Flashbacks are a troubling and wonderful thing. They can provide essential insight into a character’s personality or motivations. They can develop dramatic tension by making the reader privy to events in that past the character isn’t aware of. They can set up thematic fulfillment with scene changes.
They can also be confusing, or a crutch for weak characterization or plotting. They can mess up the flow of a story, throw off pacing, and stick out like a sore thumb.
I’ve found that flashbacks are generally used in two main ways, and each is quite different. The most common is to bring the reader back in time for the purposes of showing a key event in the character’s life, and how it shaped the character in the present. Often this is an easy way to give some further depth to your character without having them go on an extended monologue or use a whole bunch of passive description.
The second is to establish a parallel narrative, and continue the flashbacks throughout the story. Essentially, this serves a double purpose of reinforcing the present character’s depth and motivations while also providing a platform for foreshadowing—and of course telling a separate story altogether.
One series that uses flashbacks extensively is the Gentlemen Bastard Sequence by Scott Lynch. Through the three books published so far, over a third of the page time is devoted to flashback scenes and sequences; however, they are used in very different ways in the three books.
In the first book, The Lies of Locke Lamora, the flashbacks serve mostly as worldbuilding, setting up the city and culture of Camorr in bits and pieces as those elements become relevant in the present narrative. They also serve to establish Locke’s character as a child, in contrast to his more grown-up self, and show his growth over time very neatly.
Oh, and one particular flashback set up maybe the single best punch-line I’ve ever read. (“Nice bird, asshole.”)
In Red Seas Under Red Skies, the flashbacks take on a very different role. Instead of going back to Locke’s childhood in Camorr, they take place only in the recent past, detailing some of the immediate backstory of how Locke and Jean got to Tal Verrar. While these serve a bit of a good purpose, they are by and large unnecessary and distract from the much more compelling present narrative—and it’s why I think Red Seas is the weakest of the three books, despite still being a very good book in its own right.
Republic of Thieves, however, is where I think Lynch really hits his stride with flashbacks. The book is evenly split between the past and present, with an entire dedicated flashback plot that thematically interweaves with the present plot. The chapters trade off, keeping narrative tension very high throughout the book, and each storyline gives hints and foreshadows at later events in the other. It is truly a skillful example of how flashbacks can be used to maximum effect.
Not to mention that the long-awaited introduction of a major character takes place in the flashback storyline…
Basically, flashbacks should be used for sound narrative purposes, and not just as an easy throwaway tactic to pack in some backstory or fill out an already flat character. Flashbacks should flow seamlessly with the rest of the story, one way or another.
Have you ever tried experimenting with flashbacks? Did you find it successful, or was it difficult?