The Fundamentals of Flashbacks

by James Scott Bell

Whenever I think of the past, it brings back so many memories. – Steven Wright

A lot of writing teachers warn about flashbacks. It slows down your story! It frustrates readers! Some simply echo Sinclair Lewis who, when asked how best to handle flashbacks, said, “Don’t.”

A bit extreme there, Mr. Lewis. Flashbacks are a valuable tool in the writing craft box. But, like the nail gun, they must be handled with care.

What a Flashback is

A flashback is a unit of action that takes place in the past. The key word is action. A flashback is rendered as an actual scene or set of scenes, with dramatic conflict. If you only use narration, you’re telling us about the past. Better to have the reader caught up in a scene, as if it’s happening now. Not:

Jack remembered when he was a child, and he spilled the gasoline on the ground. His father got so angry it scared him. His father hit him, and yelled at him. It was something Jack would never forget . . . 


Jack looked at the gas can. The exact color and shape of the one he picked up when was eight. All he’d wanted to do was play with it. The garage was his theater. No one was home. He held the can aloft, like the hammer of Thor. “I am the king of gas!” he said. “I will set you all on fire!”

Jack stared down at the imaginary humans below his feet.

The gas can slipped from his hand.     

Unable to catch it, Jack could only watch as the can made a horrible thunking sound. Its contents poured out on the new concrete.

Quickly, he righted the can. But it was too late. A big, smelly puddle was right in the middle of the garage.

Dad is going to kill me!

He looked around for a rag, anything to clean up the mess.

The garage door. It was opening!

Dad was home.

The Purpose of Flashbacks

A flashback is used to give us essential backstory information about a character and/or the plot. It helps readers understand why a character is acting a certain way in the story present. Or it may reveal plot points to give us a fuller understanding of the story beats. Often it’s a combination of both.

There’s also a strategic use. A flashback can be a suspense interlude. When you leave your main story at a point where the readers are on tenterhooks, they will read that flashback in a pleasurable state of anticipation—which is what drives a page turner.

The Placing of Flashbacks

My advice here is simple:

Not too early. Get your story rolling with action. Get your readers invested in the characters. Then when you drop in the flashback it will have more impact.

Not too late. With your story hurtling toward the climax, the last thing we need is a scene that whips us into the past.

After the Door Slams. The plot is fully engaged only after the Lead passes through The Doorway of No Return—which should occur no later than 1/5 into the book. My counsel is to place a full flashback scene somewhere just before or just after the middle. (For a full treatment of structure, I humbly recommend my book.)

Getting In and Getting Out

Sure, you can start a flashback by telling us something like, Wendy remembered when she was sixteen…

And you can tell us when it’s over: Wendy stopped herself from thinking any more about it.

But here is a more elegant technique that works every time. When you’re about to go to flashback, put in a strong, sensory detail that triggers the memory in the POV character:

Wendy looked at the wall and saw a spider making its way toward a fly caught in a web. It moved slowly, purposely toward its prey. The way Lester had moved on Wendy all those years ago.

She was sixteen and Lester was the big man on campus. “Hey,” he called to her one day at the lockers. “You want to see a movie?”

We are in the flashback now. Write it out as a dramatic scene.

And how do we get out of it? By returning to the sensory detail (sight in this case) of the spider. The reader will remember that and know we’re back in the present:

Lester made his move in the back of the car. “This won’t take long, baby.”

The spider was at the web now. A wave of nausea hit Wendy as she watched it cover the fly.

But she could not look away.

The Backflash

A full flashback scene is not the only way to deliver backstory information. There’s also what I call the backflash. These are short bursts in which you drop info about the past within a present moment scene. The two primary methods are dialogue and thoughts.


           “Hey, don’t I know you?”


           “Yeah, yeah. You were in the newspapers, what, ten years ago? The kid who killed his parents in that cabin.”

           “You’re wrong.”

           “Chester A. Arthur! You were named after the president. I remember that in the story.”

Chester’s troubled background has come out in a flash of dialogue. This is also a good way for shocking information from the past, or a dark secret, to be revealed at a tense moment in the story.


“Hey, don’t I know you?”

“No.” Did he? Did the guy recognize him? Would everybody in town find out he was Chet Arthur, parent killer?

“Yeah, yeah. You were in the newspapers, what, ten years ago?”

It was twelve years ago, and this guy had him pegged. Lousy press, saying he killed his parents because he was high on drugs. They didn’t care about the abuse, did they? And this guy wouldn’t, either.

