by Tiffany Yates Martin
Two commonly misinterpreted canons of story can make rampantly using flashbacks in your story deceptively seductive: “Backstory is the story” and “Show, don’t tell.” Flashback seems to fit the bill perfectly, doesn’t it? Dramatizing your main characters’ past in a “real-time” scene from it surely handily addresses both issues.
But used unskillfully, flashbacks risk yanking readers right out of your story, confusing or overwhelming them with backstory, and stopping momentum in its tracks.
The truth—as it often is—isn’t quite so black-and-white: Backstory is key to a story, yes, but it’s not the story—the main story is the story, and losing sight of that by leaning too heavily on flashback is one of the prime reasons they get a bad rap.
And as I frequently tout, the tired story saw of “show, don’t tell” should more accurately reflect what your kindergarten teacher already knew perfectly well: show and tell—both have important roles to play in story, and knowing which to use when is a big part of keeping your readers engaged.
I’m a fan of the flashback—well executed and woven smoothly into a story, flashbacks can bring your characters more fully to life; deepen reader investment in and understanding of them and of their arcs; and make the story more vivid and visceral.
So how do you access the power and potential of this often-maligned narrative device, while avoiding its many possible pitfalls?
The trick lies in asking yourself four key questions before plunging in.
Flashbacks shouldn’t be used just to flesh out or paint a pretty picture of a character’s past.
Making them feel intrinsic and organic to a story means ensuring they are used intentionally and effectively. What specific, relevant info do they convey about your characters or story?
For example, let’s say you have a scene with a couple in the office of a marriage counselor they’ve gone to for help with their struggling relationship. Readers need a sense of this couple’s history and their current dynamics for the scene to have the impact it needs to—character and story cannot exist in a vacuum, and stakes come from character and reader investment in what stands to be gained or lost. Perhaps one specific occasion from their past (or recent present) could illustrate these key points strongly and vividly.
For instance, one character recalling a positive event like the sparks when they first met, or their magical first date, or the joyful birth of their first child might show readers that they once were deeply in love or that there’s still great love between them.
Or recalling an early “red flag” of contention between them, or a betrayal, or a recent terrible fight could indicate the major cracks in their foundation.
If you are considering showing a flashback, first determine whether it contains something specific, directly relevant, and germane to a story and scene.
Even as you glance backward with flashback, the story itself should always be moving forward. A well-used flashback accomplishes this by serving to spark a realization, reaction, or action in the protagonist in the present-day story, moving your character further along their arc.
Going back to our floundering couple in counseling, what effect does recalling the event contained in the flashback have on your character in the context of the current scene and the main story?
For instance, does remembering the fervor with which her now-husband once courted her make her decide there’s something worth fighting for, no matter how deep the current breach between them might be? Or does it perhaps make her realize that he hasn’t looked at her like that in years, and the spark has long since gone out, stripping her of hope?
You’re the storyteller—you’ll decide what best serves the story you’re telling—but making sure the flashback fulfills some essential, momentum-furthering function in the main story is key to harnessing the power of flashbacks.
Flashback is just one of three major types of backstory, along with context and memory, these latter two of which are usually by far the predominant tools for building seamless backstory.
Because of their risk of stalling the story out flashbacks should be used very judiciously, and only where they are the most effective, impactful way to convey the necessary information.
In our troubled-couple example, it’s essential that readers have a strong sense of these characters and their relationship so that we feel invested in the outcome of this counseling-session scene (which you’ve hopefully itself already vetted to ensure it’s also essential to furthering the main story).
You may be able to do that effectively by using context (which is backstory woven into the present-moment story, a form of “tell”) or memory (backstory recalled by a character while planted in the present-moment story, usually “tell” with a “show” component).
But depending on what information or action the flashback comprises, it may carry more emotional heft and resonance to briefly pull readers away from the current scene and let us live the flashback memory with the characters directly.
It depends in part on the purpose and pace of the main scene: If it’s a high-stakes, high-drama, fast-paced scene, then a flashback may unnecessarily stall that momentum and detract from the main scene/story. If it’s a more internal scene, or one without a major story development that a flashback might risk pulling focus or impact from, then using one may complement and help add resonance to the current scene.
Ask yourself whether the info in the flashback is necessary or maximally effective at this moment in the story. To paraphrase the Watergate hearings, it depends on what the reader needs to know and when they need to know it.
For instance, in our running example, if readers already have a good sense of this couple’s dynamic, history, and each one’s attitude toward counseling, then pausing the action to dip back into a scene from early in their marriage illustrating that may not serve the story best.
If there is no subsequent turning-point moment as a result of the flashback, no illumination of the main story that is essential for this scene to be most effective or carry deep resonance, or to move the story forward in some essential way, then using a flashback here may not be the best use of this powerful but potentially disruptive tool.
Alternatively, if the flashback presents crucial, specific information that is essential for the unspooling of the main story, and in particular this scene, then this could be the exact right place for it.
A few other tips to keep in mind for smooth flashbacks:
If you do decide flashback serves the story best in a particular place in your story, help ensure it enhances the story and is woven in seamlessly by connecting it to something specific in the present-moment scene to transition into and out of it smoothly. Don’t default to cheesy “segue” lines like, “She remembered it as if it were yesterday” or “The memory played in his head like a movie.”
Use concrete, specific aspects of the memory to build the flashback scene organically within the main story and bring it fully to life. Generalized or vague flashbacks risk stalling your story for no strong reason—if there’s not some key, specific incident contained within the flashback, then consider whether the backstory you want to convey would instead be more effective in context or memory.
And I beg you, please don’t set flashbacks in italics, or in a different font. It’s like posting a “FLASHBACK AHEAD!” sign that pulls readers out of the story; wearies readers’ eyes; and most publishing houses will change them to regular font anyway (predominant house style).
Over to you, authors--where do you stand on the dreaded flashback, friend or foe? Do you use them in your stories, and if so how do you decide whether and where they serve the story best?
And if you want to dig deeper into what makes flashbacks work and how to weave them into your stories or nonfiction, I’ve just launched a new online course “Master the Flashback.” (WitS readers get a 25% discount with code WITSFLASH.)
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Tiffany Yates Martin has spent nearly thirty years as an editor in the publishing industry, working with major publishers and New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling and award-winning authors as well as indie and newer writers, and is the founder of FoxPrint Editorial and author of the bestseller Intuitive Editing: A Creative and Practical Guide to Revising Your Writing. Under the pen name Phoebe Fox, she's the author of six novels, including the recently released The Way We Weren't(Berkley/PRH). Visit her at www.foxprinteditorial.com or www.phoebefoxauthor.com.
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