Dos and Don’ts of writing flashbacks
Some stories have information in a character’s past that is vital to the present time in the story. It might be an event that can’t be substituted for a summary or quick reminder from one character to another. If you have a “current” event that will not make sense to the reader without a flashback—maybe the main character avoids all contact with animals and doesn’t want one, doesn’t want to play with one … just, no. Simply throwing a summarized tip of information about the time he raised a baby bird he found and became so invested, when it died, it felt like losing a child, it isn’t enough—the event must happen so the reader can capture the depth of his pain and current state of emotion so, yes, a flashback is needed.
Where does my flashback start?
Never in the beginning. Ever. I won’t often give you some unbreakable writing rule, but if you place your past events in the beginning, your reader has to start all over with another beginning when your character “returns to the present.” That’s disorienting and discouraging. Your reader doesn’t want this new story. They were invested in the past, not the present, and they’ll want you to stay there.
Don’t place it in the first scene. This isn’t the same as above. If Marcus is staring at a baby squirrel, damaged and bleeding after he saved it from a cat, the flashback taking place in that time takes us away from the current scene, yes, but it prevents us, as readers, from being as empathetic as we could be. Although some of you can currently empathize with this, many will wonder why the heck this is a big deal at all. It’s not something that could possibly be that painful, right? We’re not yet invested in Marcus or his reason for being so upset. (That’s his name, by the way.) Within the first couple paragraphs, you’ll have your reader interested in your character but not necessarily obsessed or invested. It takes more than a first date to want to buy a ring, and your readers haven’t even asked for a second date yet, so let them keep reading.
Don’t start it without reason. If you start a chapter with a flashback, we have to at least know he has a problem with helping animals. It won’t make sense if he’s a normal, 10-year-old kid doing semi-interesting things then suddenly, after this flashback, he finds this squirrel. You’re preparing your reader in this case, and you’re letting them down because they don’t want to anticipate something like that; they want to wonder and think and ask and discover. The flashback doesn’t leave them with questions; it gives them answers before the question is presented.
DO transition into a flashback. If you start with Marcus playing outside, climbing trees and waiting for Kimberley to walk outside so he can show her he can climb up two branches higher than she can, your reader can start investing. They can figure out his current state of mind but as Kimberley walks outside, her cat follows and immediately races across the yard and tackles a squirrel that had been on the ground. Marcus jumps down and saves the squirrel, but he can’t force himself to touch it. It’s in pain, but he asks Kimberley to take it because her cat did it. “You’re the one who wants to be a vet,” she says. He just shakes his head and says not anymore and she asks if it’s because of that stupid bird, and while he continues to stare at the still-breathing squirrel, he remembers the new bird that had fallen from its nest when something had attacked its parents. And … flashback.
If your flashback starts at the beginning of a later chapter, make sure you transition out. If it’s not in a character’s head, it won’t make as much sense unless there’s a narrator. If you don’t have a narrator, the flashback needs to be in your character’s head; otherwise, you have a temporary narrator and it won’t fit well.
How do I write a flashback?
Flashbacks belong in the past. How you write it depends on the tense you’re using for the present events.
Do write in past tense if you are writing in present tense. So, your words will go from “I walk” to “I walked” throughout the flashback only. Don’t forget to return to present tense when you get out of that scene.
When you transition back to the present, the present tense will be a huge flag, but you’ll still need to transition by scene. In Marcus’ case, Kimberley shoves Marcus aside and picks up the squirrel, carefully holding its head while she turns to face him, holding it out with a hard stare telling him she won’t take no for an answer.
Do write in past perfect if you’re writing in past tense for your “present” scenes. If your character “walked down the pebblestone walkway,” in his flashback or in any other past event, he “had walked down the pebblestone walkway.” Or, “he had asked about when the walkway would be fixed because he needed to finish planting around it soon.” Something like that. This isn’t Marcus, this is Jeff. He likes gardening.
When you figure out your flashback, after your transition, write it like a normal scene. You don’t need to place “had” in every sentence, but write it like a normal past tense scene (past simple) and before your character returns to the present time, keeping the past perfect in the last sentence or two will help the reader remember and mentally adjust easier in the transition. It’s easier to transition into a memory than it is to transition from one, so put more thought into this. If we go back to Marcus, Kimberley shoved him aside and he blinked away the memory…
You can do what I did it the above example for present tense, too, if you want, but that’s another possibility. Some despise the latter example, but I don’t see a problem with it.
Do use time to your advantage if you can. You can start a memory with a short summary that drifts into a hard scene. Marcus can stare at the squirrel, watching each twitch and waiting for each to be the last. He did the same for the bird, though that was different and it was the reason he’d never be a vet. It fell from its nest when he found it, and he was excited to have the chance to help something live…
All that good stuff. It’s a steady transition into the past and we don’t just jump. It works well, and you can even offer a timeline sometimes to let the reader know how far they’re flying into the past.
Frame stories, frame narrative, frame tales … those stories within stories
Some stories are flashbacks. They involve a narrator who has something to say, but their current story isn’t interesting. It’s their past that makes them who they are now or it’s the past that brought them where they are … maybe it brought someone they know where that someone is now. Whatever the case may be, this needs a build-up narrative. You need to introduce why the story is being told and what the current situation is. Why is this important to hear? If you’ve seen or read Princess Bride, that’s an example of a frame story.
Your transition will not be, “Now, listen to my story.” No, it’ll be similar to the above, but it has the ability to offer a second person perspective by saying “you” or, if the narrator is talking to someone in the story, the character will need to speak as well before the story begins.
Hopefully, these few things help a bit, but flashbacks aren’t as difficult as you might think. They’re scenes like any other, but the transition in and out of these scenes is what throws writers off. It’s hard to know when and where and how, but it’s easy to write the scene first. Do that, then you can work on the transitions in and out. Play with it and try different things.