Back to the ... Present: The potential pitfalls of using flashbacks
There you are, reading along in a novel about thirty-five-year-old Amanda, when all of a sudden the author sends you back in time to a flashback. Amanda is now seventeen and back in high school, dating the captain of the football team and worrying whether the dress she’s planning to wear to the dance is cool enough. Whether you end up relishing this time in Amanda’s past or impatiently tapping your fingers while you wait for the story to return to the current story time depends on the author’s skill in using flashbacks and their understanding of how they can go wrong. Since you may one day be the author trying to decide whether to use a flashback, let’s take a look at the problems that can arise.
1) Flashbacks can slow the pacing of a book and make it feel choppy. When a reader starts a book, they are looking to see what happens next. How will your main character face the problems she is facing and come out the other side? By definition, a flashback puts the brakes on, taking a reader away from the current story time and to a previous time. If you do this too frequently, readers can feel like the story isn’t making enough forward progress. Every time they feel like they are about to learn something important, they are flung back to the past. If you stay in a flashback for too long, readers can begin to get impatient to find out what’s going on in the now of story time. While this can be true even in interesting and important flashbacks, it is especially true if a reader doesn’t understand why you are showing them this time from the past in the first place. Which brings us to our next potential problem.
2) The flashback doesn’t provide vital information. As with any backstory, a flashback should provide information that readers absolutely need to understand some aspect of the current story. Maybe it explains why a character behaves in a way you wouldn’t expect. Or maybe it shows something that happened that triggered action in current story time. Without this information, readers won’t fully understand who a character is or why events are unfolding as they are. But I have read many flashbacks that don’t meet this criteria. They might tell an interesting story about the character’s past, but it isn’t necessary for understanding that character. Let’s take Amanda from the intro of this blog post as an example. Imagine a flashback where we see Amanda going to the dance with football guy, who is later revealed to be Amanda’s husband in current time. It might be interesting to know that Amanda and her hubby were high school sweethearts, but if that’s all it provides—an interesting aside—it isn’t worth stopping the forward motion of the book. There’s nothing vital there. Now imagine a different scenario. Amanda goes to the dance with football guy, and he and some friends gets drunk. She refuses to ride home with him but doesn’t stop him from leaving. He’s killed in an accident on the way home and, ever since then, Amanda has let the guilt eat away at her, making it impossible for her to have fulfilling relationships. If this emotional baggage plays into how she behaves in the current action of the book, then this might be a worthwhile flashback. When we love our characters, we frequently want our readers to know everything there is to know about them. But before you decide to provide backstory in a flashback, make sure it is essential to reader understanding.
3) Flashbacks can overpower the story. If you frequently dip into the past in your story, providing long passages in flashback, the story in the past can begin to feel more important than what is happening in the current story time. Readers can lose touch with what is going on with the characters now, what they want and what they are facing. If you find yourself wanting to spend lots of time in the past while telling your story, ask yourself whether the story you really want to tell happened then. Perhaps you should focus there. Alternatively, if there are two stories, one from the past and one from the future, that converge in the present time, maybe a dual timeline story would work better than a story set in one time with flashbacks to another. (In that case, both storylines are given their own weight, have their own goals and obstacles, instead of one timeline just being used to explain things about another timeline).
When done well, flashbacks can provide important information in an interesting way. Because flashbacks are provided in scene, readers are pulled into the action. This can be more powerful than just telling readers that something happened in narration. But it also takes time and pulls readers from the current action. Before using a flashback, ask yourself if the information it provides is necessary. Even if so, make sure a flashback is the best way to go about revealing that information. If it’s important for readers to really feel the emotion of that time, a flashback might be appropriate. If it’s just a fact they need to know or some past action they need to hear about, revealing that information more quickly in narration or in dialogue during current story time might make more sense. And only spend as much time in the flashback as is absolutely necessary. Readers are here for the now, so don’t keep them away for too long.