up scenes and characters. The following is a paragraph from my current work in progress, Leofric: Land of the Franks:
"Their prison appeared to be a cellar of some kind, and the window was set just above ground level, offering them a worm’s-eye view of a broad paved courtyard surrounded by tile-roofed walkways. When Leofric had first arrived, he and few of the others had spent most of their time gathered at the slit to peer at the outside world, but those who preferred to sit complained they were blocking the light, so now they all sat on the floor. Only the youngest of them, a skinny youth called Brynjarr, stood watch to keep an eye on the comings and goings."
Unless you were looking for it, you probably wouldn’t notice the flashback, but it’s there and helps us ease into the protagonist's new status as a prisoner. The flashback starts with "When Leofric had first arrived…" and ends with "…so now".
There are three important rules to follow:
- Clearly introduce your flashback with the past tense. (When Leofric had first arrived...)
- Clearly identify the point at which we return to the present. (...so now)
- Don’t overuse the word ‘had’.
To explain this last point: flashbacks are often riddled with ‘hads’ and most are unnecessary. In the example above there are two, but there could have been more. See the bold text below:
“…When Leofric had first arrived, he and few of the others had spent most of their time gathered at the slit to peer at the outside world, but those who had preferred to sit had complained they were blocking the light, so now they all sat on the floor. Only the youngest of them, a skinny youth called Brynjarr, stood watch to keep an eye on the comings and goings.”
You don’t need the bold 'hads'. All you need is one or two at the start to reinforce the past tense. After that, any additional had’s are an unnecessary irritation.
If you'd like to find out more about Leofric and his Dark Age adventures, follow this link.
(Image: Ollyy c/o Shutterstock)