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This post is part of a series to augment the Tips for Writing Fiction available for free download.
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Flashbacks are pretty common in visual media like TV and movies, but how well do they work for written books and stories? If you have a strong central character and a single storyline, flashbacks can be a useful way of revealing exposition without explaining it all in real time. But I find flashbacks pretty awkward.
Flashbacks create breaks in your storytelling, where you jump back to an important point before the story started in order for the current story to make more sense. Why not just weave the prior information into the current plot? Try to find a way to tell all a flashback's relevant details in real time. This is less jostling to your readers, who are already following all your different characters as the story unfolds.
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I figure that any time a character reflects on past events, there should always be fresh details revealed. Your readers want a fresh take on the event, not a rehash. This is especially important if you're referencing events from stories you've already written (and therefore, your most devoted readers have already read). Include some new information that will keep it exciting for them!
Also remember that every person (fictional or otherwise) grows and changes over time. You aren't the same person you were last year. Your opinions have evolved, and your perspective has shifted, if only slightly. When reflecting on a past event in your story, bear in mind that your character is not the same person who experienced the event. The character has evolved by some measure since the time the event occurred.
Human memories are quite fallible. People remember incorrect details all the time. Details like the color of a sweater, the logo on a hat, which hand held the gun - these shift and amend themselves within your brain, leaving you convinced things went a certain way when others who were also there will swear by other details. Of course, don't riddle your exposition with false details, unless it's relevant to the story somehow. But keep in mind that memories are ever-changing, and that the character reflecting on those memories is ever-changing as well.
So how do you relate your flashback in real time? Let your characters reminisce about the past event, and reflect an elegant evolution in their perspectives due to the wisdom of hindsight. Your character is older now, wiser, and reflects on his younger and more foolish days. Or your character is forever changed by some event, and he uses it as a crutch to justify his failings ever since.
However you frame it, allow the reflection to add to the character's personality, and allow the character to add (or remove) details based on how he's grown and changed since the event. Then you're killing more birds with less stones - your character is better developed, the reader has a better sense of the personal growth of the character in the interim, and the reflections still impart the necessary information for the current plotline. In my Tales of the Known World saga, I strive to deliver all my exposition in a way that builds the character up rather than boring the reader with rehash, or worse, confusing the reader by jumping through time.
As for the pre-story story that you're tempted to tell via flashback...why not write it as a supplemental piece? Some stories are best told separately, so instead of bogging down your current manuscript with an extra storyline, offer it up as a related one-shot to your main tale. Or, compile a series of flashbacks for a related anthology or long-term periodical, which you can use to boost visibility when you launch your main story.
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