There are lots of tools at the disposal of writers, and one of them is the flashback. It allows us to reveal backstory, intricate moments, flashes of memories. But if done badly, it can spell disaster. In this guide, we take a look at how to write a 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.
A Guide On How To Write A Flashback
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. That’s easier said than done, however. But to help you, we’ll look at why writers use flashbacks, and we’ll look at a few flashback writing 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.
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, 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. 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.”
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 how to write 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 cliff hangers 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:
- 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.
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 To Write A Flashback Scene
The technical aspects of how to write 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 how to write a flashback scene, 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.
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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 How To Write A Flashback
Thanks for checking out this post on how to write a flashback. 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.