I was originally going to follow my Hero’s Journey article with the Heroine’s Journey. However, I’m currently working on Stephanie Walden’s manuscript, The Secret Dancer, and one of her prominent storytelling techniques is flashbacks.
Flashbacks seem to be one of those things people either love or hate. Problematic flashbacks include ones that:
- Disrupt the flow of the narrative
- Deflate story tension and pace
- Are used for exposition (aka. Info Dumps)
- Explain – or justify – character motivation.
These are just a few examples, but they are fairly prevalent.
When should you use flashbacks?
First ask yourself: will this story work without a flashback? Is this piece of information genuinely crucial to the overall plot? Is it important enough to risk being a disruption of the current plot?
You should only use a flashback if it is 110% necessary, and your reader is already hooked and invested in your story. This means no flashbacks in your early chapters. It also means that you have to pick your moments carefully — you should only leave the present when things are less-exciting or there is no major developments happening in the plot.
How to write flashbacks:
First and foremost, avoid phrases that will disrupt the flow of your story:
I remembered when . . . I recalled . . . A memory crept out from my subconscious . . . My mind flashed back to . . .
All you will succeed in doing with these phrases is removing your reader from the story. All of a sudden, your reader is aware that a change is happening, and this interference will be a distraction to their immersion with your story.
Instead, try to ground your scene with concrete detail. Evoke the senses: smell, touch, taste, hearing. Use these senses to link the present with the past, and seamlessly connect the two points in time. Bookend the flashbacks with sense memory (touch, smell, taste) so that the reader doesn’t notice when there is a micro shift within the scene.
A popular option is to use an object to trigger old memories — photographs, small trinkets, etc. Personally, I think the use of photographs to instigate memories/flashbacks is becoming cliche and there are far more creative ways to achieve this.
Alternatively, you could take this as a rare opportunity to use telling over showing. Normally, a fully fleshed out flashback is a dramatized scene, relaying the past through action. This is showing — but it can also be rather lengthy, and risks dragging on and losing the readers’ interest.
Instead of writing up a full scene, and padding out your novel with an unnecessary word count, you could use exposition and tell what happened in the past in as little as a sentence or two. Either option is a valid choice, it’s just matter of finding a balance.
Lastly, if you must include a flashback, use one incident of past participle tense – Had, When. You could take note of The Hunger Games use of present/past tense to seamlessly weave the current action in with flashbacks (eg. Katniss reminiscing on her father’s death, her childhood, life in District 12).