Using flashbacks can nourish your story with information that the reader would otherwise not have known or drip feed mysterious traits about the background of your main characters. It should only be used as an effective way of getting an important piece of information across. If done correctly, this technique can add richness and depth to your book.
Flashbacks are a very difficult concept to master when it comes to writing a book. This is because they tend to act as a diversion in the story – dragging readers away from the present (where things are urgent and unpredictable) and dropping them off in the past (where everything has already happened). Nonetheless, utilizing flashbacks can be an effective tool. They can nourish your story with information that the reader would otherwise not have known or drip feed mysterious traits about the background of your main characters. Ultimately, if done correctly, this technique can add richness and depth to your book. Here are some tips to consider when using flashbacks while writing a book:
1. The Trigger
The first thing you must get right when planning a flashback is the trigger. Memories don’t just arise out of nowhere. Something must happen to force your character to relive some earlier moment in his or her life. If your characters keep having random flashbacks at awkward moments in your book for no apparent reason, you’ll lose the attention of your readers. Memories rarely manifest without reason. Something must force them towards the surface.
Find an external element that forces your character and the readers to retreat to the past. A chance encounter with an ex on a snowy day could prompt a memory of a ski trip they had together; or the smell of roses could remind a character of the bouquet she received for a past memorable occasion. It doesn’t matter what type of the trigger you choose to employ, the important thing is to make sure that it’s relevant to your character’s flashback.
2. The Scene
When writing a book, the timing of your use of flashbacks also matters. Not only with regards to the relevancy of the trigger you choose to use, but also when it comes to the last scene before transitioning to your flashback. You need to set up a really strong scene that leaves your readers wanting more before suddenly throwing them into the past. The worst thing you can do is to thoroughly engage your readers with the storyline of your flashback while boring them with the narrative of your present story. In such cases, your readers might not want to come back to the present. So make sure you revert to the past on a high note, when your story is at its most intense. Doing so will keep your readers in suspense and make them actually look forward to returning to the present storyline.
3. The Length
Wordiness can be a common problem for most aspiring authors that are writing a book for the first time. If this is your struggle, try not to let the habit spill over into your use of flashbacks. Flashbacks should be short and straightforward. You have to remove the fat and stick to the main points. Otherwise, you will kill the momentum of the present story.
4. The Transition
The way you transition into a flashback is crucial. Often readers spend more time trying to figure out whether or not they have entered or exited a flashback than actually enjoying the storyline within the flashback. So you have to find the right way to let your readers know that you have gone into a flashback. And it isn’t enough that your readers are aware that the story has moved into the past. You must also tell them how far back you have gone and the location of your characters in that flashback. You can talk about the age of your characters, use the unique attributes of their surroundings to point to a specific time period or even change the style of the dialogue. It also helps to change the tense in order to signal a transition. Just try and be creative.
5. The Content
Make sure your flashbacks matter. For example, you might think it’s a good idea to explore your protagonist’s tenth birthday party in a flashback. However, if it doesn’t actually build upon his or her character or even reveal new facets about his/her history, then you are simply wasting your readers’ time. A flashback must advance the storyline that’s happening in present day. And if your journeys to the past aren’t doing anything to move your story forward in any way, do your readers a favor and cut them from your manuscript.
Just because you now know how to execute flashbacks doesn’t mean you should litter your story with them when writing a book. A flashback should only be used as an effective way of getting an important piece of information across. If you use too many, your story can become confusing and difficult to follow. All-in-all, just make sure your flashbacks enhance your story, otherwise you are better off avoiding them altogether.