Okay, so maybe your flashbacks don’t go back to pre-history, but they are an important component of any piece, particularly a novel but also memoir or a long short story.
I know you know this, so humor me while I provide an explanation. A flashback is a scene or scenes in a longer fiction piece which take the reader to a point in the narrative which occurred prior to the time in which the tale itself is situated. There are a whole bunch of good reasons to use them.
Flashbacks can be great support for the main plot
Just-in-time for the reader
One of the best reasons is to provide information/background/explanation the reader requires to understand the scene. This avoids the deadly piling on, at the beginning of the story, of all the history and research the reader will need. You can easily lose people because they don’t yet understand the context in which these details fit. Much better to give them info at the point they need it. Enter the flashback.
An example (italics for main story; flashback in red).
The children were screaming and running around in what seemed a chaotic tag. The adults were in the kitchen—the clink of the glasses rising even above the din. Alice sighed.
It hadn’t always been so. What she remembered most were the silent mornings where you were supposed to be reading your Bible and contemplating your sins. She tried, she really did, but it was hard not to see the toboggan-ready hill of snow just outside her window.
So, if it is important to understand the contrast between Alice’s present reality and her past, best to keep the two together rather than a description at the beginning of the olden days.
Fill out a character
You may want to make the character more vivid or real by providing bits of his personal history to explain his actions in the ‘present’ of the novel.
“Why did you do that?” Veronica yelled.
Jerry turned away and walked out of the room into the sunlight.
It had been snowing that day. Heavy, wet snow. Great for snowballs. A bitch for shoveling. Nevertheless, he was looking forward to the day. Gemma was sure to be at class today…And then you go on to explain why Jerry acted so strangely.
A story that starts at the beginning and goes through in chronological order to the hopefully satisfying end can be perfectly okay. For example, if you are writing an action thriller with a taciturn hero, flashbacks may be out of place.
But for most stories, they mix things up in a pleasurable way for the reader. The bouncing around can provide an enjoyable variety in the form of the story.
Get boring bits out of the way
There are bits of any novel which are a drag both for you to write and for the reader to read but are nevertheless important to the story. You may need to explain the history of a critical object or element. A short flashback at the point the info is needed can sometimes make the conveyance easier to read and sometimes to write.
While they can provide variety, too many flashbacks can confuse the narrative, sometimes to the point of being unsure what the main story is. A large number also tend to annoy the reader as it begins to feel as if they’re impeding the main action.
So, flashbacks are good but not always flashbacks. There are other more mechanical dos and don’ts that I’ll cover in the next post.