Flashbacks are the most often used crutch by writers looking to expand their particular story without moving the chronology or pace forward in real-time. They are a convenient way to shoehorn a lot of information into a short passage of time. They are also a convenient way to explain things that may be considered too abstract or too vague in another form.
However, because they are a crutch, they are open to abuse. And abuse of flashbacks comes in several flavors, a few of which are described below.
The flashback is tangential and almost irrelevant to the present moment – Any flashback that has its start based on a small item and then diverges greatly from that item can be seen as tangential. (For example, in soap operas, flashbacks start when a phone rings, but within the flashback itself, the phone ringing is a wrong number or completely inconsequential to the nature of the flashback). Just because an event occurs both in the present stream of the story as well as within the confines of the flashback DOES NOT make that event relevant enough. As creatures of habit, characters have many events occur regularly (they eat, sleep, talk, etc) so making the jump from the present-moment to the recalled flashback through a regular occurrence is vague and erodes the importance of the flashback. Don’t believe me? Imagine I’m trying to describe to you some intense memory, perhaps the time I fell down a flight of stairs, and I start the description with something to effect of, “When I fell down the stairs, I was breathing, just like I am now…”
Having too narrow a tangent makes the bridge to the flashback weak, and does not imbue a great deal of confidence in the information gained by them. It can lead to a scene or information feeling forced into the story, as if you realized too late you had to include material or explain something.
Likewise, when the flashback is too obvious, the information gained is also seen as disingenuous and unnatural. This is the reverse of the above situation. More often than not, the flashback in this case is a memory, usually cued or started with an object, often a photo or sound. When the guy sits at his desk and stares at the picture of his dead wife, naturally we have an expectation that we’ll then be whisked away to a particular scene, to show that he does love his wife and he was happy then, but dammit now he’s miserable without her. This spewing of vacuous cliché does not show any quality as a writer, other than the fact that you too can sound completely boring and elementary.
Yes, there are many great ways to cue memories and to then use those memories as tools for growing insight and information, but do you have to use all the same tools as the person next to you?
Consider please for a moment that instead of the picture of the wife on the desk…..
· The smell of burnt coffee reminded him of a time when she burnt his coffee
· He stared out the window and saw a shadow pass by, surely it was a bird, and not the shadow of a woman plummeting 40 stories to her death exactly the way his wife did?
· He bent down to tie his shoe and heard the sounds of heels clicking on the floor, the way his wife did just before she left to go out to the theater.
There are multiple and innovative ways to segue from the present moment and introduce expansive information, please make an effort to keep your approaches new.
There also exist rules of flashbacks, as in structure that must be followed for a flashback to work properly. They are detailed below:
1 Flashbacks must be closed loops – A flashback is essentially a scene within a scene, and must possess a beginning, middle and end unto itself, and must clearly conclude before the present-moment may resume.
2 Putting a character into a flashback, making them remember, must remove that character from the present-moment-action – No character in the middle of remembering their pet dog will be consciously aware enough to be able to avoid the assassins chasing them down the street. Once engaged in a flashback, once that memory is cued, that person doing the remembering is INCAPABLE of acting within the present, as all their faculties are tied up in remembering and to some extent recalling, the past.
3 Flashbacks are character relevant – Unless there are shared experiences, telepathy or supernatural forces at work, Character A cannot recall the flashback of Character B in exactly the same way Character B could. Even if A was right next to B at the moment the event occurred, their memory of it MUST be from the perspective of A.
4 Not all dreams are flashbacks – Those dreams that are predictive in nature or that foreshadow, are not technically flashbacks. Flashbacks deal specifically and only with the past. Whenever the future enters into it, it’s foreshadowing, which will no doubt be discussed later.
Flashbacks fail when they do not naturally, natively or seamlessly impart new information or understanding about existing information. Flashbacks fail when they come when we expect them, and when they rob us of the emotion of the present moment.
Remember, a flashback freezes the thinking character and the audience out of the present moment. So, if a character has a flashback of his family in the middle of a war scene, when the flashback ends, we’re smashed hard into the battle. Either the line between present and flashback must blur somewhat or the audience is in for a jarring reconnection with the present.
Practice with them. Keep them small, and ration the information you give out in them. Give away too much in a flashback, and the information will be taken as previous character knowledge, and the audience can therefore (rightfully) ask: If they already knew how to do it, why didn’t they?