Written well, a flashback can give your readers insight into a character and add depth to your story.
Done poorly, it can feel out of place, forced, and worse—cliched.
A flashback constitutes an interruption of your main onstage present story to depict events from the past.
If you flash back, you must have a concrete reason, and including that backstory must move your story forward.
Some flashbacks shouldn’t be flashbacks at all. They should be written in real time and sequence, fleshed out in advance of the present day story.
If it works best for your story to start in the present and then flash back to cover an important backstory, resist the urge to rely on cliches—like someone dozing off or daydreaming, telling the entire incident, and then being jarred back to the present.
We see that so often that it’s become hackneyed, and it’s simply unnecessary.
The point of a flashback is to show readers what happened in the past so they gain context and perspective for the main story.
So, how to manage this most effectively? Be done with the dozing and daydreaming and simply start a new chapter with a date and location tag that makes it clear to readers that we are jumping back in time.
Seven years prior, Cleveland
To me, even better than such a flashback is to layer backstory within the main plot. In other words, characters refer to past events that have shaped them, and these come in pieces—the way such information emerges in real life.
You might hear a character talk about hoping she doesn’t have to endure again what she went through in Cleveland several years prior. That tells readers that more is coming. We’re going to find out what happened.
Keep in mind when writing a flashback:
1. Employ a trigger
Include specific provocation for the flashback.
Something should spark the sudden change in scenery.
For example, your character might visit her hometown and recall a significant moment from her childhood.
Or your character may be a former soldier who hears fireworks that trigger a memory of battle.
2. Use them sparingly
Flashbacks can be disruptive and are often unnecessary.
As I implied above, if it’s crucial to the story, consider including it first rather than flashing back to it.
It should include only information readers would have no other way of knowing.
If backstory can be shared through dialogue, do it that way and avoid the flashback.
3. Keep it relevant
Obviously, your priority is your main story.
Your character’s memories must inform his decisions. Otherwise, leave out the flashback.
Examples of Flashbacks
The Pixar film Ratatouille features the antagonist Anton Ego, a ruthless food critic who destroys the reputation of Gusteau’s with a terrible review.
When he learns that the restaurant has regained popularity, he decides to see if it’s changed enough for a second chance.
When he arrives, Remy makes him ratatouille, which is criticized as a “peasant dish” by the other chefs. However, after Ego takes his first bite, he flashes back to his childhood when his mother comforted him with the same meal.
The scene flashes back to the present and, moved by nostalgia, he gives a glowing review.
In the psychological thriller Gone Girl, every other chapter is a flashback, alternating between Nick telling the present story and his wife Amy narrating past events in the form of her diary.
Having flashbacks mirror present events offers an alternative viewpoint of what’s gone on. Amy’s flashbacks provide context for Nick’s side of the story.
I used a similar style in my Dead Sea Rising and Dead Sea Conspiracy, but the alternate chapters were set four thousand years in the past. My aim was to build suspense with contrasting narratives.
Use Flashbacks Wisely to Strengthen Your Story
Avoid the flashback cliches we’ve seen a thousand times. Keep your reader crystal clear on where you are on the timeline of your novel. Most importantly, use flashbacks to subtly show your character’s background and motivation for how he or she acts today.
Characters with believable motivations are crucial to the page-turning aspect of your novel.
By offering a firsthand perspective of past events, you offer readers fully-rounded characters they’ll want to follow to the end.
For more help creating characters who captivate readers, check out my Character Arc Worksheet.