Have you ever been super engaged with a movie, up until the point it cuts to a flashback, disrupting the narrative flow?
Have you seen flashbacks that feel forced, basically shoved in, just to give you information that couldn’t be expressed through other means?
Awkward flashbacks can be death to a movie.
And they can be death to your writing, too.
A flashback can be a useful device. It can deepen a character. It can reveal a twist in the story.
But it can also stop the narrative cold, and take the readers to a place they may not want to go.
The current drama will always be more interesting in your story, so you have to ask yourself: which of my flashbacks is absolutely essential?
Some successful films are told nearly all in flashback, like Citizen Kane and The Usual Suspects. They use long flashbacks to enhance the central mysteries of their respective stories.
The legendary film Casablanca uses a shorter flashback around its midpoint to reveal Rick and Ilsa’s happier times. We see them laughing and smiling in the car. We see them kissing in the dark.
The current narrative suggests that they were once in love, but only with this flashback are you able to fully see the strength of their relationship.
You want your flashbacks to add to your narrative, not subtract from it.
You want to use it to build on a character’s dreams and fears.
But you don’t want to use it if you don’t have to.
If what can be done in a flashback can be done through other means in the current narrative, avoid the flashback.
If flashbacks are necessary to tell your story, pay close attention to where they should go and how they enhance your characters and your world.
Try these two steps to help you with your flashbacks…
1. Examine the flashbacks in your story or novel. Is each one necessary? If yes, how are they necessary? And if your work has no flashbacks, do you think it may be in need of one? Why or why not?
2. For the next three films you watch, take note of any flashbacks. Did they enhance or hinder the story? What did you learn at the end of each flashback that you didn’t know before?
Taking on these exercises will help you considerably when it comes to the use of flashbacks in your storytelling!