Short, Sweet, and Italics Free
One of my writing pet peeves is long, italicized flashbacks. But I'm not against flashbacks. Done well, a flashback gives context, provides characterization, and adds an emotional punch to a scene. But ineffective flashbacks make readers wonder why they're reading a detailed memory instead of the present moment. They're confusing and frustrating.
I've read a lot of good flashbacks... and a lot of ineffective ones. From what I've read and experimenting in my own writing, here's some flashback tips.
1. Consider the timing and length
Thinking takes time and a flashback is detailed thinking; the character is focused solely on the memory. If they're in the middle of a fight scene or an intense conversation, the flashback will jerk the reader out of a scene and confuse them.
The longer the flashback, the longer it will take the character to think about. If you need a full page flashback (and sometimes you do), your character better have ample time to be spaced out. Daydreaming in class, trying to fall asleep, and other times a character is alone are good options. The middle of a conversation is not.
I have a full page flashback in one of my novels, and it's right after my narrator gets some pretty unfortunate news. The flashback is her processing what she's just heard and the other character giving her time to do so.
2. Ease them in, ease them out.
If you're pulling the reader from the time and place of the scene, you need to do so gently. Let the reader see the thought process going into a flashback. In other words, use transitional phrases, not a scene break and italics.
I'll give an example from my own writing. In Chaos in G Major, my narrator, Olivia, finds out she and her brother were kidnapped thirteen years prior and are reunited with their real family. This is a scene in which Olivia is with her real dad and is reminded of a memory with her brother and the dad she grew up with.
Sam used to get the same look on his face when he’d sneak something from the kitchen at night.
There was one year, when we were around eleven or twelve, Mom actually let us go trick-or-treating with Dad for exactly one hour. Sam had slipped out of our room that night, still dressed in his spider-man costume. He came back after a significant amount of chair-scraping and door-creaking and tossed me my bag of candy. Sam ate half of his. I ate four pieces and hid the rest.
I smiled at the thought of us sitting on his bed in our costumes. I could practically feel the butterfly wings on my back. They were orange, a monarch, with loops that attached them to my wrists. I’d spent the entire hour we were out flapping my arms and running laps around Dad.
“Slow down, Peanut,” he’d said as he took my hand. “I don’t want you flying away.”
My mom’s voice soared from the other room, yanking me out of the memory.
"There was one year" tells the reader we're going back, and the previous line allows them to see why this memory was triggered. Then, something in her present environment (her mom's voice) pulls her out of the memory. I also included the line about her "smiling at the thought of" to keep readers grounded in the present.
These few paragraphs gave readers a glimpse into her childhood, characterized both her and Sam, and provided context around the nickname "Peanut." About a page later, her real dad calls her Peanut and she loses it. Without this flashback, I'd have to stop to explain why hearing "Peanut" was so upsetting. It would have ruined the moment.
3. Consider what's important
Short and sweet is the key to flashbacks. Readers don't need a lot of description. They don't need information about the events leading up to and after the flashback. They need to know the bare minimum of why this event is important. In the example I used, we needed to see Sam getting the candy and the use of the nickname. Readers didn't need to see anything else about trick-or-treating or what kind of candy they ate or what the bedroom looked like.
4. don't Italicize
If you're going to use a flashback, just do it. You don't need to italicize it. All that does is tell readers they're about to get yanked out of the story. If you follow tip #2, they won't be yanked out, so you don't need to alert them. No italics or scene break necessary.
5. Use the right tense.
If you're writing in present tense, your flashback should be in past tense.
If you're writing in past tense, it's a little trickier, because past perfect is annoying to read after a couple lines. In the example I gave above, almost all of it is past perfect, because it's short. In the longer flashback I mentioned earlier, there's more action and dialogue. I used past perfect for the first action and dialogue (I'd asked), then used past for the majority of the flashback (he peered down the hall, there was a soft thud, etc.) then transitioned back to past perfect for the last line of dialogue (he'd said). A nice little sandwich that tells the reader the time is different, but doesn't force them to read a full page of past perfect.
Use flashbacks when you need to, and only when you need to. Flashbacks can be great, but an ineffective one can be a major setback to your scene. Use them sparingly and keep them short. I mean it. As short as you can. And please please please don't italicize them