It’s easy to do flashbacks badly, which is a backhanded way of saying that doing them well can be a difficult task. But scenes of past events can be used effectively if you know how to do them right.
First, you must decide if a flashback scene is vital to the story. If the same information can be presented in dialogue or woven in little bits and pieces throughout the narrative, always take that route instead. It keeps the reader in the present action, which is what you want most of the time. A flashback scene must be truly worth stopping the forward motion of the story for.
You especially want to avoid flashbacks during the first thirty to fifty pages of your book, when you’re trying to get your readers involved in the action, conflict, and suspense. Resist the urge to explain the background of your characters, thinking readers need to know all that in order to understand what’s going on. Instead, show things happening, and save the explanations for later, when you can weave them into the story in tiny bits and pieces that don’t detract from the action.
If you do decide that a flashback scene is necessary and appropriate, you’ll want to take the reader so smoothly and seamlessly from current action to memories of the past and back again that he barely even realizes what’s happened. You can do this by following certain specific steps.
- Build up to a flashback by foreshadowing it ahead of time. During previous pages, weave things into the dialogue and/or narrative that allude to something in the character’s past.
- Make the reader curious about the details. Then, when your reader is dying to know what really happened, you can reveal the backstory in an appropriately placed flashback.Make sure you are in the point of view of the character who is having the flashback, as a person’s thoughts cannot be observed by someone else (unless that someone else is a mind reader!)
- Put your character in a position where his mind would naturally wander. If he’s in the middle of a car chase, a fist fight, or a heated argument, he probably won’t stand around for several moments thinking about something in his past. (That would be a good way to get shot or clobbered!) If he’s sitting in a car waiting for a redhead to come out of a house, or in a hospital room awaiting the results of his wife’s surgery, or wandering through the attic of the house he grew up in, he is more likely to lapse into long, detailed memories.
Have something specific trigger the particular memory you want to show. Was your character in that same hospital waiting room when he was told his mother died? Does he find a photo album in the attic that sends him reminiscing? Here’s an example of a specific memory trigger: “Bill took a bite of his donut, and a glob of jelly fell into his lap. He tried to wipe it off his trousers with a napkin, but a small red stain remained. Bill stared at the spot, thinking how much it looked like blood. Steve’s blood.”
More on this topic next week!