The flash-back golden rule: Memories are not for reminiscing. They serve to navigate the present.
Like exposition, avoid if possible but use them wisely if you need them. Never dive into a lengthy memory in the middle of a scene. Break it up in little pieces and spread it around where it would naturally come up in the character’s mind. Fiction follows reality.
- What happens next will not make sense, unless the reader gets the information provided by the memory.
- The reader is fully aware of the necessity of the flash-back, from the second it begins.
- When the flash-back ends, the information it provides must immediately affect the story events from then on.
Disadvantages of using flash-backs
The reader doesn’t identify with the characters and what’s going on, until he knows what’s going on. When a character reacts emotionally to something first and then it is explained through flash-back afterwards, the dramatic effect is far weaker than if the sequence is witnessed in chronological order.
John’s dad showed up in the doorway. John’s face turned white at the sight of the ladle. His father used to beat them.
John’s father used to beat them. His father shows up in the doorway. John’s face turns white at the sight of the ladle.
Another disadvantage of flash-backs is that, though can be dramatic, they are not scary. The reader already knows the character survived physically and emotionally.
Advantages of using flash-backs
If a lot of time passes between the essential event and the current time, using a flash-back will fit much better than asking the reader to skip a decade in time since nothing relevant to the current story happened in that time.
Little 10 year old John is at a boyscout meeting and learns to make a snare. About 15 years later John finds himself walking into the woods and getting lost.
John walks into the woods and gets lost. He desperately tries to remember the boyscout meetings he attended as a young boy, on how to make a snare.
When to insert the flash-back
The events: Emma is attacked by a burglar who did not expect her to be home. They struggle and she kicks him off herself, launching him into the bathroom. She closes the door and locks it from the outside.
The essential memory: To understand why she can lock it from the outside without him simply unlocking it from inside, you must show the memory of this doorknob coming off if you grab it roughly and the lock handle having been broken off the first time this happens. Emma knows this because it happened to her and she spent an hour locked in the bathroom until someone came home and rescued her.
Emma walks in on the burglar. Burglar attacks Emma. They struggle. Emma kicks him into the bathroom. Emma goes into a lengthy flash back about the doorknob/ lock. She locks him in. The burglar rips the doorknob off when he tries to open the door. The reader understands how and why this happens.
Emma is exiting the bathroom, minding to be careful with the doorknob. Emma giggles to herself as she remembers the time she locked herself in when the knob broke off. She walks in on the burglar. They struggle. She kicks him into the bathroom. She locks it from the outside. The burglar rips the doorknob off when he tries to open the door. The reader understands how and why this happens.
Flash-Back vs. Backstory
They cover the same material, but have very different uses.
Backstory: everything that happened to a person before the story began. This is a source for flash-backs, best served in snippets/fragments of memory.
Flash-Back: Full scene (dialogue, action etc) dedicated to a memory, temporarily pausing the main story line.
Cleaver, J. (2002) Immediate Fiction.
Cron, L. (2012) Wired for story: the writer’s guide to using brain science to hook readers from the very first sentence.