The flashback is the most misused and overworked device in fiction writing.
Readers are totally absorbed by what happens next. That is one way storytelling works its magic. The author gets the reader interested in a character and situation, plunges the characters into conflict, and soon the reader is caught up in the characters' lives. The reader can't wait to find out how the mess the author got the characters into is going to turn out.
Say Sam Smoot, your hero, is finally coming to terms with his heroin addiction. He has entered a rehabilitation program. His wife has called off the divorce—maybe. You, as author, decide it might be a good time to flash back to the time Sam was four years old and fell off the swing, because that trauma is what caused all his insecurities, and you think the reader would be fascinated. So you write a magnificent flashback. What happens? The reader comes to the flashback and either skips ahead so he can find out what happens next in the "now" of the story, or throws the book in the garbage. Four-year-old Sam is not the Sam we care about. It's that simple. Readers find most flashbacks intolerable. Yet a lot of neophyte writers flash back like mad. Why? No one but the Creator of the Universe knows for sure, but there is a likely answer: they find the conflicts in the "now" of the story produce anxiety in themselves.
Writers identify with their characters just as readers do, even more so. Putting characters into conflict creates tension in the writer because he so strongly identifies with them. He becomes anxious. For relief, some writers go into a flashback where the conflicts in the "now" of the story have not yet arisen, and the conflicts in the flashback have no consequences because in the "now" of the story they are in the past. The writer can relax. In other words, a flashback is a device foolish writers use to avoid conflict.
One reason writers think this is okay is because of Sigmund Freud. Freud taught the world that traumatic experiences in childhood account for the neurotic behavior of adults. Ever since Freud first expounded his theory, writers have been psychoanalyzing their characters. At first, readers were fascinated by the insights about characters to be found in their pasts. But psychoanalysis is no longer a new phenomenon. Readers are no longer awed by a flash of Freudian insight. It's pretty old stuff. In other words, who cares that Melvin wanted to do it with his mother? We want to know what's going to happen when he tries to stick up the 7-Eleven at the end of chapter 4, so let's get on with it.
In Professional Fiction Writing, Jean Z. Owen claims that "some editors state outright that they will buy only those stories told in chronological order, with no regression into the past," while others, she says, "do not list the flashback as an actual taboo . . . most of them agree this literary device should be used only when absolutely necessary."
So, you ask, when do you know a flashback is absolutely necessary?
It's necessary if your character is about to be plunged into a situation in which he will act contrary to the way he has been acting up to that point in the story. Say a character is always coming on strong with women, but he does so only because he is really a shy person and is hiding the fact that he is unable to perform in bed with women. Now the character is in love with a woman. There's trouble ahead for him, but the only way for this to be made believable is to show the reader the bad experience which caused the character's problem. In other words, the antecedent action must be relevant to the present story. If the narrator simply told the reader about it, the reader might be skeptical and suspect the author of melodramatically contriving the hero's reluctance. A flashback, then, is the only convincing way to reveal this facet of the character.
It may also be necessary when in the now of the story the character is unsympathetic, loathsome, or revolting, and the writer wishes to make him less so; perhaps even to make him admirable.
Dickens, for example, made good use of the flashback device in A Christmas Carol when the Ghost of Christmas Past forced Scrooge to examine his life. By using conflict with the Ghost in the now of the story Dickens was able to keep his reader gripped in a rising conflict and simultaneously examine the flashback scenes which shaped Scrooge's character.
Without these flashbacks the reader would never understand how Scrooge had become such a miser, and the reader's growing sympathy for Scrooge would not be as great as it is by the end of the story. Could Dickens have brought this out without using flashbacks? Perhaps he could have had Scrooge plead with the Ghost for mercy in the now of the novel. Scrooge might have claimed to be an abused child whose mother died giving birth to him, and whose cold-hearted father never forgave him. But such pleading might sound hollow given the callousness with which Scrooge treats the rest of humanity. Clearly, Dickens needed to show Scrooge as a young boy to allow the reader to empathize with Scrooge's loneliness, and the only way to do that effectively was on-scene, in a flashback.
Before you go ahead with a flashback, ask yourself if you can make the same impact on your reader through conflict in the now of the novel. If the answer is no, then the flashback is necessary, but remember that within the flashback all the same principles of good dramatic storytelling which apply in the now of your story—fully rounded characters, a rising conflict, inner conflicts, and so on—continue to apply.
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