How To Write A Flashback | Essential Tips

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 backstory, intricate moments, and flashes of memories. In this guide, we’ll take a look at how to write a flashback scene in fiction.

Learning How To Write Flashback Scenes

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.

Why Do Writers Use Flashbacks?

Flashbacks are a terrific tool that we can employ to reveal new information, locked away in the past.

how to write a flashback

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.

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, 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: 

how to write a flashback scene

Dialogue

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:

Flashback 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.

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.”

 tenor.gif

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 an 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. This is the danger when it comes to writing flashbacks. If it’s poorly timed or goes on for too long, or doesn’t really contribute much or progress the story, it can frustrate a reader and increase the chances of them giving up on your book. And nobody wants that.

But when we look at writing a flashback, we can use suspense to our advantage. With suspense, the goal is to postpone the outcome of a confrontation. Flashbacks can be used to achieve this postponement, helping you create mini cliffhangers to keep the reader guessing.

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?

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.

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.

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.

Quick Tips On Writing Flashback Scenes

Here are some easily digestible tips and advice on writing flashback scenes.

  1. Understand the function of a flashback scene and the impact it could have on your story
  2. Try to limit the time spent in the past, away from the immediate story
  3. when writing a flashback scene, pick a tense and stick with it.
  4. Introduce a natural way to cut to the flashback scene
  5. Determine the purpose of the flashback – is it relevant and does it develop the plot or character?

How To Write A Flashback Scene In 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 easier form. But that’s not to discount you 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.

Get More Help With Writing Flashbacks

free book on writing

Are You A Writer?

Get a free book on creative writing (worth $12) when you join my community of thousands of writers!

✔️ Help getting published

✔️ Improve your writing

✔️ Learn how to make book sales and build your following

How To Write Flashbacks In Short Stories

Using flashbacks in short stories can be tricky. You have far fewer words to play around with than you do longer works of fiction like novels and novellas, so every word must count.

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 Writing Guides On Writing Scenes

Thanks for checking out this writing guide. Below, I’ve included some other related writing guides you may find useful.

Thank you for checking out this guide on how to write a flashback scene in fiction.

12 thoughts on “How To Write A Flashback | Essential Tips

  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!

Leave a Reply

Take Your Writing To The Next Level

Join my community of writers and take your writing to the next level with...

✅ A free copy of Thoughts On Writing

✅ An invite to my online writing group (160+ active members)

✅ Writing Tools like lists of publishers and book reviewers

Writing guides and strategies on book marketing

%d bloggers like this: