Every story is set in a period of time. In a story, any reference to backstory or action that has happened in the past to explain something within this period of frame is referred to as a flashback.
When writing a novel, a flashback can be a powerful tool in the development character motivation. In my novel “Blood Ties” I have a couple of flashbacks to build up the foundation to why Amber is desperate for a new life and a mother she misses.
However, there are a few rules around writing good flashbacks:
1. Use Sparingly
Every time you use a flashback you risk losing the audience.
2. Have an emotional trigger to go into the flashback
For the flashback to occur there must be a trigger. For example, in Blood Ties, a man stalking Amber triggers a memory of when she was fifteen and a guardian tried to rape her.
3. Let the audience know the flashback has started
If you are writing in the present tense then this is relatively easy as you can just switch to the past tense. However, if you are writing in the past tense, then you have to start the flashback a little differently, you need to start the flashback in the past perfect tense.
The Past Perfect expresses the idea that something occurred before another action in the past. It can also show that something happened before a specific time in the past.
I had never met my wife before I moved to Jersey. This is a completed action before something in the past.
By the time I met my wife, I had been in Jersey five years. This is a duration before something in the past.
Once, you are a couple of sentences into the flashback, it is okay to revert to simple past tense as it is easier to read.
4. Have a trigger to end the flashback
In Blood Ties, Amber is pulled from the flashback by the train arriving at the platform.
5. Let the audience know the flashback has end
Again, if you novel is present tense it is easy to show you have ended the flashback by reverting to back to resent tense.
If your novel is in past tense, then you need to revert to past perfect tense for the last couple of sentences to give a hint that the flashback is ending.
6. The effect the flashback had on the reader
Does the flashback effect how your reader views your character? If not then dump it, A flashback must add something to explain a character motivation or to their personality.
7. If possible lose the flashback
Make sure you fully understand the reason why you need the flashback and you are sure you cannot get the information across without it, because every time you slip in to a flashback you risk losing the reader. Before using the flashback, make sure the reader is hooked in the story but do them early in the novel not in the main part of the book.