Back In a Flashback

By Joe Moore

Flashback is a writing technique that allows the author to convey backstory (events from the past) 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 previous 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 couple of 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 if possible.

Any additional advice on using or not using flashbacks?


18 thoughts on “Back In a Flashback

  1. I like how you mention that flashbacks should be triggered by something that happens in the main story, and that we should use them sparingly, if at all.

    Perhaps another guideline is to ensure that the flashback is a compelling incident. I’ve seen flashbacks that are as boring as heck and don’t add a thing to characterization. Sure fire rejection.

    As for the tidbits of backstory that you trickle into a story? I think the same guidelines apply, e.g., create a trigger, make sure the transitions in and out are clear and effective, but keep them short (my personal ‘rule’ is no more than two sentences.)

    Watching good movies can help. Screenwriters tend to use flashbacks more like trickling in backstory in small bits. Good word to remember: flash!

    • All good tips, Sheryl. Like you, I’ve found that movies are a great teaching tool for novelists. You don’t have to form images in your head, they’re right there to see. You can concentrate on dialog and characterization, and when flashback is used, learn from the pros.

  2. Good, solid tips, Joe. I would emphasize that a flashback needs to a) have an essential reason for being (i.e., can the info come any other way?); and b) work as a dramatic unit in and of itself (i.e., not just to deliver information).

    Another way in and out: Have the POV character see a distinct image that reminds him of the past…do the flashback….then return to the image, and the reader knows the flashback is over.

  3. As always Joe, fabulous post. Nothing is worse for a reader than to be thrown back and forth without a seamless transition. One final thought. The flashback should relate to the storyline and not some unrelated point in time for the sake of dumping backstory.

  4. Thanks for speaking on this topic. This is a real problem in many of the manuscripts I critique. And there is a difference between a flashback and backstory. Flashbacks are usually reenacted moments from the past, catapulting readers into a scene that comes across as live action. Really, what you are talking about is backstory.

    There are some “rules” floating about regarding backstory. Don’t use any in the first fifty pages. Keep it short (no more than 3-4 lines before coming back to the present). Here’s a great post on The Rule of Three that will help avoid backstory dumps: Most of the time backstory isn’t needed in large chunks. Try to distill the main point the backstory is needed to convey, then present it succinctly so that it fits the present action and thoughts of the POV character.

    Too often writers succumb to using backstory because they feel they need to explain important info to the reader. But there are often better ways to bring that out in the present action instead, such as through dialogue and direct thought.

    And while in that bit of backstory, starting and ending in the perfect past tense (using “had”) is important to signal the start and end of the passage.

    Real flashbacks (moment reenactment) are difficult to pull off well because of jerking the reader out of the present story. They can be very effective in key places in a novel, usually close to and before the climax, to reveal some key plot point. But I’d advise staying away from them in Act 1 to keep the reader in the present moment and action.

    • Thanks for your input, C.S. In many respects we’re talking about the same thing. In my writing workshops I refer to backstory as the history of a character created by the author. Flashback is one of a number of techniques the author can utilize to reveal backstory.

  5. Flashbacks and backstory are one of the main faults in manuscripts I judge for contests.There’s nothing that kills the pacing quicker than a seque into a character’s past that could be summarized in a line or two.

  6. The chapter I am working now is flashback heavy. It has to be. But boy, it’s hard to pull off well because it is so hard to maintain reader interest when you have put on the breaks and asked them to back up. So I’d add for advice:

    Get in cleanly (I like the visual trigger thing)
    Don’t linger too long (don’t live in the past!)
    Transition back to “present” as clearly as possible. (Bring the reader out of the coma.)

  7. If you need to go back in the past for any length of time, wouldn’t it be better to use a new chapter with the date as the heading? My debut novel is covering the present and two other timelines, several years apart. My plan is to start in the present and in Part Two, Date and Year, and Part Three, same. Then back to the present. Would this help to keep it less confusing to the reader?

    • I’ve used this same technique, Rebecca. Bottom line is to do what it takes to tell a good story without confusing the reader. Do what works for you.

  8. One flashback not mentioned is one related to a character’s PTSD (not war related). Deep inside the MCs POV, would it be proper to use one traumatic flashback to illustrate the MCs horrific experience, keeping it short, not pages long with all the proper set up?

    I am sure everyone understand sufferers are susceptible to triggers which throw them back in time for short periods. Would it be considered taboo in the First Act if it was a central theme and directly related to what would happen at the climax, and again only used once?

    Thank you in advance for your advice.

    • Thanks for the question, Cecilia. A general consensus is that flashbacks should not occur in the first couple of chapters. Even that can be overlooked depending on the genre and style. In other words, do it if it works. Don’t if it don’t. I always recommend letting the reader get to know and form an attachment to the protag by the character’s actions and reactions. One of the best “rules” is put forth by my fellow blog mate, Jim Bell. “Act first, explain later.” Hope that helps.

      • Thank you, Joe. I appreciate your response. You are right, there are so many variables it would be hard to discuss them all and give advice without being specific to a particular story. However, it is good to understand some basic principles. Then, in the end we must write what the story dictates, weighing in good advice from the pros. **Grin**

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