Have you ever found yourself enjoying ice cream, and suddenly, you remember the time you begged your parents to stand in line at the ice cream stand for over an hour, only to drop your cone after three licks? In real life, we are free to meander down memory lane as much as we like, but our characters don’t have the same the luxury. Why? Because flashbacks in literature interrupt a story’s chronological flow and stop action in its tracks. But should you avoid them entirely? Absolutely not! Show them some love: flashbacks are powerful if used purposefully and introduced clearly.
A BLAST FROM THE PAST
A flashback occurs when a character recalls an event from their past in glorious detail. As a result, flashbacks must be written in past tense, no matter whether the main body of your story is narrated in present or past tense. That leads to the next tip: how do authors make sure readers realize it’s a flashback, instead of thinking the author made an error in tense?
FLASHBACKS IN NARRATION
If a flashback is short or part of a character’s internal thought, it can be integrated into an existing paragraph using words such as “that reminded me of,” “that dredged up memories of,” and “I hadn’t _________ since grade school,” to name a few possibilities. For lengthy flashbacks, provide an obvious hint that a flashback is imminent and place the flashback in a new paragraph. Personally, I recommend writing flashbacks in italics to make them stand out. Here’s an example:
When the limousine pulled up to the grand manor, repressed memories flooded Gwen’s mind, dragging her consciousness back to her six-year-old, orphaned self.
“Come out, girlie,” the matron said with a twisted smile. “We don’t bite. Usually, that is.”
Gwen shook violently and pleaded with her case worker. “Please don’t make me live here!”
FLASHBACKS IN DIALOGUE
Though dialogue is primarily written in present tense, when a character discusses events that occurred in the past, dialogue must switch to past tense. Be careful to keep your tenses straight, especially if the flashback occurs within a single sentence! Here’s a window into my childhood, with verb tenses underlined:
“When I was very young, we spent Sunday afternoons at the family farm in Tolland, CT. The kids always clustered around my Grandpa Louie as he told silly jokes and magically turned his handkerchief into a mouse. I can still picture that mouse moving across my Grandpa’s hand like it happened yesterday.”
Take care that you don’t let a flashback veer off on a disruptive tangent, especially when inserted in a conversation between two characters. If one character asks a question, the other character deserves a timely response. Most importantly, readers will lose the dialogue thread if a flashback or other internal thought creates a distracting delay.
CAUTION!! DON’T LET FLASHBACKS REPLACE ACTIVE SCENES
If you’re tempted to use a flashback in place of writing out out a scene, I urge you to reconsider. I’m currently reading the magically-imbued Harley Merlin series by author Bella Forrest and in the latest (Harley Merlin 18: Persie Merlin and Leviathan’s Gift), Harley’s daughter Persie coughs up a mythical hydra early at her 18th birthday party. After that harrowing scene, Persie explains in a quick flashback that she purged five beasts in two days. If the sequence were reversed, it would have been incomprehensible instead of memorable.
FLASHBACKS IN LITERATURE AND FILM
Flashbacks work exceptionally well in film, as scenes from the past are brought to life before our very eyes. In literature, authors must bring flashbacks to life with words. Below are some classic examples. Notice how many are books that have been turned into movies?
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Odyssey by Homer
How the Grinch Stole Christmas
TO FLASHBACK OR NOT: A LIST OF QUESTIONS TO HELP YOU DECIDE
#1) Does it provide key details about a character’s background, critical for the character’s growth or relationships?
#2) Does it amp up the suspense and plants seeds for a future action or occurrence?
#3) Does it help to explain a character’s passions, phobias, motivations, and perspectives?
#4) Does it help your character heal from a trauma or a rough patch?
#5) Does it provide a clue to help unravel a mystery?
#6) Does it reinforce a critical part of the story that was already revealed?
This list is by no means exhaustive, but hopefully, you come away knowing that flashbacks are a wonderful tool if used thoughtfully, judicially, and clearly instead of sprinkled with wild abandon. So before you invite Barney and friends into your manuscript, make sure it’s warranted!