I once heard a literary agent refer to “flashbacks” as “the F word.” Why do they get such bad press? Could it be that writers spend more time thinking about the past than normal people do, with the result that flashbacks seem more naturalistic to the average writer than to the average reader? For whatever reason, writers are obliged to go sparingly on them.
The Harry Potter movies treat flashbacks as a kind of “special effect” – past memories crucial to the plot are extracted, seething, from the relevant wizard's forehead with forceps-like tools, and dropped into some kind of vessel. Harry then has to stick his head underwater to witness scenes from Voldemort's childhood. My daughter tells me nothing quite like this happens in J.K. Rowling's books, but then, I guess books can't really have “special effects.”
One thing writers can do is to try and integrate a flashback seamlessly into a character's thought process. Kemble Scott's The Sower contains one of the most perfect flashbacks of this kind that I know. Bill Soileau, having been infected with a cure for AIDS that can only be transmitted sexually, is obliged to have sex with as many people as possible. Although homosexual, Soileau often has to “cure” women. In order to get aroused on one such occasion, he recalls a sexual experience from his past -- a rare case of a character having a good plot reason in the present for meticulously reliving an event from long ago. The remembered event gives the reader fresh insight into Soileau, so that a scene that might otherwise be primarily comical also becomes poignant.
I'm going on a long bike ride today, most of which I will probably spend flashbacking, as is my wont -- then if I survive this experience, at 7.30 pm I hope to make it to the official hardcover launch of Kemble Scott's The Sower at The Booksmith.