The consensus on the Internet is that flashbacks are the devil and writers should avoid flashbacks if at all possible. Very helpful tip, Internet.
Actual footage of the Internet banishing flashbacks from existence.
I disagree with the conventional wisdom that says flashbacks, simply by nature, interrupt the current action of the story. I believe they can and do only when an author presents them that way.
I suggest writers approach writing flashbacks in the same way we approach any other scene. Flashbacks are simply scenes like any other scene.
Let's kick around a little theory on flashbacks
If you, the author, approaches the writing of a flashback as if it's occurring in the present time, then that's the way it will come across to the reader. But if you approach the scene as if it's occurring in the past, that's the way it will feel to the reader.
Flashbacks can take place in the "present" as much as any other scene. Don't think of flashbacks as the "past" when you write them. Think of them as a part of the current story that you're merely telling out of sequence. (This may apply to prologues and flash-forward’s as well.)
Flashbacks go wrong in these key areas:
- The flashback is not as interesting as the rest of the story.
- The flashback is irrelevant to the rest of the story. Sometimes a particular backstory simply isn't needed at all and its inclusion into the story takes away more than it adds to the story.
- The flashback has no connection to the rest of the story. Sometimes the backstory makes sense in terms of sharing more information about characters, but that information doesn't play an actual role in the character's decision in the present plot.
How do you write flashbacks?
The exact same way you write the main story, with a few exceptions.
Flashbacks tend to more exciting when they begin in media res, but that doesn't mean you can't write a slow building flashback.
To Italicize or not?
If your flashback is short, you may be able to get away with writing the scene in italics, but longer flashback scenes could get annoying when italicized. Usually, it’s best to avoid long passages of italics.
My personal preferred method is to provide some sort of visual cue for the reader signifying that a flashback is about to occur. No italics are needed with this method.
The visual cue could be asterisks (***), a simple line break or a brand new chapter. In general, flashbacks tend to work better when separated from the current narrative.
Whichever visual cue you decide to use, make sure you use that only for the moment any flashback occurs. This way you don't have to announce the flashback with things like: He remembered the day like it was yesterday... (Or something like that.)
You can begin the flashback scene in media res. Readers are intelligent, they will understand that whenever they see your visual cue, they'll instantly know it's flashback time.
Also, providing a cue separates the flashback from the current narrative visually and avoids confusing the reader as you go into it.
What should a flashback be about?
I suggest to avoid trying to explain the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the character’s behavior by means of a flashback. That's not to say that you must never do it, but it is to say that the purpose of your flashback should be much more than that.
Flashbacks, just like all your scenes, should try to accomplish multiple things at once. If it’s just a scene showing the reason behind your character’s meanness, the scene is not working as hard as it could be. There should be as much drama and conflict in your flashback as there is in the current storyline.
Great flashbacks, like great scenes/characters/plots can not be removed from the story without ruining the overall experience. If you can remove the flashback without harming the rest of the story, it probably should be removed.
- Flashbacks must play an active role in the current storyline.
- The flashback must only occur in a moment that is both realistic and during an emotional hook that connects the past to the present.
A high adrenaline scene can't be interrupted by a flashback without feeling unrealistic. Bring in the flashback at a time when it feels natural that a character would think about his or her past. These are usually low tension scenes.
- Orient the reader.
Flashbacks are the same as any other scene. You must tell the reader where and when they are in relation to time and space, even if, and especially if you begin in media res.
- Don't throw in a flashback scene too early in your story.
How early is too soon? It's not a science. There is no definitive answer. But it's a good idea to establish your character and main plot significantly before you enter a flashback. If the reader isn't interested in your character or main plot then the flashback is less likely to interest them.
The longer you spend establishing your main character/plot the more interested in a flashback the reader is likely to become. If you've successfully established your character and plot to a point where readers do care, then you can drop a flashback into your narrative at any time.
Always try to hold the flashback off for as long as you can though. If it can wait till Chapter 5 then definitely don't put it in Chapter 1.
It's very rare that a flashback works within the first five chapters. The ones that do are the exception to the rule. I would never say that you can't experiment and try new things, but when you do, get feedback from people you trust like a beta reader.