There is a lot of advice about avoiding flashbacks. Why?
This is an easy one. How often do you flashback in real life? How long do those flashbacks last? Do you ever flashback to your childhood while doing something important that demands all of your attention, like giving a presentation during a meeting at work or, say, running away from a stray dinosaur?
Flashbacks are unrealistic. When we flashback in real life, we trigger a quick glimpse of memories, a flicker, and more often than not, we don’t flashback to the complete narrative of the events but to how those events made us feel. I was sitting on the back porch yesterday, talking to Jeaniene Frost about Nolacon on the phone (more on Nolacon later.) The day was bright, the sky very blue. Just beyond the fence, on the right hand side, old trees rustled in the breeze, the first shorter, the next taller, and past them even taller one. The way the trees layered reminded me of the garden plot my grandparents owned. It was about an acre, filled with fruit trees, berries, and vegetables. It was my favorite place when I was growing up. I was the princess of that garden. The garden plot is long gone, sold to pay for things, but I have so many memories tangled in those leaves. I remember climbing the apricot trees and eating cherries and swinging in my swing… I remember hiding in raspberry bushes when it was time to go home just so I could stay a little longer. I still remember where each plant and tree were. I could draw you a map. It made me feel sad and melancholy. I am never getting that garden plot back. Maybe one day I will get my own.
What was I doing before the flashback? That’s right, you had to reach back a little bit to remember.
In life, the flashback lasted less than a second. The feeling hit me, I smiled, I felt sad, I kept talking. The law of fiction, if there is one, says that everything important requires detail, which is achieved through spending time and words. If you want the flashback to evoke a feeling, you have to get the reader engaged with the narrative. That means you have to knock the reader, who is already engaged with the story, onto a completely different track of thought and then drag him back. Chances are, he won’t remember where you left off and be annoyed, because hopefully they were already into the story you were telling.
There are times when a flashback can be used to a good effect. If you know your story starts slow, you can start it with a character hurtling to his death through the air and then explain how he got to that point. For example, if we start the next novel with Kate choking to death as she is hung off a tree, the readers will want to know how she got there. But there is a way to overdo it. If we start a novel with Kate stabbing Curran in the heart, it will be an automatic no for many readers. That has to do with negative and positive feelings the narrative creates and is a long and different conversation. Short version: beginnings work best when they entice but not necessarily shock or make the reader experience extreme sadness. If you make the reader too sad at the start, they won’t read the book. Unless it’s a Nicholas Sparks book, who is like “here are two old people slowly dying and it is terrible and sad, let me tell you their story.” (This is why there are no rules in fiction.)
To reiterate, avoid flashbacks if you can. If you can, make them brief and make sure they are timed appropriately.