Writing rules – and our favorite ones to break – has been a topic that repeatedly comes up at Ferret Business Meetings when we’re just chattering. (Yes, we have business meetings! Those are what keeps this blog on track!) One of the more common sayings in the writing community is that you have to know the writing rules before you break them, so you know how and when to break them properly.
But sometimes writing ‘rules’ are really writing pet peeves, and so much of it is dependent on genre. (Note: we are not talking about grammar rules here. Those are necessary, and while they can be bent, most of them cannot be completely broken. Learn them. Know them. Become one with them.)
In the last few years in the writing world, especially those who write/read fantasy, I’ve heard a lot of negative comments about flashbacks. It took me a bit by surprise.
Flashbacks can fall both into the writing rules and writing pet peeves classifications. Flashbacks are not appropriate for every story, and especially not for every point of view. They work best in stories that are in third person or first person, but they have to be consistent to the specific character with the main point of view in that scene. And flashbacks can easily fall into being cumbersome – especially if there are too many of them.
But flashbacks can be an amazing tool when executed well. Without the use of flashbacks, a writer is limited to only using exposition to convey a relevant past experience that is necessary to the story.
Make note of that clause: necessary to the story. That’s your criteria for any flashback you want to include.
Flashbacks can add a lot of depth to a story, and to the characters. An antagonist’s motivation can be more easily revealed to the reader even if the POV character is not aware of it, because the reader can visualize the past incident and pick up on tone and body language cues that the character may be missing themselves.
We can also learn a lot about the characters themselves through flashbacks.
Flashbacks can show how drastically – or how little – someone has changed or grown in their life. Even if we don’t know what it was that spurred that change, or lack thereof, seeing a glimpse at how a character was in the past can spark curiosity in the reader. They’ll continue reading because they want to know why things are the way they are.
Flashbacks can also be disguised. In my work-in-progress novel, Catalyst, I use flashbacks between chapters for insight into Sachi, one of the characters. The flashbacks read more like journal entries, or like she’s talking about a memory with someone else.
You can also use them as actual, real-life flashbacks if you’re dealing with a character that has been traumatized. These types of flashbacks may be disjointed, but not always.
Just remember – the information given in the flashback must be necessary to the story.
How To Use Flashbacks
- Sparingly. If your story is constantly overrun with flashbacks, then you started your story at the wrong point of your timeline.
- To Show, Not Tell. Exposition can often take the ‘oomph’ out of a moment. When a the story would benefit most from seeing something as it happened in the character’s past, use a flashback.
- With Clear Formatting. This is the deal-breaker for all flashbacks. It must be clear when and where the flashback begins and ends. This can be as simple as italicizing the entire flashback. Don’t forget that this is just a memory the character is experiencing, though, and have a little bit of a lead in (“She remembered that night clearly…”) and something that pulls them out of the memory when it ends (“The kitchen timer went off, pulling her from her thoughts.”)