Story Musings: Flashbacks & Recounting past events

It’s safe to say that no one really wants a story spoiled for them. Not knowing the future is what creates tension and excitement for the readers to know if the world or the characters they care about will be alright. It’s what keeps us engaged with the story, especially when it’s a high stakes story which most adventure-based stories are. Many stories use the narrative tool of flashbacks to quickly inject a backstory for a character or add further context to what’s happening. It can really help to add emotional depth to the characters or the setting. However it has to be carefully done as a misused flashback can potentially remove all tension, drama and potential excitement that the story can give.

The main danger that comes from using flashbacks or similar story telling methods is that the outcome is already predetermined. For instance, the reader knows that the person recounting the story will survive whatever happens in the flashback because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to tell the story. That also counts for any of the characters that the reader knows is alive, perhaps if they’re with the storyteller, in the main character’s group, or if they’re elsewhere in the story. For instance, in Kane Chronicles #1: The Red Pyramid, every chapter starts with the main characters Carter and Sadie commenting on how they’re recounting this story to the reader. While it’s a cute tie-in to the ending, it ruins the tension in the story as the reader knows that they will survive whatever happens and still be together by the end of the story. It makes them as characters less interesting or engaging as the reader already knows their fate and doesn’t have to worry about them.

A strength, however, is that a flashback can really serve to flesh out a character’s backstory and development in a quick and effective manner. In some stories there may always be some mystery surrounding the supporting cast of characters or perhaps one of the main characters themselves. I actually used a flashback in my own book, The Legend of Nariko: The Mark of Silverfrost, to flesh out the backstory of one character while also giving context to the setting they find themselves in. But what was key in that moment was that the character in the flashback acted more as a lens to see the fate of other characters and a major event that had occurred. It was never a question of what would happen to them but rather the people and the land they were fighting for. A character recounting past events can be really strong and impactful moreso if they’re not the focus of the flashback segment.

That also leads to the valuable context that flashbacks can provide in stories. Often times a recounting of past events can really make characters more endearing when we know what they’ve been through and what they’ve done to get to where they are now. This is especially helpful in creating sympathetic antagonists or at least justifying to the reader/viewer why they are the way they are. One of my favorite antagonists is from The Dragon Prince on Netflix and they describe one of the most pivotal moments of the world’s history. It helped to really humanize them, make them empathetic and, in a sense, justify their world view and motivation. Its very difficult to make a classic unapologetic pure evil villain endearing to an audience so many writers will often write a more sympathetic antagonist. A recollection of their history can give context to their motivation to quickly make them both endearing and understandable.

Telling a story, even a segment of a story, from a future perspective can have it’s benefits but also has risks. Flashbacks are a strong narrative tool that writers have at their disposal that many have used with great success. The main objective of a flashback should be to have a focused goal of giving further context to either the characters, the worldbuilding or often both. Trying to create tension or drama within the focused story of a flashback can be risky as the outcome is already predetermined and can serve to detract rather than add to the overall story. Flashbacks shouldn’t be avoided but they also shouldn’t be used recklessly. They require careful thought and planning to get the most out of what they can bring.

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