I don’t use flashbacks because they never really worked for Third-Person Present tense writing. At least in my mind. If I’m showing what’s going on now then jumping into the past can make things confusing. Of course, I have an aversion to writing flashbacks in general. Let me explain:
Long ago, I was in college and was making friends during my freshman semester. I didn’t hide the fact that I was a Writing Arts Major and enjoying writing books. This led to a new friend suggesting we write a story together. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but quickly went south. We had characters, but the only description I was given were the actors who were expected to play them in a movie. I tried my best though. The writing began with me being told what I should be describing. Made good time in getting to the end of the first page and then . . . Flashback . . . Wait . . . Put a flashback . . . What?
Yeah, I was told to put a flashback in at the start of the second page even though we were at the start of chapter 1. There was no transition or explanation as to why this had to be done now. We stopped writing for the day, but I couldn’t go back to that project and refused to try again. The paper notes met their end with a can of Dr Pepper and the Word file was lost to a ‘computer crash’. I was only 18, so this one hit me pretty hard and made me think about the whole thing. My mind focused on flashbacks and how they’re viewed by others.
People do seem to take them for granted. They’re a great way to show the past and give background information without an info dump. Yet, I don’t think people realize how they need to be triggered and can wreck the pacing, especially in a book. You see them regularly done in certain mediums to the point where you can make a drinking game out of them. Best example is ‘Family Guy’ when a character talks about a past event in the middle of a conversation, the scene is show, and then they’re back or things have moved on. The flashback is used as a scene ender at times here, but that’s because it kills all momentum for the present-day story. So, you can’t go dropping it every time you feel like explaining something.
I always thought the point of a flashback is to inform instead of entertain more than the main story. I’ve watched some shows where they’ll have a flashback episode or story arc, which is supposed to explain points. While it does that, it also makes me want to learn more about the past than what I started with. If you hook a reader so much into the flashback that they get annoyed with it ending then you made a mistake. Even if you release a short story or book to continue the flashback, you’ve done harm to the current book. A reader won’t know you’re going further later on, so they’ll be shunted out of the flow and may never get back into it.
This is another reason I’m nervous about using one. I can simply do the background scenes with a prologue and then write the main story without having to time travel. The risk feels too high for what I’m writing. If I need to explain anything, I can have a character figure it out and summarize. Do people need to see a detailed scene of a dragon being slain and the sword being imbued with its power and hatred? Not really if it can simply be shown by a character grabbing the weapon, being consumed by the dragon spirit, and declaring that vengeance will be his. The finer points can be found out in other ways, but might not be necessary.
Again, this is all about style and preference. Flashbacks simply don’t work out for me at this point. Maybe I’ll use one later, but I can’t think of any story that needs one. I do use actual visions of the past that the characters view as specters or can actually interact with, but those aren’t flashbacks. Those are neat ways to reveal events without having to actually go into the past. Works with magic and certain technology, so it’s limited to a few genres. Thankfully, I don’t like straying from those, which is another reason why I don’t really have to worry about this literary tool that much.
So, what do you think of flashbacks? Ever use them?