The nice thing about backflashes is they create mystery. You don’t give all the info at once, leaving the reader wanting to know more. You make them wait until the next backflash, and the next…as they feverishly turn the pages!

31 thoughts on “The Fundamentals of Flashbacks

  1. Always good advice, JSB. Question came up in my critique group recently, where a character was thinking about something that had happened in the very (as in a day or so) past, and since it was an important event for the character, we suggested it appear on the page instead of as a thought. So, for the sake of discussion, how long ago should something have taken place to be considered a flashback?

    • Terry, a flashback is always to something that happened before the novel begins. Otherwise, as your crit group noticed, it needs to be “on the page,” lest readers feel slightly “cheated.”

  2. “But, like a nail gun, they must be handled with care.” I love that line, Jim.

    An example of backflash that immediately comes to mind takes place in the film Wind River, which was written and directed by Taylor Sheridan while he was in the process of becoming TAYLOR SHERIDAN. It is dropped right into the middle of a tense scene in a manner that makes the viewer initially unaware that the timeline of the narrative has shifted, then explains the mystery at the heart of the story while setting up the explosive extended finale. It is perfect and somehow gets better after repeated viewings.

    Thanks, Jim. Hope you are having a great weekend.

  3. Thanks for a great post, Jim. Wonderful refresher course. I especially liked the mention of using the flashback strategically, as a suspense interlude. I needed that reminder, and I’ll be looking for places to use it.

  4. My rule is I write a flashback if I want to while drafting then see if it’s still needed/can be eliminated when doing revisions.

    I have a draft historical manuscript that starts with a flashback because it carries an important detail I can’t deliver in the opening scenes that take place 5-6 years later. It establishes details about a relationship that, as yet, I haven’t found a non-hokey way to present in real time & may use some symbolism that I want to reflect back to later in the book. Whether it ultimately stays or goes I’ll have to decide during rounds of revisions. Too early to tell yet. My ultimate answer may even be starting the story just a little later then I have it right now. All options are on the table.

    • What you’ve actually started with is a prologue. In a historical novel, that’s common. Make it an irresistible scene, and you’re off to the races!

      • Early this morning as I was writing that comment I was thinking “I’m not absolutely sure flashback applies in my example” but couldn’t think of the right word (prologue). That’s what happens when you don’t get enough sleep. LOLOL!!!!!!!

  5. Happy Sunday, Jim. Great advice on managing flashbacks. I’ve generally avoided them in my fiction, but you’ve laid out in vivid fashion how and when to utilize them. I love having another tool my writer’s tool chest. I especially like the idea of using them to build suspense and create a question or two for the reader. Especially with “backflashes.” I love that term.

    Structurally, I really like your point about not until the story has passed through the doorway to Act II.

    I’ll use flashbacks and backflashes carefully, but now I’ll have a better sense of when, how and why to use them.

    Thanks as always for an enlightening Sunday post here at KZB. Have a wonderful day!

  6. Thanks, Jim! Great teaching. Bookmarking this one.

    I have flashbacks and backflashes in my two forthcoming novels.

    So far, they’ve survived several passes by my editor. We shall see.

    Have a great Sunday and week.

  7. Woke up this morning, and this section was playing in the background on your Great Courses. I took your advice several times. Love your last example about the guy who killed his parents. My thoughts are these things should be as brief as possible.

  8. Backflashes are an ideal way to slip in IMPORTANT details from earlier books in the series, in case a reader doesn’t start with book one. The trick is figuring out which details to include and what to leave out. Less is more. 🙂

  9. Great post, Jim. Another approach I like to use for flashbacks is to hint at past crises just enough to grab the reader’s attention. Here are the opening paragraphs of my book, Friendly Fire (2016):

    **Ethan Falk recognized the monster’s voice before he saw his face. Actually, the voice by itself wouldn’t have done it. It was the voice in combination with the phraseology. “Be quick about it, if you don’t mind.”
    Be quick about it.
    With lightning speed—the speed of imagination—Ethan was once again eleven years old, his ankles shackled by a chain that barely allowed for a full step, that prevented him from climbing stairs without crawling. The pain was all there. The humiliation and the fear were all there.
    Without the voice, he probably would not have recognized the face. It had been eleven years, after all. The monster’s hair had turned gray at the temples, and hugged his head more closely. The features had sagged some and his jaw had softened, but the hook in the nose was the same, as was the slightly cross-toothed overbite. There was a way he carried himself, too—a square set to his shoulders that a decade had done nothing to diminish.**

    This is enough to set up the next 80 or 90 pages of story, before I describe the actual scene of that old crime from the more analytical POV of the cop who investigated. The point is to get readers to understand why Ethan does what he does without having to wallow in the kind of detail that would be foremost in Ethan’s mind, but that readers don’t want to read (and that this author doesn’t want to write).

