Technically speaking, flashbacks are teleportation back in the past of the story.
Well, fine, maybe this is not a very technical definition, but it still stands true. There are many ways to allude or even recount past events in a story, but flashbacks aren’t just that.
They are actual stories inside the story, out of the chronological narration and into its past.
You may have noticed as well as I have that writers seem to love flashbacks. Especially, newbie writers. They love flashbacks so much that they use them everywhere, even in the unlikeliest of places.
This overabundance may suggest that flashbacks are easy to write.
I wouldn’t go as far as saying that.
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What are flashbacks
Mini-narrations. Narrations inside the narration. Memories turned into narrative elements.
These are all definitions of a flashback in its essence, its narrative role.
Flashbacks also have a recognizable shape, and contrary to many other narrative elements, they are quite easy to spot.
1. They don’t happen at the same time as the narration
Its very name gives it away: flashbacks are a jump back in the past of story. They may have happened inside the chronology of the story, in a place where the narrator was not looking. Most often, they occurred before the story even started.
Flashbacks are great for world building and especially character building because they allow us to add new elements to what the story has already offered to the reader.
2. They are separated by the main timeline by markers
The main reason why flashbacks are so easy to spot is that they are supposed to be spotted. Readers should always be able to tell when they are removed from the main timeline to visit the past of the story. They should see clearly the moment when the narration jumps back and the moment when the narration returns to the main timeline. Readers may become very confused when they don’t know when they are anymore.
Readers should always be able to tell when they are removed from the main timeline to visit the past of the story.
The markers of a flashback usually are very obvious, to the point that often it’s the very narrator that alerts the reader to the fact they are jumping back in time. She remembered that day of three years ago as clearly as if it was now. It may seem blunt, but flashbacks often are.
Another very common marker is the change of verb tense. If for example, we use the past tense to narrate the story (She remembered clearly), we’ll use the past perfect tense for the flashback (she had taken the bus).
3. It uses the entire range of storytelling techniques
Flashbacks may be very short, but they may also be quite long. In fact, they work best when a complex event from the past needs to be recounted. Flashbacks can use the entire range of storytelling tools, just like the main narration. They are indeed stories inside the story, and as stories, they are complete. They may contain descriptions, dialogues, actions. In very extreme cases, flashbacks may include an entire narrative arc.
When the reader can clearly tell the flashback out of the story, it becomes easy for them to navigate the timeline, even when we use multiple flashbacks.
Are flashbacks dangerous to use?
I’m happy you asked because yes, indeed flashbacks are dangerous to use. We should ponder very carefully whether we really need them and how we should handle them.
It may seem cool to tell the reader an event from the past without using exposition, which may feel hard to absorb. Or without resorting to having two characters talking about it, which may feel clunky. We may not want to just hint at it, because we fear the reader won’t catch important information.
All of these are legitimate reasons for considering the use of a flashback. Yet we should also consider the few characteristics that make flashbacks dangerous for our story before we make any decision.
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1. Flashbacks do stop the flow of the story
That’s what the markers are for. We alert the reader that for the moment the story they were reading is suspended and we’ll move to a different location, time and sometimes characters.
Hardly desirable, I’d say. This means that the readers need to disentangle themselves from the story (not something we ever look forward to) and invest themselves in a different story that starts in that moment. Then, at the end of the flashback, we need the readers to leave that flashback story, come back to the primary one and pick up the threads they had left hanging.
See why you may not want that? There are a few passages from story to flashbacks and back, and in those passages, we may lose our readers. We never want our readers to be distracted from the main story by anything, so when we decide to use a flashback, we need to be absolutely certain there is no other option.
2. They distract the reader
Not only flashbacks interrupt the story we are telling our readers (which is already distraction enough), but we offer them a different story. This new story may have the same protagonist as the main story, but then it might not. It may concern a completely different character. Sometimes flashbacks contain characters that only appear in those flashbacks.
But even if the main character is the same, the situation, the character’s goal and the arc of the story will be different.
Now I ask you: what if the reader prefers this story? It may happen. Besides, we ask the reader to drop the main story and give their attention to this new one. No matter what, the reader will be in a position to prefer the flashback story to the main narrative. We are asking readers to give the flashback their full attention. Once they’re in the flashback, readers might resist coming back to the main story. They might not come back to it at all.
3. They mess up with the timeline
When we tell a story beginning to end, with no detours, it is easy for the reader to follow it. Every event will move into the next one, seamlessly. The reader won’t have to work out anything, at least in terms of chain of events.
But when we use flashbacks, the chain of events is not only interrupted, it is disrupted. The flashback will go back to a time where the events of the main story might not have happened yet. Characters may be different in personality and beliefs from the characters we have followed up to that point. They may lack pieces of information they have had all through the main narration. We ask the reader to adjust to a different situation, and then to readjust back to the previous one.
Readers will not only need to figure out when they are in the timeline, but also what is different in the situation and how the situation from the past relates to the situation in the ‘present’. Not to mention that they’ll need to work out why the author is giving them that additional info.
Confusion and distraction are real dangers for the story when it comes to flashbacks.
It’s very easy to lose our readers, there is the real danger that they may think it’s too much work.
So why do we even use them?
Seeing how difficult they are, you may be wondering why we should even bother to consider using flashbacks.
The answer is easy: because sometimes we really don’t have any other better options.
Besides, flashbacks also have a few qualities which may make them really useful in particular occasions.
1. They are self-contained stories
Yes, I know I listed this under the dangers too, but in truth, this characteristic of flashbacks is the main reason why we might want to use them. They are self-contained narrations, they make sense in themselves. They are perfect for giving the reader knowledge of very complex facts that would be difficult and confusing to recount in any other way.
This is particularly true when it comes to characters’ relationship. Sometimes, showing the critical moment in two characters’ relationship, for example, may be more effective than explaining it to the reader, even if showing it may require a complex narrative that breaks away from the main story.
So we need to be very sure we need this, and that the flashback doesn’t exist for its own sake, but because it adds to the main story. Being cool is not enough. The flashback needs to be relevant and pertinent to the main story so that the reader will want to go back to it as soon as the flashback is over.
2. They give autonomy of judgement to the reader.
Because flashbacks allow the reader to see events with their own eyes, rather than through the lens of the narrator, the reader gets a chance at using their own judgment and coming to their own conclusions.
It’s a way to involve the reader, to give them more space inside the story, and so to make the story a little more their own.
3. They create mystery
Very often, flashbacks answer questions, but sometimes they raise questions. They will always add information (this is what a flashback is for) and sometimes this information may be unexpected. It may shed new light on events the reader might have thought they had worked out. Flashbacks may fuel doubts and uncertainty and so mystery.
This is a particularly tricky sort of flashback, but it may be fantastically effective.
4. They may create movement
Because flashbacks move back in time, they are natural creators of movement. They may turn quiet stories into dynamic ones.
The movement is not only in the story and the timeline but also in the reader’s mind. Especially in the reader’s mind, if the flashback is handled cleverly.
Movement, once again, will spur curiosity, which is one of the reasons why readers will wont to keep reading.
I’m not trying to scare you off using flashbacks. They are wonderful tools in the hands of writers. But just because they are so powerful, they are also very dangerous for the life of the story. So please handle with care and awareness.
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Sarah Zama wrote her first story when she was nine. Fourteen years ago, when she started her job in a bookshop, she discovered books that address the structure of a story and she became addicted to them. Today, she’s a dieselpunk author who writes fantasy stories historically set in the 1920s. Her life-long interest in Tolkien has turned quite nerdy recently.
She writes about all her passions on her blog https://theoldshelter.com/
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