Written by JJ Barnes
Flashbacks in your story are where you have two timelines, your main story line, and then a storyline in the past where you discover your characters history. At points during the plot, you flashback to the historical timeline for a scene or two, before returning to the present.
Why Use Flashbacks?
Flashbacks are used to explain situations in the present day by taking the audience into the characters memories. They let you witness key events in character backstory that impacts how a they’re behaving, or events in the past that are shaping present day politics.
Flashbacks are a great way of using the show don’t tell rule to literally show the audience why things are happening. Rather than having a character give an “as you know” type info dump to another character which is boring and tedious, you actually get to witness the action.
Avoid Breaking the Tension
Disrupting the flow of your main story to show sequences in a non-linear style can boot your audience out of the story by breaking the tension you’ve been building in one timeline, because you have to go elsewhere.
To avoid breaking the tension with flashbacks, make the scenes in the past somewhere the audience want to go. Withhold certain key information from your reader, information they want to learn, and promise that the answers will be found in the flashbacks.
By using the flashbacks to support and boost the present-day storyline by providing interesting answers, it builds up the excitement of the present-day timeline rather than distracting from it.
To promise your audience an exciting thread of information in the flashbacks, you need to tease your audience. Build questions in their minds, about a mysterious past or significant event, that they want to go and find out about.
The Past Must Support the Present
If you just go into the past to show events that you find interesting, but that don’t support and enhance your main storyline, you’re focusing on what you want and ignoring what your audience wants. And they will feel that.
If you particularly enjoy writing the scenes in the past, you have to either create a reason to go back there by placing key information there that your audience needs to know, or, if you’ve run out of reasons to go back, just accept that your time in the past is over.
How I Wrote Flashbacks
Flashbacks make up a key part of my third novel Emerald Wren and the Coven of Seven. I found that teasing the audience with the past of Emerald and Maram’s life, and how they got to where they are in the present-day story, worked well.
I used the flashbacks to both build the mystery of the two women and their lives and resolve and explain mysteries in the present day. Whilst I really enjoyed writing about their lives growing up, I had to stop jumping into the past when everything that needed explaining from that timeline had been completed.
I’m a fan of how flashbacks are used in the TV series Lost. The flashbacks build intrigue about the characters, you get just enough to tell you a bit about who they are and what their secrets are, but not so much that the character loses their intrigue.
The drip feeding of information through these flashbacks is what keeps the audience wanting to go back there. It’s just enough information each time that you’re satisfied, and it contributes to the main story, but not so much that you’ve done it all and have no reason to flashback again.
If you run out of information to give in the past, your audience won’t want to bother going back there, and if your audience doesn’t want to go back there you shouldn’t bother writing back there.
For instance, in Arrow, the writers kept doing flashbacks to the island where Oliver Queen was stranded, and they distracted from the main storyline. Because it had been established that the show’s format included flashbacks, despite running out of storylines on the island, they had to make it increasingly ridiculous to try and justify going back there.
Linking the flashbacks to the present-day timeline wasn’t very well done, and I found present day Arrow was the story I wanted, the flashbacks were what I had to endure. Ultimately, that’s why I fell off and stopped watching. The show is very popular and successful, but I feel that that’s despite the use of flashbacks, rather than because of them. Whereas in Lost, I feel the flashbacks were as massive factor in its success.
Remember to Keep Flashbacks Intriguing
If you want to write flashbacks, remember to keep your audience interested in the past timeline by using it to boost the intrigue of the present-day storyline. In the flashbacks, thread little pieces of information that add to and enhance the character and the plot rather than distracting from it.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose