Avoid flashbacks if possible. If you need them, use them, but use them properly. Like exposition, a flashback should be broken up and sprinkled through a scene the way it might naturally come into a character's mind. Never launch into a long flashback mid scene. For example, you wouldn't do this:

"Hey, punk, what you doin' 'round here?" the stocky, redheaded Chicano said as he strutted down the alley toward Harry. Harry reached into his pocket and pulled out the switchblade he carried ever since his Uncle Louie gave it to him after he'd been jumped by three bikers in the alley behind his house when he was fourteen. He'd always known the time might come when he'd have to use it. He was never much of a fighter, in fact rough stuff always made him queasy, especially since the time he saw his buddy blasted apart in a drive-by shooting.

This kind of long reverie should take place before this scene when the character has some leisure. In the heat of battle, no one drifts off into reverie. So, for the above, we would have Harry think about the switchblade earlier when he was under no pressure. Maybe as he gets dressed to go out that night and the switchblade is sitting on his dresser as he puts his wallet and keys in his pocket and thinks that maybe he should leave it home and how tired he is of carrying it around just to fulfill his promise to Uncle Louie. You will have time to go into it in the way Harry would think about it. Then, when the bad guy rushes him in the alley and Harry reaches into his pocket for the switchblade, "Thank God for Uncle Louie," is all we need to put us right there with Harry, having the full experience.

If it wouldn't happen in reality, it shouldn't happen in fiction. Reality is your guide, even though fiction is different from reality. Many things that happen in reality cannot happen in fiction (winning the lottery as a way of getting out of a gambling debt), but what's done in fiction should be possible in reality. All fiction could be real, but all reality can't be fiction. Even special cases such as fantasy and science fiction have to establish a believable reality and be internally consistent. So, don't launch into a long flashback in the middle of an intense scene.

If you need to do a long flashback, and you're sure it's needed, then go there and do it and do it all the way. That means your long flashback has to fulfill all the story demands—want, obstacle, action, etc. The reader will go anywhere you take him, gladly, and stay there as long as you want if you reward him with story.

You can often eliminate the need for flashback and make your story more immediate by simply starting your story earlier. Here's an example of an unnecessary flashback:

"You're a rotten bastard, Dave, and you've exploited me for the last time," Larry said. His boss, Dave, had been taking credit for Larry's work for the last three years, promising to get him a raise and a promotion as soon as he could. Now he'd taken Larry's portfolio and used it to get a big job with another agency.

Can you see what happens? You start with high emotion, but the reader doesn't know who's who and what's what exactly, so to make it clear you stop the action and make the reader backtrack into a quickie flashback in order to catch up on what's going on. Even with that, we don't have a full sense of what's transpired, because a lot of dramatic material has been skipped. The natural beginning of this story would be the first time Larry discovered his boss was taking credit for his work, since that is the first dramatic event in the chain of events that makes up the story. Also, even though you hook the reader on the first line with high emotion, the reader will not fully connect until he knows who's who and what's what. It's like seeing an argument erupt on the street—it gets your attention, and you react to it, but you can't identify fully unless you know what's going on (who's who, and what's what).

In general, observing chronology is the best approach, because it's the natural order. The story flows forward, and the reader goes with it without being jerked around from one place to another. A story should start with the first dramatic event, but far enough before it so that we know what triggered the event. That way, we go into the scene knowing what the character knows, with full knowledge of who's who and what's what. Only with that awareness can we participate and feel the full impact of what's happening.

Another disadvantage of flashback is that the reader knows the character survived. If it was a life-threatening situation, you lose all the suspense of not knowing if the character will get through it or escape uninjured. If the situation is not life-threatening, the reader still knows that the character survived emotionally. Now, none of that may be important, and you may have a good reason for flashing back. If so, do it.

I've raised a lot of objections to flashbacks because beginning writers generally use them unnecessarily. But there are advantages. For example, if a dramatic or traumatic event takes place in a character's life and then nothing eventful happens for ten years, you don't want to ask the reader to skip ten years by saying, "Ten years later." You could do that, and I'm sure you've seen it done and seen it work. You might make it work also. But your story may be much better served if you start ten years later and get into some drama and then do the flashback at the appropriate time or times. What the right time is depends on your story and what feels right to you.

Again, it's art, not science. The rules are to make you aware of, to give you a feel for, how stories work. The rules are guides to keep you focused on the areas that will be the most productive. If you feel like, going against them and it feels good, do it. The main thing is, if you take something away or leave something out, you have to give something back to make up for it. You can't just take something away and leave the reader with nothing. And I feel I must caution you again that it's not only a matter of doing what you feel, since sometimes you don't know what you feel or your feelings turn against you. That's why we have craft and technique.

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