Beware the Flashback Trap

Fiction writers know their characters are as real as flesh-and-blood people. Every character is born and lives life in the writer’s mind. But, just as it’s impossible to lay out a real person’s life in one short story or novel, so it is impossible to reflect a character’s entire life in one work. Thus, the writer can only show what the character is doing at present and provide a glimpse of parts of the character’s past when warranted.

One device writers use to explain a character’s action or reaction is the flashback. As useful as flashback is, it also carries a trap of confusing the reader because too much gets crammed into the flashback, and the reader can’t sort it out or make sense of how the two (past and present) relate. The transition from present to past  requires skill and story space.
Here are some ways to trigger flashback into your writing.

  • Remind the character of someone in the past with a unique laugh
  • Remind the character of someone in the past with fragrance
  • Remind the character of someone in the past with body style (hulking, dainty, etc.)
  • Remind the character of someone in the past with music or song
  • Remind the character of a past event with a weather event or nature
  • Remind the character of a past fear with a sound
  • Remind the character of a past joy with fragrance, sound, music, etc.
  • Remind the character of  youth with a taste of  food or toy or sport, etc.

Once you’ve decided on your trigger, you’ll want to write the flashback scene. Here are some tips for that.

  • Make sure the reader can see the scene–describe it well.
  • Incorporate as many of the senses as you can so the reader sees/feels/hears/smells/tastes what the character does.
  • Be absolutely sure the flashback scene is critical to moving the story forward. If the story or novel will do just as well without the flashback scene, scrap it for this project. Save it for another day.
  • Keep the flashback compressed, but make sure there’s enough detail in it so the reader knows why it’s part of the story.

We’ve all experienced unannounced and unwelcome memories popping into our heads. Your characters can have the same experience. But memory ambushes don’t take up the majority of our lives, nor should they take up the majority of your characters’ lives. Instead, use flashbacks to explore meaningful past moments and enrich your story.

Happy writing!

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