When it comes to writing flashbacks, there are a number of pitfalls that writers can fall into. But if done well, this storytelling device can work wonders for your story, revealing backstories, intricate moments, and flashes of memories. In this guide, we’ll take a look at how to write a flashback scene in fiction.
Despite the controversy surrounding their use, flashbacks are a powerful tool for writers. As we’ll see below, you can use them to convey information in an interesting way.
In this guide, we’ll take a look at the different ways that you could use a flashback. We’ll also explore some examples, and consider how to use them in short stories as well as novels.
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Choose A Chapter
- What Is A Flashback?
- Why Do Writers Use Flashbacks?
- How To Write A Flashback
- Dialogue And Flashbacks
- How To Write A Flashback Using A Character’s Thoughts
- Key Questions To Ask When Writing Flashbacks
- How To Introduce A Flashback In A Story
- Flashback Writing Examples
- Quick Tips On Writing Flashback Scenes
- How To Write A Flashback Scene In The Third Person
- How To Write A Flashback In A Short Story
- More Guides On Writing Scenes
What Is A Flashback?
A flashback is a literary device used to present a scene or event from a character’s past within the context of a present-time story.
It is a way to provide background information or insight into a character’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations.
Flashbacks can be used to reveal information that was previously unknown to the reader or to provide a deeper understanding of a character’s actions or decisions. They can also be used to create tension, suspense, or emotional impact.
The scene in the flashback is usually in the past tense, while the surrounding story is in the present tense. It’s a powerful tool for writers to give readers a glimpse into the past and connect past and present events to make sense of the current story.
Are Flashbacks Bad?
Flashbacks are a powerful storytelling device used by authors and screenwriters to delve deeper into a character’s past, reveal key plot points, and develop themes.
While some may argue that flashbacks can disrupt the narrative flow of a story, they are not inherently “bad.” In fact, when used effectively, they can enhance the reader or viewer’s experience and create a more immersive story.
As author Janice Hardy says in her article “5 Tips for Using Flashbacks in Your Fiction,” flashbacks can serve multiple purposes, including “to provide information, reveal character, create tension, and explore themes.”
Flashbacks can also be used to show how past events have shaped a character’s present circumstances or to reveal previously unknown information that adds depth and complexity to a story.
In his book “The Anatomy of Story,” screenwriter John Truby argues that flashbacks are an essential tool in crafting a compelling narrative. He writes, “The flashback is a simple technique, yet it has a profound effect on story… It is one of the few devices that can move us from the objective story to the subjective story and back again. Flashbacks also give you the opportunity to withhold information and then reveal it in a powerful way.”
However, it’s important to use flashbacks judiciously and to ensure they serve a purpose in advancing the story. As literary agent, Donald Maass notes in his book “The Emotional Craft of Fiction,” “flashbacks are a tricky device, always threatening to take the reader out of the moment.” Maass suggests that authors should only use flashbacks when they are necessary and when they can be seamlessly integrated into the narrative.
Why Do Writers Use Flashbacks?
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.
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 flashback scenes? If done well, they work. But done badly, they break the reader’s experience and hold up the progression of the plot and character development.
“If we are enthralled, we don’t want to be interrupted.”Sol Stein
The trick, it seems, is to use flashback scenes as unobtrusively as possible. That’s easier said than done, however.
To help you, we’ll look at why writers use flashbacks, when they could be used, before looking at some examples too.
Flashbacks are a terrific tool that we can employ to reveal new information, locked away in the past.
We can explore key moments, perhaps the ones that hold the answers to the questions raging in your story. Or maybe they show us what happened in a character’s life that made them why they are.
If done well, a flashback can also be used to tell an entire story—The Name Of The Wind by Patrick Rothfuss is arguably one big flashback, with the story following a thread set in the present day, with the main protagonist, Kote, retelling his story. It’s brilliantly done and well worth checking out.
So let’s take a look at how to write a flashback.
How To Write A Flashback
Let’s take a look at how to write a flashback.
As we know, 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, 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.
How Do You Write A Good Flashback Scene?
The technical aspects of writing a flashback scene often stump writers. The stereotypical structure of a flashback would involve a character thinking of something and drifting off into the past.
There may be a line break as the reader is transported into times of old. This break from the narrative could span pages at a time, and by the end, it may leave the reader wanting to hurl the book through their window, especially if the flashback fails to advance the story.
So when we look at writing these cut scenes, it can help to bear the following in mind:
Think about small breaks in the narrative, such as a character recalling what a smell reminds them of in a brief sentence, perhaps transporting the reader back to that fleeting moment in time.
If you want to have a more in-depth flashback scene, it’s important that this advances and progresses the story in some way. This is to avoid any reader frustration.
Dialogue And Flashbacks
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 flashbacks, 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. It’s a great tool to have if you’re looking to learn how to write a flashback in a cunning and natural way.
How To Write A Flashback Using A Character’s Thoughts
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.
Key Questions To Ask When Writing Flashbacks
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:
- Does the flashback reinforce the story in an important way?
- Is it absolutely essential? If not, think of another way to introduce the information.
- Can the reader witness what’s happening in the flashback? If not, can you make it into an immediate, active scene?
- Is the opening of the flashback compelling and interesting?
