Building Flashbacks into a story is like setting high explosive charges–effective when used properly, potentially disastrous in inexperienced hands.
When I see a script from a new writer that contains flashbacks (often a lead off flashback, ick!) I almost always come back and say, “get rid of em.”
I could probably make an advanced class article out of Flashbacks, but seeing as it’s so commonly used/mis-used, I’m gonna drop the basics here.
There are a few different types of flashbacks and few different distinct methods of implementing them.
The one that causes most of the trouble, sadly, the one most people fall back on are;
These flashbacks generally come at a slower pace, focusing on details that explain the active story, rather than reveal the drama surrounding it.
Let’s say you’ve got a sci-fi comic with warring alien species, with one hero of each side shipwrecked on a hostile planet. The two fight each other for dominance and survival. An inexperienced writer might show a flashback explaining who the different factions are, what home planets they come from, the size of their military, how the war started etc.
While this information may have relevance, and explain some details, like any exposition dump, it lacks any narrative drive. Those background details do not push the story forward.
Who cares what planet they come from, or how the war started, neither of those facts change the fact that the only deer on the planet just died and both heroes are starving.
Expositional Flashbacks do not engage the reader.
If there’s no avoiding an expositional Flashback, you can compensate by amping up all the critical critical story elements, and the 4 key panel considerations. But even then, there’s no escaping the underlying essence;
Info dump flashbacks deliver story detached from the main narrative.
Think of it this way.
In our sample sci-fi story above, if the story started off with two opposing soldiers surviving on an alien planet, THEN, switched to expositional flashback after expositional flashback, one after another, on and on and on…
EVEN if they were eye catching and well executed, at some point, you’d say to yourself, “Dang, Self… Where is this going? What happened to the two guys fighting on the planet?”
Executing an Engaging Flashback
First and foremost, it must have function and purpose for the narrative.
It must connect and push the active/main story forward.
Second, it should be revealed through drama, containing all the elements any other strong scene in the story contains. Deliver information and details through visual and script subtext.
If you’re pushing the Flashbacks in a sequence, use them to tell a miniature story all by themselves. You can even treat this like a subplot and build out a distinct throughline for the flashback.
If your flashback scene is a one shot (not a sequence), recognize that it’s still part of a separate larger story, you’re only choosing to showcase one particular slice–the impactful, engaging slice, that gets whatever point across you need to make.
Third, it has to be more effective, then your weakest active story scene. If your flashback is quieter and less impactful than other scenes in the story, you’re sunk.
Mac’s Flashback Flop test: Ask yourself, if a reader picked up your story and only read your flashback. Does it contain enough oomph to entice them to read your entire book? If it doesn’t, rework it, or get rid of it.
At the more advanced level, flashbacks, not the content they reveal, but the flashbacks themselves, can be used to support the narrative.
For example, if your story revolves around anything of a disjointed nature.
Breaking the narrative up, jumping back (and forward) in time can be used with tremendous effectiveness to submerse and engage the reader (setting tone, mood, directing and misdirecting, etc.). The classic example here is a Protagonist with memory loss, or some sort of detective noir story where the Protag is trying to solve/prevent a crime.
There are also times when flashbacks are integral to the plot.
Minority Report comes to mind, where the story actually revolves around flashbacks (flashforwards) of those psychic water clone peeps. Remove those guys from that story and there is no story. Flashback necessity level: maximum.
Keep in mind, including a few flashbacks in your story is a completely different beast than a;
This is where a character (Main, Protag or even other) narrates the story, with the flashback itself being the active story. OR, gosh why do you people do this to yourselves, there is a split narrative story, with one active story taking place in the past and the other, in the present.
Flashback narratives are often botched.
If you attempt it, make sure the narrator himself has relevance.
Most of the time, you’ll probably want to tie the Narrator into the conclusion of the flashback narrative. Just like in a regular story, the flashback story can be a means to reveal the character arc, with the Narrator verifying this arc, in action at the end.
Titanic comes to mind here–most likely an example of a split flashback narrative. Remember the old lady starts off narrating, then at the end, Huzzah, she’s got the jewel and throws it in the ocean. I don’t remember her character arc, off hand, but hopefully you recognize, that only that old lady could have narrated Titanic in that manner.
Jim the bus driver, didn’t have her experiences, he didn’t have the necklace, if he tried to tell us the Titanic story, it would be vastly different… and probably nowhere near as effective as the Old Lady.
If you attempt a flashback narrative in a comic, especially a one shot, you’re narrator story is likely to be quite simple. That’s fine. Just make sure he has relevance. If a typewriter could stand in for your narrator character, without the story losing anything, you’re in trouble.
At the end of the day, flashbacks elevate the complexity of a story. If they aren’t critical to the story or your artistic vision, avoid them. Keep it simple. No one will fault you for a story unfolding before the reader in its entirety, as they read it. But, botch your flashbacks and your fans just may never forget. ▪
About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S. Visit NickMacari.com for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.
2 thoughts on “Fix your Flashbacks”
Thanks for the notes Nick, I have a flashback and within a story and it matches all your points but one, gonna fix it 🙂
You’re welcome, glad to see them helping!
Here’s 2 extra things to keep in mind;
1) Flashbacks can be potent in connecting dots. If you’ve built up a question the reader has been chewing over, a flashback can be an effective way to show the answer… of course, while keeping the narrative drive high!
2) Don’t just throw your Flashbacks in haphazardly. Look for some sort of trigger. These can cue off a story object, like Clark Kent walks into the barn, sees his old meteor space ship and recalls his crashlanding on Earth… or, an event in the story, the hero gets drunk in the bar, always good to have a flashback when you’re close to passing out 🙂 But also, you can cue off a mechanical element like a transition; Batman falls down a well, when he hits the bottom with a big splash, teenage Bruce Wayne surfaces–a flashback to when he fell down a well as a kid.
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