    Not really a flashback, I suppose, but the suggestion of one?

    • That’s a perfect use of what I’m calling the backflash, John. We’re in Ethan’s thoughts. You’ve given us one paragraph of horrific memory. Now the readers will want–no NEED–to know. You ol’ page-turning trickster, you.

  10. Jim, this is the best discussion/explanation I’ve read about how/when/why to use flashbacks (and backflashes). Many authors use a flashback as an excuse for pondering and navel gazing. That’s why they have a bad rep. But they give valuable insights into character when used as you describe them, making them action scenes.

    A question: What do you think about using italics to indicate flashbacks? Some authors do that but (for me) it can get tiresome if italics go on too long.

    • Right you are about the “navel gazing,” Debbie. Definite no no!

      As far as italics, as we’ve discussed here, they do seem to be out of fashion for extended text, for the “hard to read” reason. I don’t personally have a problem with them, but I don’t use them for long passages because it’s unnecessary. You can get readers in and out of a flashback easily in the ways I suggest.

  11. Does it need to be said that the writer should never put a flashback within a flashback? Apparently so, for I’ve seen no fewer than four instances of such over the years.

    Flashback transitions in and out need to be well-handled, as noted. Going in, use past perfect for the first few verbs of the flashback, then switch to simple past tense. Reverse the process coming out, as needed.

    As to length, recall the movie, “The Red Violin,” which consists of mostly flashbacks and flashforwards. Viewers are oriented immediately by the scenery and the costumes, not quite as easy in novels, where such description can become obtrusive.

  12. This is great advice. Definitely a more professional way of handling it than I have been using.
    On a related matter, I’m writing a story in which I put a date at the beginning of certain chapters to represent the “ticking bomb.” Recently a critique member was adamant that whenever I had a flashback, I needed to include the actual date of the flashback for correctness. This was new but, like I say, she was adamant.
    I did some research but have found nothing to support it. Do you know of anything?

    • I’m not sure I quite visualize what is going on. You’re putting a date only on certain chapters? And then having flashbacks without a date? Are these stand-alone chapters? Get some more input from some others. See if there is a consensus. The whole point is not to confuse the reader. Make it easy for them to follow along.

  13. Let us not forget the use of flashbacks for purposes of yarn-spinning. In “Roughing It,” Mark Twain interrupts his own description of his first encounter with sagebrush as he was travelling in the West with the following digression, which he presents without a transition worthy of the name:

    “In Syria, once, at the head-waters of the Jordan, a camel took charge of my overcoat while the tents were being pitched, and examined it with a critical eye, all over, with as much interest as if he had an idea of getting one made like it; and then, after he was done figuring on it as an article of apparel, he began to contemplate it as an article of diet. He put his foot on it, and lifted one of the sleeves out with his teeth, and chewed and chewed at it, gradually taking it in, and all the while opening and closing his eyes in a kind of religious ecstasy, as if he had never tasted anything as good as an overcoat before, in his life. Then he smacked his lips once or twice, and reached after the other sleeve. Next he tried the velvet collar, and smiled a smile of such contentment that it was plain to see that he regarded that as the daintiest thing about an overcoat. The tails went next, along with some percussion caps and cough candy, and some fig-paste from Constantinople.

    “And then my newspaper correspondence dropped out, and he took a chance in that—manuscript letters written for the home papers. But he was treading on dangerous ground, now. He began to come across solid wisdom in those documents that was rather weighty on his stomach; and occasionally he would take a joke that would shake him up till it loosened his teeth; it was getting to be perilous times with him, but he held his grip with good courage and hopefully, till at last he began to stumble on statements that not even a camel could swallow with impunity. He began to gag and gasp, and his eyes to stand out, and his forelegs to spread, and in about a quarter of a minute he fell over as stiff as a carpenter’s work-bench, and died a death of indescribable agony. I went and pulled the manuscript out of his mouth, and found that the sensitive creature had choked to death on one of the mildest and gentlest statements of fact that I ever laid before a trusting public.”

    So another use of flashbacks, apparently, is to use them as a kind of practical joke you’re playing on your trusting public.

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