To continue our ongoing, never-ending discussion on character development, I wanted to take a look at flashbacks. The flashback is an extremely powerful tool at a writer’s disposal with which to develop plot, world-building, character, and more. And like all powerful things, there is danger within.
The most obvious way to use flashbacks to develop character is simply by giving the reader a moment in that character’s life that explains or sets up either a plot point or a character trait. For example, if it’s important to a story that Sally is afraid of snakes, a flashback could be employed to show us why or how that fear came to be. Later in the story, when confronted with a snake, our sense of Sally’s fear will be richer and deeper because we not only know she’s afraid but we understand the past events that shaped this moment in the tale. More than understand — we’ve experienced those events.
Since all good writers are readers, I’m going to assume that you are a little familiar with this type of flashback. It is one of the most common. Being so, this technique also carries with it one of the most common faults with flashbacks — slowing things down. After all, the flashback isn’t the story. The story is the story. The flashback is a moment when the author says, “Whoa, I’m going to stop the story for a short break into a side tale I want to share.” If handled poorly, the flashback will disrupt, and possibly destroy, the narrative flow.
Rather than a lengthy divergence into the past, some writers will create tiny vignettes that hint at a larger tale without slowing down the momentum of the main story. It’s like a flash-flashback. So, rather than go into a detailed re-telling of the day Sally went to school and Spike, the school bully, secreted the class pet, a rattlesnake, into her backpack which she only found that evening when the slithering reptile curled under her pillow, the author can highlight the final moments of terror in a few paragraphs — a vignette — and hint at the rest. The reader gains the deeper understanding of her fear (granted, not necessarily as rich and deep as a three page flashback could provide but more than no information at all), and the main story can pick up after only a few paragraphs.
This method has its dangers, too. The main one being a tendency to gloss over situations and thus, not provide the character development the author sought in the first place. Vignette flashbacks work well in short stories where space is at a premium and in the hands of a writer who can squeeze out huge impact from a few choice words.
A great solution to these flashback issues is to combine both approaches. You can take a lengthy flashback and break it up into smaller, bite-sized chunks. Doling out the flashback in little bits can create a forward momentum that gives the reader a sense of progress despite the fact that the main plot is on hold for the moment. This technique was employed wonderfully by the television show LOST. Throughout each episode, the flashbacks (and later flash-forwards and flash-sideways) not only provided character development, they did so by relating, paralleling, and sometimes contradicting, the same character in the main plot.
In other words, imagine a plot where Sally handles snakes with fearless, ruthless cruelty. As we watch her go through the main plot, we keep getting small vignettes of her as a child going to school and dealing with Spike, the bully. Perhaps we even start to think the point of the flashbacks is to show how she became cruel by fighting Spike. But just as the main plot nears its climax, we read the final flashback where we learn the full extent of Sally’s snake experience — the backpack, the pillow — and the depth of her fear. How that plays against the person she portrays herself as gives her character and the story far more depth.
There are other ways to utilize flashbacks, but I think these tend to pop up the most. One final thought — before inserting a flashback, consider not using one at all. Can the story or the character stand on its own without the extra information? If so, why break out of the main plot at all? Just a thought.