Prose: The Controversial Flashback

In your writing career you may have been told to avoid flashbacks like the Black Death. It’s a piece of advice handed down by Stephen King in On Writing. Not long after reading his memoir on the craft I happened to pick up The Dark Tower: Volume One and there, not long into the story, was a flashback. Hmmm? But it was a good flashback. In fact, it’s one of the scenes I remember most from that book.

So why the hostility toward flashbacks? If done well, they work. But done badly, they break the reader’s experience and hold up the progression of plot and characters.


“If we are enthralled, we don’t want to be interrupted.”

Sol Stein


The trick, it seems, is to use the flashback as unobtrusively as possible. Here are a few techniques to help you do that.


Making the past present

A flashback is a scene that occurred before the present story began, usually featuring some kind of conflict. It ought to shed more light on the present story in an important and relevant way. Otherwise, it’s a waste of words.

Before you embark upon a flashback, Sol Stein in his own book called On Writing provides a helpful set of questions to ask yourself:

  • If the flashback is necessary, can the reader see the action as if it were happening in the present?
  • Is the opening of the flashback as interesting or compelling as the beginning of a novel or story?
  • Does the flashback enhance the reader’s experience of the story as a whole?

One potential pitfall of the flashback is delivering it in a passive, telling way, a regurgitation of information the writer thinks the reader needs to know.

How do we deliver that information in the right way?

The answer: bring the past into the present. Make it immediate. Allow the reader to witness that past scene. Here are a few ways you can do that:



A useful tool to make scenes more immediate is dialogue. All forms of dialogue create an immediate scene. Action is taking place before our eyes. Using dialogue early on in a flashback can help create that sense of immediacy. You almost forget it’s a flashback at all. It can also be used in short sequences of flashback, such as when a character is reflecting on a past conversation with another character. Let’s look at an example:


Leo could still picture her face. The softness of her voice. The scent of her perfume.

            “Do you like my dress?” she asked.

            “Beautiful. Yellow suits you.”

That day seemed like yesterday.

In this example, we’re unobtrusively given a flashback about a character dear to Leo.

The flashback thought

We’re forever interrupted by our thoughts. When we see, hear, smell, touch, or taste it brings back memories.

The same is true of your characters. They have a history before your story began and in using flashback thoughts you can help to reveal it. It’s a wonderful way of developing your characters.

Let’s look at an example from Sol Stein’s novel, Living Room. Notice how thoughts are interspersed with thoughts from the past.

“Through the gaps in the clouds drifting across the charcoal sky, she made out the moon. As a child, she could always decipher its face; now it seemed to have only a scarred surface, crags and mottled ground where instruments had been implanted, sending messages, even now.”

See how the past is drawn into the present by merely looking at the moon. Here’s another from the next paragraph:

“Suddenly she thought of the unwashed dish with the remains of the cottage cheese and fruit. She should have rinsed it off, stuck it in the dishwasher, left things neat.”

These flashback thoughts allow the reader to get to know a character more. It creates empathy, sharing thoughts the reader may relate to. We begin to care about the character, which is important. To quote Stein: “You have to know about the people in the car before you see the crash.”

Flashback thoughts are quick and require no breaking away from the present story. They sit nicely within the immediate scene, causing no disruption to the reader.


Flashbacks and language

Be wary of certain words. ‘Had’ is your enemy. It ruins flashbacks by suggesting to the reader it’s not immediate scene. The same goes for ‘then’. The trick is to transition back into the same tense used prior to the flashback. One ‘had’ in an opening sentence or paragraph can work. But then ditch them. Readers know they’re in flashback mode. Repeated use of these words will only labour that point.


Flashbacks and suspense

By their nature, scenes that break away from the present decrease suspense. But they can be fashioned into a source of suspense too. With suspense, the goal is to postpone the outcome of a confrontation. Flashbacks can be used to achieve this postponement.


Ask yourself some hard questions

 The experts say the flashback ought to be avoided and we should take this on-board. Whenever you consider using one, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Does the flashback reinforce the story in an important way?
  2. Is it absolutely essential? If not, think of another way to introduce the information.
  3. Can the reader witness what’s happening in the flashback? If not, can you make it into an immediate, active scene?
  4. Is the opening of the flashback compelling and interesting?
  5. Is the reader’s experience enhanced by the flashback or does it intrude?
  6. Has the flashback helped to characterise? Does it help the reader empathise with the character?


Thank you for reading. I hope you found it useful. If you’d like to read more of the same, check out my blog log. If you haven’t already found them too, I have a bunch of helpful resources for writers like lists of publishersa free ebook on the craft of creative writing, and a list of book reviewers.

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11 thoughts on “Prose: The Controversial Flashback

  1. I finished a book a couple of months ago that used flashbacks regularly and it ended up creating two mysteries within the book. 1)What happened back then that caused the relationship to be how it is now and 2) what was occurring currently in their lives. I guess this falls under your “Flashbacks and suspense” suggestion. I loved it and thought it was quite clever.

  2. I agree with your points – nothing but sensible advice! But for some reason, the word “flashback” keeps bugging me. Maybe because it feels borrowed from cinema? Playing around with temporality has always been a staple technique of literature, and comes easier to writing than to film, I feel. Maybe “flashback” suggests too much to me the adoption of film techniques into writing – an analogue which may work for some, but which I’ve found constricting. The same with “fight scene”. Thoughts? Borrowing across art forms can be fruitful, but are we occasionally thinking too much through the lens of visual entertainment?

    1. I like your angle. It’s easy to be led along certain paths when we introduce ideas from other art forms, only then to become frustrated when things don’t pan out quite as hoped. You’re absolutely right. Shall we make up our own version of the flashback?

      1. Haha, why not! Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with the concept. And with writers who also do screenwriting, the flashback is probably a very natural thing. Say, have you read Gene Wolfe’s “The Knight”?

      2. Definitely, if you can stomach Wolfe’s foibles! 😀 I mention it, because I feel it illustrates beautifully some related principles, namely the use of the frame story, elisions, non-linear storytelling, and temporal tricks. In my mind, definitely a storybook – a thing hard to translate into cinematic language.

  3. Funny thing about Stephen King is that his early works seem to violate every rule in “On Writing.” It appears it took King a long time to learn those rules. In the case of flashbacks, “IT” is just full of them, and they often come at the worst times, breaking up the action. I don’t think flashbacks are necessarily a bad thing, but they are difficult to due well. In one of my books, I set the first scene of a chapter as a flashback, but this was used to introduce a new character and the scene itself was a mini story, with an arc and lots of action, which made it more engaging. Anyway, thanks for the great tips! 😀

  4. Substantially, the post is really the sweetest on this precious topic. I fit in with your conclusions and will eagerly look forward to your coming updates. Simply saying thanks will not simply be enough, for the awesome lucidity in your writing. I will at once grab your rss feed to stay abreast of any updates. Genuine work and much success in your business efforts!

  5. Most excellent read, sir! I don’t use the flashback myself, and now that I type that, it’s probably not true. So far, when I’ve needed to impart backstory, I have the relevant character tell another the story in the current time, and to date, it has been sufficient; I, too, loathe to break immersion.

    Allow me to refer you to Black Light by Stephen Hunter. It is the story of a young man in the 1990s trying to solve the murder of his father in the 1950s. The whole novel is a series of jumps between what the son discovers in the current day and what his father was doing to leave that clue in the ’50s. Seriously one of the best books I’ve ever read, and literally half the book is flashbacks… It can be done!

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