Flashbacks can be a powerful tool in fiction writing, but they can also be overused and distracting. As a writer, it’s important to understand why to use flashbacks and how to write them effectively. There’s a lot to cover here, so I’m breaking it into three parts. Today we’ll tackle the question of why we should (or shouldn’t) use flashbacks. Next week (and the week after) we’ll tackle the how. Let’s begin!
Reveal backstory and build tension
Flashbacks can be a great way to reveal important information about a character’s past that is relevant to the present-day telling of the story. If a character has a traumatic event in their past that still haunts them, a flashback can be used to show the event and help the reader understand why the character behaves a certain way in the present.
By showing, rather than telling, the reader can experience the event alongside the character and gain a deeper understanding of their motivations.
As writers, we can also use flashbacks to build tension and suspense. By showing a past event that has a connection to the present story, the reader is left wondering how the two events are related and how the character will react when they are forced to confront the past. This can create a sense of anticipation and make the story more engaging for the reader.
Use with caution
When flashbacks are overused or not used effectively they can disrupt the flow of the story. If a flashback is too long or comes at an inappropriate time, it can take the reader out of the moment of the story and make it difficult to follow.
What’s more, too many flashbacks can make a story feel disjointed and confusing. If you find yourself writing a ton of flashbacks, ask yourself, does my reader REALLY need to know all of this? Sometimes, as writers, we can get attached to things that don’t absolutely have to be in the story for it to make sense. If you find you actually do have a lot of backstory to cover, consider that you might need to start your story earlier.
When I was writing my first book I was so concerned with getting to the meat of the story that I started the story with a scene that ended up being the middle of the book. No spoilers, but if you’ve read 142 Ostriches, you’ll know what I mean when I refer to the confrontation that happens out in the desert at the midpoint. In early drafts, I opened with that scene, but then I had to write so many flashbacks to explain things that I finally had to acknowledge that I needed to drop into the story earlier in the timeline of my character’s life.
Another issue with flashbacks is that they can be a crutch for weak storytelling. If the only way to make the story interesting is to constantly jump back and forth in time, the story may not be strong enough to stand on its own. If you’re finding that’s the case, I recommend asking yourself what your characters want.
Go forth (by flashing back)
It’s important to use flashbacks purposefully and with intention. Before including a flashback, ask yourself if it’s truly necessary for the story and whether it will enhance or detract from the reader’s experience. If it seems important, write it. Even if you end up cutting it later, writing flashbacks is a great way to get to know your characters and understand what motivates them.