Flashbacks can be a tricky, yet ubiquitous feature of modern fiction. We writers know that we're supposed to begin the story in the middle of the action to be engaging, but that means at some point we're going to have to take a step back and explain what has gone before. As everyone who has groaned to see the story entering a flashback knows, however, there are good flashbacks and bad ones. Here are three tips to use flashbacks wisely and well.
Do You Really Need That Flashback?
Before you start writing an entire chapter about why your character hates popcorn, going back to his birth and childhood, ask yourself if that flashback is really necessary. Many flashbacks that come up in a first draft are for the benefit of the writer. They help the writer get a feel for the character and understand his history in ways that don't have to end up in the final draft. Many other flashbacks that misguidedly appear in the final draft are anxious ways of trying to prove that the writer understands the character. Often, they can inform other scenes, but they don't need to be there. So the first lesson about using flashbacks is to try not using a flashback.
A flashback is another story and scene. It must stand alone. It's important to remember that even if a flashback is something that happened in the past, it's still an entire chapter or scene in your story. It must be interesting not only because it informs another part of the story, but also because it's inherently an interesting scene. If you're going to be tough on yourself and accept no excuses for poor writing, then the flashbacks must stand up to that same high standard.
Is your story really in the flashback?
Sometimes you find yourself writing a flashback and really getting into it. All of the good action in your story, in fact, is in the flashback. This happens all the time to writers - they discover that the story they really want to tell isn't the story they first set out to tell. Remember that a flashback enlivens, enriches, and informs the main action, but it is not itself the story. If the story is unfolding in the past, turn it into the present and make it the story. Don't strip your best material of its drama by keeping it all safely contained in a flashback.