A flashback can bring to life to a key event in your character’s past. But, constructed poorly or plopped in the wrong place, a flashback can irk a reader more than impress him.
Your Flashback Might Be Flashy If…
- Your flashback occurs at the right time. To pack a punch, flashbacks must be timed at precisely the right moment. Don’t give readers info in the flashback until you’ve made them curious.
- Your flashback is necessary. The bulk of Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride is comprised of three giant flashbacks from the respective POVs of the three protagonists. In this book, the flashbacks are necessary. Without them there would be no story.
- It’s length is appropriate. The length of a good flashback will depend greatly on the demands of the story. Some will be hundreds of pages, and some will be only a few sentences.
- It’s clearly a flashback. Use past participle verbs and other signals such as “and then she remembered…” or “back two years ago when…” so readers understand the flashback is a past event in your character’s life.
Your flashback might be flabby if…
- Your flashback would be more powerful told in “real time.” In an attempt to begin their stories in medias res, new authors will sometimes open their stories with a flashback that dumps backstory or sums up the story’s most interesting information. If your flashback begins just before your story and is the first domino in your row of falling dominos make it your first scene.
- Your flashback is too long. Although some books use large flashbacks, the vast majority of flashbacks should be no longer than a paragraph or two. Don’t jar readers out of the present narrative by dropping them into a new and disconnected scene.
- Your flashback is unnecessary. Authors tend to find their characters’ backstories more interesting than their readers do. If your character’s event doesn’t critically influence the plot, don’t flash back to it.
- Your flashback is unclear. If your flashbacks are so subtle readers don’t know you’re flashing back, they’re not going help your story. Signal the reader when your story is entering a flashback. Use past participle verbs (“she had washed the dishes that fateful day”) and don’t feel bad telling readers that your character is remembering.
Flashbacks are fun and can bring a new depth to your story’s palette. If you use them correctly, your readers will love these delightful little peeks into your characters’ pasts.
(Summarized from a Writer’s Digest Blog)