We create flashbacks when we break out of current story time to give our reader insight into our characters through showing something that happened in the past. They are necessary for writing. We can demonstrate what has affected our character’s motives. For example, if a female character was attacked as a child, she could easily carry that memory and fear into her present relationships.
But flashbacks also tear the reader from the current story time, which holds more immediacy for the reader because it’s happening “now”—even if that “now” took place 500 years ago. It stops forward motion of the story for a while. So although flashbacks serve an important purpose, they need to be used skillfully, and kept short—so we return our reader to current story time as soon as we can.
Flashbacks should always follow a strong scene, so that the reader knows enough about our characters to really be concerned for them. Then the information in the flashback will support and help the reader understand the character more deeply. It is often wise to separate a flashback from the current story time with white space, both before and after. This are subtle visual clues that let the reader know a break in time is beginning, and when it has ended. Be sure and orient the reader at the start of the flashback to when and where we are. Fifteen years ago? Three weeks ago? In a different state or country?
Learning to use verb tenses to clue the reader is also important. If you are telling a story in present tense, then the flash back will be in past tense. But if your current story is told in past tense, the flashback must signal the reader we are going farther back by using the past perfect tense. Here’s an example. It is not a full flashback, so in the novel it is not separated out by white space, but does give some earlier information to clue the reader in to the character’s state of mind now.
“Moss crouched as best he could on the dry hillside dotted with birth, manzanita, serviceberry, and sage. His new prosthesis was superior to his old one, but certain leg motions were still awkward, if not impossible. [We are in current story time, being told in the past tense. ‘Crouched’ and ‘was’ are the clues.] He couldn’t move as quietly as the tracker he had trained to be as a kid—not any more. [This is the flashback sentence. ‘Had trained’ is the clue to an earlier time.] He had a permanent hitch no matter how much he practiced his gait. He missed feeling like an integral, living part of this high desert land—as precious to him as his own beating heart. He’d spent all his childhood summers here in central Oregon. In that time, he’d hiked most of the ranch’s 2,200 acres. [’He’d spent’ and ‘he’d hiked’ are past perfect—he had spent, he had hiked—and make it clear to the reader we’re in an earlier time.] Now, traipsing around for a couple of hours with a breather in the middle was the most he could handle. Today, that rankled. Some days it weighed him down, a heavy grief.” [We are brought back to present story time, but have learned more about our character.]
© Skye Blaine