A fictional flashback is a writing technique that forces the reader to transition from a present-day scene to a scene set in the past. The writer shows a scene in the present and then shows a scene from the past with SHOW as the operative word here. It is as if the reader has gone back in time and is directly experiencing a past scene, as if it is happening right now, through the eyes of a younger version of the viewpoint character. This is different from when the viewpoint character looks back from the present day and remembers past events from a more distant perspective.
The fictional flashback is very different from other types of flashback such as the psychological flashback, the drug flashback, and the visual-media flashback. You might be surprised at how much detrimental influence these three types of flashback have upon the imagination of an inexperienced writer when he tries to write the fictional flashback. A fictional flashback is subtle, simple, and clearly written. To write one in the style of these three other types of flashback is to make it too heavy-handed and gimmicky.
For example, a psychological flashback (such as the experience of getting shot at during a war) can be triggered by a sensory experience (such as hearing a firecracker pop), resulting in a person (such as a veteran) losing awareness of his present-day surroundings and thinking he is reliving his past. A fictional flashback does not happen like this. There is no need to stop a present-day scene cold, insert a past scene, and then re-orient the viewpoint character – blinking in confusion – back to reality to finish out the present-day scene. Likewise, a drug flashback usually involves an incoherent burst of emotion or a distorted visual hallucination. Unless the writer is actually describing a drug flashback, a fictional flashback is completely different – very orderly and precisely written.
And a visual-media type flashback found in movies and television must communicate its intent through extremely obvious visual cues such as the character focusing on an object, the character’s vision blurring on the present-day scene, the character’s vision clearing to reveal a past scene, and the past scene having a different look from the full-color present such as black-and-white or sepia tones. Visual media have only images (and, perhaps, voice-over narration) with which to tell the story. But written fiction has words, which when used with precision can lead a reader through a flashback in a natural, understated, realistic, and effortless way.
Flashbacks are not without their risks, though. They tend to stop the present-day action dead, which is why you do not want to wedge a flashback into the middle of an unresolved present-day scene. (I’ve even encountered fiction by beginning writers who stuffed flashbacks into the middle of present-day conversations!) So as not to antagonize your readers, who will understandably want closure on one situation before following the story to the next event, finish the present day scene and then do the flashback.
Another risk that can arise with flashbacks centers on the dual storyline, which happens when the writer alternates each present-day scene with a scene set in the past. This creates a dual storyline in which one is set in the past and one is in the present. Many times in such a book, one storyline becomes more interesting than the other, and the readers resent having to spend half the book on the less-interesting storyline. It can be very difficult to give both storylines equal strength, especially when past events generally lack suspense because they have already happened and cannot be changed.
Why even do flashbacks? Because they make the reader experience parts of the character’s past up close and personal. An author does this to engage the reader on a strong emotional level.