Think of them like escape pods
Flashback timing can be tricky. Flashbacks aren't limited to fiction. Narrative nonfiction like memoir can also rely on storytelling from an earlier period in the tale. Flashbacks deliver context, so readers can see the reasons and sense of character decisions and actions. They deliver the context with maximum drama.
The flashback has to occur well away from the start of the story — but it must be nearby the character aspect or event the flashback’s supposed to illuminate. The porridge has got to be just right.
That means you'll want to set flashbacks in the later pages of your book. You first bring the reader into the character’s present problem and hook them there. Choosing a later part of the book — 30 to 50 pages in — provides more impact. You want your reader to be invested in the journey you’ve set up in your book's present-day. Bury flashbacks and backstory deep into your narrative.
Tiffany Yates Martin says that flashbacks "move the main story forward, even as we are briefly glancing backward." The more that a flashback uses a forward momentum, the greater its impact.
It's easier to move around the flashbacks that are short. The material needs the transitions that help ground readers in every time of the story, present as well as past. If you're working on a memoir, readers want to trust that you're on the trail of the bigger meaning of your life's events. You don't have to assure us everything worked out fine. But we'll want confidence that you'll pursue that deeper meaning of the story and show it to us. We'll live in your remembered, concocted then, if we believe the path leads to the wisdom of the now.
Backstory feeds the relentless question of why. How do you get it into your storytelling, though, without making the whole book seem like it took place ages ago, before the story began? It helps to understand that by some measures, half a good novel is backstory. Lisa Cron of Wired for Story fame thinks that 60 percent of a good book covers backstory.
Flashbacks make an obvious point to carry readers to a time and place separate from the main story. Use backstory when the reader needs to know the motivations of the character In A Moment Like This One. Some mystery is permitted, and everyone can be an exception to what we think we know about people. But it’s better, in a passing reference, to give readers the foothold they need to keep climbing the wall of story. “Few storms impressed her anymore, after the Point Place Ice-pocolypse of last year. But this one on the TV map gave her the shivers.”
There’s backstory under the waterline there, enough that you’re tempted to go into a flashback about that Point Place storm. Measure your desire against what the extra details of the flashback — which is a full-on scene — will add to the book's forward motion. Characterization thrives on scenes, but scenes slow the pace of the story’s rate of revelation.
You don’t use flashback just to prove your character had a life before the current story time. Using too many flashbacks confuses a story's chronology. Flashbacks stop the story and throw the brakes on suspense. The readers can see these events are already over.
Flashbacks let authors show a character's motivations, and they can explain crucial influences and set up crucial events. Agent and editor Jessica Paige Morrell says flashbacks “explain something vital to the protagonist's character arc or to the climax. They are not mere excursions into another time zone. Use flashbacks to make the protagonist's choices and the ending plausible, or to foreshadow.”
There’s plenty of need for backstory, but a lot less need for flashbacks.
When you hit a hot point in the backstory, the chance for flashback has arrived. Flashback, when it’s working, is dramatic, written tight, and packed with vivid language and strong verbs. It's a lively, sparkling light that you cast onto backstory. Whenever your writing turns back the dial of time, it keeps us riveted when you make a scene.
A flashback isn't a parallel timeline. Historical fiction today uses a two-era structure to avoid flashbacks. Half the book is set in long-ago, while the other half is current day, or at least contemporary. In a parallel timeline story, you're alternating chapters to stop a plot, go back, and then return. One set of events happens in modern day, where that protagonist is usually discovering history they are related to. The other braid is the story of the past, told from that timeline. One way to start smaller with a braid is to give the main emotional pillar of the story a free hand to use flashbacks. Two timelines, but from one character.
One useful the metaphor for a flashback is the escape pod from Star Wars' Millennium Falcon. The pod of a flashback is right there on-board the story. You can use it, if you really need it. You blast away into time, but then you've got to figure out how to get back up off the surface of Tatooine and back into the main story on the Rebel ship.
When you lean into flashback, you call upon your strength in building transitions.
The three strongest transition devices are transitions of time, transitions of place, and transitions of description (the last, a more elegant way to shift from one setting to another.) Time transitions are temporal, relying on phrases like "the next day" or "earlier that season."
Transitions of place state the change of setting flat-out. "Back in Chicago" or "the next block over" give you the levers to move your story back and forth. Finally, there are transitions of description, painting a differing place with details. "On the wet walls of the cavern" signals your story has shifted.
Movies and shows get to do flashback transitions, and even flash-forward, using devices like music, changed settings, or even going from color to monochrome. In the old radio shows, a blast of organ music would signal a change. We authors get none of those devices. We get words.
The number one rule for flashback is Ensure the Readers Aren't Confused. This is reader comfort that you serve with these devices. If you use flashback, it's more effective when done sparingly. Better that you structure the passage, the chapter, or the section so that you don't need many flashbacks. That escape pod is harder to charge up once it's on the planet's surface.
Flashbacks can be a kind of tease. Morrell says that “misuse of flashbacks is like a stripper standing around pulling items out of her purse to show to the audience. Ho-hum.”