Flashbacks can be a very useful too for introducing a character’s backstory or revealing secrets about him to the reader. But when used improperly, a flashback can make a reader groan, skip ahead, or even put a book down for good.
So what is the best way to use a flashback? It may depend on what your are trying to accomplish with it, but in general, here are four tips for writing a flashback:
1. Make flashbacks relevant
I like to pick on Stephen King’s Dark Tower series (for good reason, I might add) and feel that the downfall of the series came in the form of the fourth book, Wizard and Glass. While the whole series is littered with flashbacks–and some of them are actually really good–the flashback in this one takes up nearly 3/4 of the book. It tells an interesting story, but does very to advance the overall storyline.
In other words, a lot of the flashback in that book wasn’t relevant to me at all. When you’re on the fourth book of a series and people are waiting to see what happens next, don’t just put the series on pause and insert a 500 page flashback.
2. Make flashbacks short
To reference the previous point, the flashback in Wizard and Glass could have accomplished the goal of giving us a glimpse of Roland’s teenage years and the death of his lover with 1/10 of the pages.
I just think a flashback is more effective when it’s brief. Jump in and give the reader a quick glimpse of the past, just enough to make your point, and then bring them back to the present. You should be able to do this in no more than a few pages. Or even less in a short story.
Remember, if you’re writing plot-driven fiction, you need to keep pushing the plot forward, not pulling it backward. Present the info you need, and then more on.
3. Never open a novel with a flashback
This can be dangerous in the same way beginning a novel with a dream can be. I know people may disagree with me on this. Tons of movies and books begin with a scene taking place years before the current story. Rogue One (which I rather enjoyed) does this, and does it well.
But just like writing a prologue, you’ve got to be careful with it. The goal of your first chapter is to pull in the reader (or agent), and if they are drawn in, and then instantly pushed out, they may feel like they were investing time into the wrong story. And that can be a turn off, if not not done really well.
4. Don’t use a flashback as a convenient infodump
I like to say Keep the backstory in the back of the story and view flashbacks in the same way. If you load up your reader on backstory, you’ll risk losing them early because they have not yet invested any of themselves into the character or setting. The same goes for a flashback. A person picks up a book to see what happens. Not what happened.
Nothing is worse than a big infodump, except for a big infodump that takes place in the past. So split it up and only share what you need to share at that moment.
So with all that said, I still think flashbacks are okay to use. It’s just like I said, however, use them sparingly, and use them well, and they can help strengthen your novel and bring new depth to your characters.
How do you use flashbacks in your novel? Leave a comment and let us know!