Today on writer’s glossary…
Not to be confused with Flashdance, a flashback allows authors to time travel. It’s a
writing technique, which shifts the narrative into the past, revealing a vital bit of background or information. Crucially, you should only use a flashback if that part of the story cannot be told in any other way i.e. through dialogue.
A good use of flashback allows us to dig deeper into a character. Examples include, the Paris scene in Casablanca, which shows us Rick and Ilsa’s love story or The Hunger Games and the moment Katniss remembers Peeta giving her bread, when she was starving. In both cases, these scenes offer insight into the key motivation of the characters and help us invest in the story.
Beware the unnecessary flashback. Remember that a flashback is just backstory and will slow down the narrative, so only use it when you have to. Don’t do a flashback to impart the history of the kingdom just because your worldbuilding is so awesome. Do it because the story needs it.
Films are great at using flashback – see Memento, Pulp Fiction and The Usual Suspects.