You know what I’m talking about. When a writer rips us from the present moment of the story and catapults us into the past.
And that’s the problem. It stops the forward momentum of your story. Like a driver slamming on the brakes and you go flying through the windshield.
First, realize a flashback is not equal to backstory. In The Portable MFA in Creative Writing, Tim Tomlinson tells us backstory is:
“…information in the story’s or character’s past, and it can be parceled out effectively in the narration as the story progresses.”
A flashback is a fully dramatized scene, written like any other scene in your story. Writers often feel the need to use this device in order to explain a character’s present action.
So ask yourself these two questions first:
- Does the flashback present information essential to the story?
- Does it work as a scene—with the conflict and action of a scene—and not as an information dump?
If you answered yes to both, then a flashback might be your option. I’d also attempt writing that information into a present moment scene, and see which one works best.
Use them sparingly and not too soon in the story. As a guideline, I recommend what Nancy Kress says in her book Character, Emotion & Viewpoint:
“First, you must earn the right to flashback. This means that enough interesting things have already happened in the story to anchor us firmly in its present before you carry us off to its past.”
In other words, the reader needs to be emotionally invested in your character and the character’s present before you take us back to her past. If you find yourself writing one in the first chapter—or worse yet—the first scene, you probably started your story at the wrong place.
Use a strong sensory detail to introduce your flashback.
As Alice entered the house, the scent of fresh homemade bread assaulted her. That same smell had greeted her a year ago when her father’s house blew up. She barely stepped through the front door when the force of the blast knocked her into the yard. Unable to move, yet in no pain, she wondered if she was dead or alive.
Notice the use of “had” in the example above. I used only one to introduce the scene, then continued without it as though the scene was happening this very moment.
Use the same sensory detail to exit your scene and come back to the present.
Alice plugged her nose to avoid the bread’s scent and wobbled to the kitchen.
Do you have flashbacks in your current work in progress? Put them under the scrutiny of these guidelines and make adjustments as needed.
Have questions about this post. Leave them in the comments below.