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Should you use flashbacks?
Expert Harvey Chapman says, “…if you can tell the story without them then so much the better.”
Author K.M. Weiland says, “Don’t let unnecessary flashbacks take over and rob the forward momentum from your story’s main conflict.”
Author Nancy Kress says, “Flashbacks offer many pitfalls. This is because even the best-written flashback carries a built-in disadvantage: It is, by definition, already over.”
Author Joëlle Anthony says, “Flashbacks inevitably go on too long and aren’t usually the best way to tell a story. A flashback is only effective if it moves the story forwards and it’s the only way to tell that part of the story.”
Screenwriter Jenna Milly says, “It’s better to see your character react to the information the writer wants to get out there in the here and now rather than have it explained in flashback.”
Personally, a recent professional critique made me realize I shouldn’t use a flashback in an opening scene. Making the story chronological gives the reader a chance to be grounded in the present. Author Bharti Kirchner says, “Don’t use flashback immediately after the opening, when the story hasn’t yet gotten off the ground.”
Another editor pointed out where a flashback scene in my novel wasn’t necessary. I read the story without the flashback and it made sense, so I totally cut it. Maybe writing the flashback was necessary for me to know what the characters were doing, but it wasn’t necessary for my reader.
But how do I get the information from the past into my story without a flashback?
First off, during a life and death situation, you don’t. A main character hanging by their fingertips doesn’t have time or energy to spend on memories—they’re trying to figure out how to survive!
Something from the past can be shared in brief dialogue or thoughts. And these thoughts or words could be inspired by a found object, sensory experience, or current event. In other words, something reminds the character of the past. For example, certain scents take me back to a vacation spot in the redwoods when I was a child.
Through conflict. Jenna Milly says, “Or better yet, another character notices how upset your protagonist is when he or she picks up the ring and then pushes for answers. This is how you get conflict – in the here and now – into a scene and also give us the information that would come out in the flashback.”
Use summaries. “One way to keep readers engaged with summaries is to keep them short and mix them between scenes,” Kyla Bagnall says. “You can also use a summary sentence or two as a transition between scenes.”
Tips for using flashbacks:
In her article “The Only Reason Your Story Should Have Flashbacks,” K.M. Weilland shares two reasons to have flashbacks. First, “the character has an interesting backstory.” And second, “the backstory moves the plot.”
In her article “3 Tips for Writing Successful Flashbacks,” Nancy Kress talks about using a flashback after a strong scene, orienting the reader in time and space, and using verb tense conventions to guide the reader in and out of the flashback.
In his article “How to Handle Flashbacks In Writing,” Harvey Chapman has three points: 1. “Make It Clear You are Moving Back in Time.” 2. “Hook the Reader First.” 3. “Make the Flashbacks Natural.”
And I love what Kayla Bagnall says, “A flashback should significantly alter either how the reader perceives the present, or how the character does.” This is from her article: “5 Ways To Handle The Passing Of Time In Your Story.”
Flashbacks can be a useful tool in nonfiction, too. This article “Time Traveling: Writing Graceful Flashbacks” by Mason Inman has interesting examples and explanations.
SM Ford writes inspirational fiction for adults, although teens may find the stories of interest, too. She also loves assisting other writers on their journeys.