Flashback to the future

By Joe Moore

Flashback is a writing technique that allows the author to convey backstory while remaining in the present. It usually involves a situation in which something in a  current scene causes a character to reminisce or ponder a past event. The reason to create a flashback is to build character or advance the plot, or both. The secret to successfully employing this technique is to construct a smooth transition into and out of the flashback so as not to confuse the reader.

One of the easiest ways to enter a flashback is with the word “had”.

As Jim walked through his old neighborhood, a distant dog barking reminded him of the day he and his friends had skipped school to . . .

In addition, you want to shift the time progression from simple past tense (As Jim walked) to the past perfect tense (his friends had decided). Once you’ve entered the flashback and established the “past”, you can then revert back to simple past tense. At the conclusion of the flashback, use “had” again to transition back to current time.

Jim climbed the steps of his childhood home knowing those summer days with his friends had been the best times of his life.

In addition to transitions in and out of the flashback, it’s also important that the timeframe in which the flashback covers somewhat matches the real-time in which it’s experienced by the character. For instance, a flashback that covers the highs and lows of a woman’s previous marriage cannot be experienced during her stroll from the kitchen to the bedroom. But it would be an acceptable timeframe if she poured a glass of wine, strolled out onto her back porch and experienced it while sitting and watching the sun set and night fall. The reader must accept that the past and present timeframes are not unreasonably out of sync.

One final thought about flashbacks: it’s not a good idea to use one in the first few chapters. They can be quite confusing if thrown at the reader too soon. Wait until your reader has established at least a basic relationship with a character before taking them on a leap into the past. Flashbacks should be used sparingly. Better yet, use other techniques to relay backstory and avoid flashbacks altogether.

What do you think about flashbacks? Do you use them in your writing? As a reader, do they work for you? Are flashbacks a necessary evil or a solid writing tool?


9 thoughts on “Flashback to the future

  1. Solid advice, Joe. A flashback in the opening chapters is anathema. Also, I see too many flashbacks that don’t themselves work as a scene. It has to be absolutely gripping on some level, or why put it in?

    One other tip on getting in and out: a strong visual image in the present scene, triggering the flashback. When it’s time to get out, repeat the image and the reader knows we’re back to the present.

  2. I’m not a huge flashback fan, and generally avoid them in my writing. I’d prefer to get that information out via dialog, which requires some setting up of its own (no talking to the mirror), but has the benefit of allowing for some flexibility in interpretation. (How much do we trust the person who is telling about the past event?)

    Absolutely agree they shouldn’t come early. Really takes a reader out of the story, and can confuse things greatly.

  3. I agree that short reflective flashbacks need to be used with care however some recent novels have used flashbacks as entire chapters to great effect. water for elephants, the thirteenth tale and the forgotten garden come to mind.

  4. If a flashback is done as an entire scene or a whole chapter even, it can be very useful. I have both read and written stories where a series of flashback chapters provides a parallel story that feeds the primary story. On the other hand, if not done properly or done well, the same technique can also just distract from the story and confuse the reader. Caution and skill must be exercised when doing flashbacks.

  5. Joe, thanks for the great advice.

    Question for TKZ pros–how do you handle transitions in/out of dream sequences? A suspense novel I’m reading confused the heck out of me. It was early in the story, and I had read an entire chapter when it finally ended with the ol’ “…and I woke up” gimmick. As a reader, I was PO’d that I didn’t know enough about the character to make sense of the dream. As you had mentioned with flashbacks, it might have made sense later in the story.

    If the answer is too long for a comment, I think a lot of us amateurs would be interested in that topic as a TKZ blog post.

    Again, thanks for your time and advice!

  6. Thanks, Jim. Great additional tip. And it’s always good to see someone be able to use the word “anathema”.

    Absolutely agree, Dana. If you can do it a different way, skip the flashback.

    Those are excellent examples, Kevin, especially Sara Gruen’s novel.

    You’re right, Basil. Doing it for a whole chapter can work. In four novels, Lynn Sholes and I only did one flashback that I can remember, and it was an entire chapter.

    Brock, dream sequences are a challenge because dreams are oblique to reality. And there are few ways to end them except with the character awakening. Like any other writing technique, I would always ask if there is a simpler way to impart the information that would avoid confusing the reader. Then proceed with caution.

  7. Brock, I would say dreams should NEVER, EVER open a novel, esp. if you’re kept in the dark until the end when “it was all a dream” comes up. I know, I know, some bestselling authors have done it. Well, when you sell a gazillion copies, you can do it, too.

    IMO, the only reason to use a dream in a novel (unless it’s an essential plot element) is to show the emotional state of the character in crisis. Once is enough for that. And let the reader know from the start that it IS a dream.

    You could, alternatively, have a character recount a dream to another character in an actual scene.

  8. Does one still speak of flashbacks if they are more important than what the protagonist is experiencing in the present? Let’s say the main character is speaking to a new friend about what brought him to his present state of being. While this takes place in the present and covers a time of about a week, I transition to the past and write those flashbacks in real-time including dialogue etc.

  9. OPF, I don’t think what you described is a flashback but instead is simply relating or telling of past events by your protag in present time.

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