Have you ever read a book where you’re suddenly taken back in time to see something that happened to the character in the past? That’s called a flashback. We’re going back in time in a flash to see something that happened to the character, also in a flash. It usually only lasts a single moment in real-time, as the character is just having a memory flash through their mind. But, as the reader, we get to see the whole scene play out.
Flashbacks are a great way to insert backstory, or a character’s ghost. There are other ways to do that, of course, but sometimes the best way is to completely immerse the reader into the scene to get the full impact of the emotion of the character.
Flashbacks are generally reserved for important scenes; no reader wants to leave the storyline just for some random thing that happened in the past. Those are the sort of things conveyed in passing, as a line of dialogue or a mention in the story. They don’t need a full-on scene of their own.
Most people know at least that much about flashbacks. Today, I’m diving in a little deeper than that general description to see the meat and bones of a flashback: what they are, when they should be used, and if there’s even such a thing as over-using them.
It’s hard for me to remember a time when I wasn’t obsessed with flashbacks, but in reality, it only was about 1 year ago that I truly began to see their full potential.
How Much Can Flashbacks be Used?
An excellent question.
There’s the option of using a flashback only once in a story. (We’re ignoring the none option, because we’re talking about actually using them right now. But anyway.) Usually, it’s to reveal something that’s very important to the story: a ghost, most likely.
When I talk about a character’s ghost, I mean something that happened in the past that has haunted them ever since. It’s something that changed them, and because of that, it’s been affecting every single choice and action the character makes.
Sometimes, flashbacks are just used to cover something that isn’t as important. For instance, some writes like to begin their story en medias res – in the middle of things. They jump straight into the action, and later, they have to backtrack – or else use a flashback – to explain to readers how the character ended up in that position.
I have seen TV shows do this before. They’ll begin the episode with something super dramatic – then have the words 5 hours earlier flash across the screen or something. 😆 It is actually a pretty effective way to draw readers in. I’ve even started a story myself where I did that, going back 30 minutes in time to show how the characters got there and then picked up the story from where I left it off. Fun.
I would not recommend just stopping with an even number of flashback scenes if you’re going to have a few – like two, for instance. It feels rather incomplete.
Usually, if you need more than one, you have a couple others up your sleeve as well. This means that flashbacks are either:
- a part of your storytelling
- or a part of the story itself.
This can mean that:
- you’re revealing the important backstory of the character/their past throughout the story.
- or the character possibly forgot memories that are important to the story, and during the course of the story, must remember them.
Those are the general types of stories I’ve seen that use flashbacks, but don’t take those as the be all, end all.
A Story Itself
Up till a year ago, I never really considered exactly how much flashbacks could potentially be used for. I’d always thought of them as up to just a couple at most during a story. They’re a tool to be utilized, and nothing more.
But then, I read a book that changed that.
100 Days of Sunlight, by Abbie Emmons.
If you’ve been around for a while, you’ll remember that I did a (pretty epic, if I do say so myself) post on the story when it came out, as I was part of the launch team. I did a bit of an unusual style of review, and then got to interview Abbie herself. (If you want to check that post out, you can do so here!) But that aside, I actually never discussed the flashbacks used in the story in that post.
I remember when I first read this story, the first flashback struck me as a little off. I guess I was sensing that there was more to it than I was being shown in just the first one. I took note of it, and moved on. But then, I stumbled upon another flashback. And then another.
I slowly realized that an entire story was being told. One that happened in the past, where one of the side characters had to conquer their own personal demons so that they could help the character in the present.
And it just completely blew my mind.
I had never seen flashbacks used in such a way before. It was like discovering the 3-Act Story Structure for the first time. It was suddenly a new, radical way to tell a story. In fact, I actually went on to use that format in my own NaNoWriMo story last year. The flashbacks were my favourite part to write, and were necessary to the story, as the character had forgotten those memories. They would influence her choices and actions as time went on.
So, How do You Write Good Flashbacks, then?
Another excellent question. I’ll spare you the GIF this time.
We’ve already covered quite a bit today, and knowing how to write a good flashback is an extensive subject in and of itself. I’ll cover that in my next post 2 weeks from now as a Part 2 to this post. 😉
To answer the question I put forth at the beginning of the post: I don’t believe that there’s such a thing as overusing flashbacks, as long as your present-time story has more (or, at the very least, equal) ‘screen time’.
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Do you like flashbacks?
Have you ever written any?
Are you excited for the next post?