There are many examples of flashback in literature.
Some are skillfully pulled off. Some others totter on the brink of disaster, but manage to lead the reader back to the story before all is lost. Finally, some other flashbacks are like a knife in the hands of a butcher: they slaughter the story and leave it agonizing, bleeding to death.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that writing a strong and effective flashback is a herculean feat. In fact, this could merely mean that flashbacks tend to be overlooked by authors. Because they are considered “easy stuff”.
From a purely technical point of view they are right–it’s not at all that difficult to devise an effective flashback. However, to fully exploit the evocative powers of a flashback it is essential to follow some basic principles.
Flashbacks in literature – Signalling
Cormac McCarthy doesn’t love quotation marks. So he doesn’t use them to signal the use of direct speech. This notwithstanding in his books he uses direct speech quite liberally. And as a reader I never experienced any trouble to understand who was saying what.
This is so because Cormac McCarthy puts every new quote on a line by itself and avoids useless clutter in his dialogues. In this way readers have a clear perception of the scene, and the absence of quotation marks becomes therefore unnoticeable.
The same goes with flashbacks. You’d better signal your flashbacks with a line break both before and after the flashback.
You can also make sure to give your readers some bearings about the time and place your flashback is set in.
You know what they say. The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. So you should make sure you show these differences in your flashbacks too.
For example, if you have a character sitting at a table in a bar and thinking about an event that happened in the past and forced him to make a hasty decision sitting right there at that same table, show these differences.
I mean, you could describe the bar the way it was back there. Full of smoke, with large plastic ashtrays overflowing with butts sitting at the center of cheap formica tables. You could describe the brands of liquors, the music on the radio, the parlance and clothes of the customers. Maybe they were all men. They wore hats and ties. Snickers were yet to be invented. Things like these.
In flashbacks it’s also important to operate a shift tense. This might seem tricky. But to carry it out flawlessly it’s enough to follow few simple guidelines.
If you’re writing in the simple past you should switch to the past perfect. If the flashback isn’t exceedingly long and it doesn’t feature any flashbacks you can use the past perfect throughout it.
However in many cases, authors use the past perfect for the first few verbs and then they revert to the use of the simple past. The same applies to the end of the flashback.
Instead if you’re writing in the present things are even simpler. You switch to the simple past for the flashback and back to the present once you get back to the main story.
Of course, every book is unique and as such you can never give a precise number about the quantity of flashbacks you should or should not insert in your story.
However it could be useful to understand what kind of book you’re writing. In fact in certain frame stories in which the narrator is recounting remote events all the while also commenting on them flashbacks are essential.
Instead in books where the difference between the present point of view and the more remote one is not so stark or not so central to the story, a high number of flashbacks could disrupt the narrative flow without adding much in terms of depth and layering.
Following these few principles and knowing exactly what the story you’re writing is about you’ll be able to write any kind of literary flashback. Short and naked as Chekhov suggests in his rules for writing. Or lengthy and rich as those you can find in the The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood.
Some novelists say flashbacks in literature are bad. I don’t think so. Instead, I believe that, if treated adequately, every literary trope can help you turn your novel into a powerful story. So go for it. Just make sure you know what you’re doing.