By Joe Moore
Flashback is a writing technique that allows the author to convey backstory while remaining in the present. It usually involves a situation in which something in a current scene causes a character to reminisce or ponder a past event. The reason to create a flashback is to build character or advance the plot, or both. The secret to successfully employing this technique is to construct a smooth transition into and out of the flashback so as not to confuse the reader.
One of the easiest ways to enter a flashback is with the word “had”.
As Jim walked through his old neighborhood, a distant dog barking reminded him of the day he and his friends had skipped school to . . .
In addition, you want to shift the time progression from simple past tense (As Jim walked) to the past perfect tense (his friends had decided). Once you’ve entered the flashback and established the “past”, you can then revert back to simple past tense. At the conclusion of the flashback, use “had” again to transition back to current time.
Jim climbed the steps of his childhood home knowing those summer days with his friends had been the best times of his life.
In addition to transitions in and out of the flashback, it’s also important that the timeframe in which the flashback covers somewhat matches the real-time in which it’s experienced by the character. For instance, a flashback that covers the highs and lows of a woman’s previous marriage cannot be experienced during her stroll from the kitchen to the bedroom. But it would be an acceptable timeframe if she poured a glass of wine, strolled out onto her back porch and experienced it while sitting and watching the sun set and night fall. The reader must accept that the past and present timeframes are not unreasonably out of sync.
One final thought about flashbacks: it’s not a good idea to use one in the first few chapters. They can be quite confusing if thrown at the reader too soon. Wait until your reader has established at least a basic relationship with a character before taking them on a leap into the past. Flashbacks should be used sparingly. Better yet, use other techniques to relay backstory and avoid flashbacks altogether.
What do you think about flashbacks? Do you use them in your writing? As a reader, do they work for you? Are flashbacks a necessary evil or a solid writing tool?