When is the right time to use a flashback in your story? Is a flashback necessary? Is it distracting from the plot?
These questions (and more) have got you sweating. Why? Because you don’t know when and how to place flashbacks in your story. But don’t fret- you’re not alone, sweet lil’ Swedish Fish!
So how should flashbacks be used in your work of fiction? Ask yourself three questions before you use flashbacks in your story.
- Would the use of flashbacks be appropriate considering my story’s narrative voice?
- How does the flashback add meaning to the current (or upcoming) plot point?
- Which characters are affected by this flashback?
So let’s break down the first one…
Would Use of Flashbacks be Appropriate Considering my Story’s Narrative Voice/POV?:
If you’re not sure what narrative voice you’re using in your novel, have a look-sy at this article here first:
If you know what narrative voice you’re using, then it’s time to deduce mon amie.
First Person Narrator is the ideal narrative voice for using flashbacks. F.P.N. is the least potentially confusing option for your reader. But before you introduce a flashback with a F.P.N. make sure the flashback:
- Helps readers understand the character’s choices/fears/limitations
- Builds upon the character’s personality or relationships
- Motivates the character arch (AKA emotional changing point)
Now, don’t get me wrong, cuddly Chinchilla, one flashback does not have to cover ALL these bases. It only has to cover one or two at a time.
If the flashback isn’t doing any of these things, then it’s useless. Let me repeat myself and use italics for emphasis here: if your flashback isn’t doing any of these things then it’s useless.
Both the Third Person Omniscient and the Limited Third Person options make using flashbacks more complicated, but not impossible. Since you’d most likely be working with a large cast of characters with these narrative voice options, you’d have to carefully weave the character journeys with their pasts. So you must have:
- A clean, concise thread connecting the flashback to the character.
- Distinct chapter or scene cuts between each character’s flashback and current situation.
If you do not have a distinct thread for each character, your reader will get lost between characters and timelines. Ideally, each chapter or scene break should start with a different POV.
The hit t.v. show Lost did a brilliant job of using third person omniscient to strike this balance. I HIGHLY suggest watching any episode in seasons 1-3 to see how the writers distinctly focused on just one to two characters’ current obstacle per episode and how they used flashbacks to make a point about the characters’ current plight. (My favorite example of this is in the episode “Tricia Tanaka is Dead“)
Each narrative voice allows for flashbacks. You must determine which one is better for the story you’re telling and the message you want to send to your readers. That is all it comes down to!
So let’s dissect the next question to ask yourself before using flashbacks in your story:
How Does the Flashback Add Meaning to the Current (or Upcoming) Plot Point?
Readers don’t want to be swung back and forth needlessly between realities. It’s mentally draining! If your book has countless flashbacks without any solid purpose, the reader will huck it. As we stated, the point of a flashback is supposed to shed light on or explain:
- The character’s choices, personality, current situation, or decisions.
- Character relationships
- The world before its current state
Flashbacks are supposed to make sense of the current scene playing out. So, make sure you provide a solid foundation for the flashback to play out in before you introduce it. What does that mean?
Establish an emotion in your current scene through character interaction and setting. Who is facing a problem or tough decision? Who is challenging that character? What are the stakes? Where does the conflict play out? Once the tension is set in the scene, provide the flashback. This foundation helps readers understand why you’ve funneled them into a flashback.
An episode of Adventure Time (one of my all-time favorite shows) titled “Simon and Marcy” does an excellent job of explaining the reality of a current situation by using a flashback. In the flashback, we learn the value of the character relationship in question, we get an idea of the world before, and we discover the changes these characters underwent to become the characters we know them to be. I’d absolutely advise watching this particular episode (it’s one of my top faves).
Aaaaaand the last question you want to ask (in no particular order, mind you) is…
Which Characters Are Affected by this Flashback?
A powerful scene establishes three things:
- The emotional feel of the scene
- The characters involved
- The conflict at hand
The characters on whom your flashback focuses must be in the current scene or have emotional stakes in what happens in the current scene. That is how you decide who’s flashback we experience or who is involved in a flashback.
Before the flashback is introduced, what questions are readers asking about your character? Will the flashback answer those questions? Will the flashback add tension to the current scene and plot point? These questions will help you determine what the flashback will be about!
Flashbacks can be a tricky thing, but not if you deduce wisely. Remember to consider which narrative voice influences your story first. Then, ask yourself why the flashback is being introduced and who it will affect the most. Then, and only then, you will have a powerful scene!
What matters most to you in a flashback? What do you hate in a flashback? Tell me in the comments section below, I’d love to hear your input!