Writing Flashbacks 101: Deja Vu All Over Again
Writing flashbacks can be difficult depending on what type of story you’re writing. There are a number of things you want to keep in mind that will ensure your readers will understand what’s going on and realize that the content is a flashback. Here are the highlights:
When writing flashbacks, you should do something with the format to make it easy to tell that the scene is not in the regular chronology of the story. This can be done using italics, a header at the beginning that shows a change in the date, or other ways. Be creative. Every author has a different way of doing this, and it’s really a stylistic thing. As an example, I just got done reading The Martian by Andy Weir. Midway through the book, he adds a flashback in which Mark remembers the events that led to him being stranded on Mars (hardly a spoiler). The flashback is in italics and set apart within the chapter by two or three blank lines on either side.
When you’re writing flashbacks, it’s important to have your characters at the forefront of your mind. If you’re writing a much younger version of a character, be sure to distinguish them from their present-day form. Maybe there are fewer lines on their face or they no longer have gray hair. It’s important to be consistent here, especially if there are multiple flashbacks sprinkled throughout the story. In my latest book, Death Wish, I had a flashback to a time before one of my main characters had a facial scar. It was only a few years earlier and he wasn’t much changed physically apart from that, but it was a way to make him stand out. Another example is with the flashbacks in Harry Potter, in which there are younger versions of Snape, Lupin, and the rest. J.K. Rowling does a great job of depicting their much younger selves, displaying characteristics that make sense for much younger men. This includes being juvenile, brash, and horn-dogs.
You’re writing a flashback for a reason, right? There are many reasons to write a flashback, but they should be more than “it would be cool to see so-and-so’s younger self.” Make your flashbacks have real meaning for the context of the story you’re writing. History has a way of repeating itself, and that’s a common thing to display between the past and present of your story. The length of the flashback doesn’t have to be overly extensive to get your point across. It could be a paragraph or a page and be just as effective as a whole chapter if done correctly.
Regardless of how you decide to go about writing flashbacks and what form they take, just get on with it! Make your point and get back into the action of the story. Too many tangents will leave readers feeling like they aren’t getting anywhere in the story. Make sure the reader knows they are reading a flashback, and be sure to distinguish the characters from their present self to drive the point home.