|Yes, flashbacks can actually be useful!|
Yes, here is that dreaded word, flashback!
And yes, I think it can be used to advantage in stories. Especially in SF/F where the backstory is huge and sometimes crucial to what is going on in the present.
I do use flashbacks, sometimes as a character's musings about the past, less often as an actual flashback plopped into the story (this is the least effective and smooth option, in my opinion, but also useful at certain points). The most elegant solution, though is employing a flashback the way it naturally occurs in your own daily life.
Does this ever happen to you? You're walking down the street with a friend. You see a car parked on the side of the street that looks exactly like the first car you owned. Suddenly you're transported to the past for a full five minutes, remembering the first time you drove alone, that sense of freedom you gained when you were able to go wherever you pleased, or that time you ran out of gas. Meanwhile, your friend is standing there bored out of his skull because you're immersed in your flashback—immobile, unresponsive, lifeless. Does it?
Well, of course not. This doesn't happen in real life. Why should it in your novels?
What really happens:
Tim and Helen were walking down the street one evening in June, on the way to their favorite pizza place. Helen paused beside a rusted Pontiac, shaking her head and smiling.
"What's up?" Tim asked.
"That's the same as my first car," Helen said, motioning with her chin.
"It's an old beater."
"No kidding. Once I got pulled over for driving without a back license plate. Turns out the bolts had rusted through and the plate fell off without me noticing. My dad had put the fear of God into me about never being pulled over, and yet here I was being cited. Don't laugh! It wasn't funny."
"Yes ma'am." He made a mock serious face.
She nudged his arm with her shoulder. "Come on. I'm hungry."
This sample scene is relatively benign in its topic. Yet this technique could be used for all sorts of important reveals. Dialogue is a speedy way to reveal past events, for it's natural for people to talk to others about important things that happened in their past.
If your character is alone, though, or with people that she doesn't trust, then she can think about past events instead of speaking about them. However, to keep this from becoming a dreaded info-dump, it's crucial for your character to think about these past events in relation to what's going on in the present moment!
"The most elegant solution is employing a flashback the way it naturally occurs in your own daily life."
There are many ways to weave the past into the present in your novel or story. Honest to goodness flashbacks, however, are not always—and I would posit not usually—necessary. Revealing the past while keeping the immediacy of the present is always good writing.
Backstory: You Need It More Than Your Readers Do is a series of posts that will explore how much you need to know about your story versus how much you need to tell. It's that old show versus tell conundrum explored in a new way.
Danielle Ste. Just is the author of several short stories including The Forgottens and The Effect-Displacement Assassin. Her new novel, Lethe, is forthcoming.