Flashbacks are a powerful storytelling device, especially when used for missed turns and missed junctions-as-junctures.
I’ve always been endlessly fascinated by a certain kind of story the central element of which is a road not taken, or the wrong road taken, without anybody noticing. With the precise moment a character suddenly realizes that they’d missed a turn, that they’d passed through a junction a long time ago without ever having been aware of its very existence.
Such moments pack a punch, so use them wisely. Among my favorite Twin Peaks moments ever is the Horne brothers’ flashback to when they were little boys, and a girl danced for them on a rug with a flashlight:
Twin Peaks, Season 2, Episode 8—Benjamin Horne (Richard Beymer), Jerry Horne (David Patrick Kelly), Louise Dombrowski (Emily Fincher)
And pure storytelling genius that David Lynch is, it’s not just some “girl,” but a very specific girl by the name of “Louise Dombrowski.” On the surface, her name is completely gratuitous. It could be considered merely decorative and even distracting; a name that occupies the reader/audience’s cognitive resources for a character without a face, without a history, a character who was never mentioned before and is never to be mentioned again. But it’s exactly the very concreteness of the name that amplifies the vividness of the vision, the vividness of the junction-as-juncture Ben and Jeremy Horne suddenly realize they’d passed through a long time ago without noticing.
Flashbacks are a powerful storytelling device, easy to use and easily abused. Abused, especially, if deployed for splainin’ things. Also, a flashback’s impact and scope is less enhanced by grandiose illustration but rather well-chosen details that illuminate, with surgical precision, a well-defined area with psychological and emotional impact.
A good flashback is like a time traveling device that puts your reader/audience right into the character’s past. But it’s also a mind traveling device that puts your reader/audience right over and into the terrifying, icy abyss which, at the focal point of realizing missed turns and bygone junctions-as-junctures, separates what we wanted to become from what has become of us.