- Is the reader’s experience enhanced by the flashback or does it intrude?
- Has the flashback helped to characterise? Does it help the reader empathise with the character?
All of these questions have helped me when it comes to learning how to write a flashback.
How To Introduce A Flashback In A Story
It can be quite tricky to find the most natural way of introducing a flashback in a story. However, they do exist, and here’s a list:
- Natural thought – if your story is pretty character-driven as opposed to plot-focused, a great way to slip naturally into a flashback is through a character’s thoughts and introspections. For example, a character may see somebody they know from when they were younger and recalls memories—small flashbacks.
- Through the triggering of memories through the 5 senses – similar to the first point, one of the most powerful thing about the 5 senses is their ability to trigger memories. Smells remind us of places—countries, cities or restaurants, for instance. They have the power to transport us back to times past.
- Dialogue – in other words, a character telling a story. As we’ll see in the next section, this is a common way of naturally introducing a flashback in a story. Picture a wise old woman sat beside a fire, recounting a tale from her youth to the youngsters sitting at her feet. This is a flashback and one that can be delivered in a natural way.
Here’s a video with some very handy tips on knowing the best way to add a flashback scene into a story:
Flashback Writing Examples
There are lots of examples of flashbacks in writing, but I want to focus on one here in particular. A book I’ve already mentioned—The Name of The Wind.
Now I’m not sure if Patrick Rothfuss would agree with me when I say it’s arguably a story of flashbacks, but to me, that’s what it is. A character in the present telling a chronicler of his youth. But it’s done so well. And I think that comes down to the characterisation. Kote is charistmatic and interesting. We want to know more about his past, his upbringing, his struggles and his achievements. And that’s what the story essentially is, the reader trawling through the past of Kote to see how he arrived at this very moment.
As writers, we can take an important lesson away from this. That characterisation can be a key ingredient to the success of a flashback. If we create a character that’s interesting and intriguing, readers will want to know more about them. They’ll crave a flashback, thank you for it even.
Quick Tips On Writing Flashback Scenes
Here are some easily digestible tips and advice on writing flashback scenes.
- Understand the function of a flashback scene and the impact it could have on your story
- Try to limit the time spent in the past, away from the immediate story
- when writing a flashback scene, pick a tense and stick with it.
- Introduce a natural way to cut to the flashback scene
- Determine the purpose of the flashback – is it relevant and does it develop the plot or character?
How To Write A Flashback Scene In The Third Person
When we delve back into time, it’s natural for our voice to change too. We revert to the past tense, as per all of those English lessons in school!
Writing a flashback in the third person feels the much more accessible form. But that’s not to stop you from experimenting. For example, if it’s clear from the structure of the story that a scene is a flashback, you could experiment with using the first person. This would make that scene much more gripping and immersive.
Using the first person could also be a good way of changing tense in a way that doesn’t jar with the reader too much either. From a storytelling perspective too, if you wanted to bring the reader closer to that particular character, this is a good way to do so.
So when it comes to knowing how to write a flashback scene in the third person, go for what feels natural.
How To Write A Flashback In A Short Story
To write a flashback in a short story, you can use a variety of techniques. One common method is to use transition words or phrases such as “earlier,” “before,” or “in the past,” to indicate to the reader that the story is shifting to a different time period.
Another method is to use a sentence or a paragraph that starts with a line of dialogue or a piece of action that sets the scene for the flashback. It’s important to use clear and descriptive language when writing the flashback to help the reader understand the context and significance of the events being described.
Above all, it’s a good idea to make sure the flashback is relevant to the story and adds to the overall narrative.
There are a few things you can do to make sure your flashback in a short story is the best it can possibly be:
- Pick a compelling catalyst for the flashback. A memory triggered by one of the 5 senses, for example, can create a natural segue way into a flashback.
- With words at a premium, it’s important not to indulge too much in the flashback. Dip in and dip out. Less is more, a rule often spoken about in writing circles, is a good one to keep in mind here.
- The flashback ought to advance or contribute to the story in some way. With short stories we don’t need to go into lots of detail about a character’s background or the reasons behind why they’re doing what they’re doing, so don’t frustrate the reader by failing to progress the present story.
- Refrain from including too many flashbacks in a story. By this I mean the cut-away flashbacks that leave the present moment altogether. They can really jar the flow.
Writing a flashback scene is tricky, especially when it comes to short stories.
More Guides On Writing Scenes
Thanks for checking out this writing guide. Below, I’ve included some other related writing guides you may find useful.
- What Is A Flashback? – A detailed guide on writing flashbacks from Oregon State University.
- Great Examples Of The 5 Senses In Writing – My guide on making your stories more immersive by using the five senses.
- How To Write Great Prose – Another one of my writing guides exploring the two main types of prose—Orwellian prose and the stained glass window.
- How To Write Fight Scenes – A look at how to write another technical scene—battles and one vs one fights.
Thank you for checking out this guide on how to write a flashback scene in fiction.
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12 thoughts on “How To Write A Flashback – The Only Guide You Need”
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.
I like that idea a lot. Very cunning indeed! Thanks for reading!
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?
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?
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”?
I haven’t Would you recommend it?
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.
What I’ve found is that anything can work as long as it’s well done.
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! 😀
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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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