What are flashbacks?
Flashbacks take the reader from action in the narrative’s present to action in the story’s past.
- Play out as ‘shown’ action scenes, live on the page—as opposed to backstory, which is ‘told’ by the narrator.
- Vary in length, and can be as little as a one-sentence snapshot, or as long as a full scene or chapter.
- Often include action, description, thought and dialogue.
If you find flashbacks consuming your story’s forward momentum, consider:
- Whether a dual timeline narrative might be more appropriate?
- Whether the story should start earlier?
Sometimes, the boundaries between dual timelines and flashbacks are unclear.
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has a fragmented, disjointed narrative structure, reflecting the narrator’s traumatised psychology. The ‘past tense’ timeline is often instigated by present time thoughts and events, and thus has the feel of PTSD-induced flashbacks.
Why use flashbacks in your story?
In general, use flashbacks to show important events which precede your novel’s main action. An event may be important if it has a substantial impact on your characters’ motivations or the plot’s conflict.
Tips for using Flashbacks
#1: Choose carefully where to place your flashback within your story
A well-written flashback can completely engage a reader—but only if you’ve already fully hooked them into caring about your characters and story.
This is because flashbacks pull your reader out of the story’s forward motion.
Therefore, be exacting on yourself when assessing whether or not a flashback is necessary in your story.
The decision for where to position a flashback is a careful balancing act.
Since flashbacks often illuminate aspects of a character’s past which influence their motivations and their emotional reactions to scenes, you should weigh the advantages of delaying them (keeping readers intrigued as to a character’s history) against the risks of doing so (readers won’t connect with characters they can’t understand).
Generally, if a reader is unable to engage with the scene’s conflict or grasp the stakes without seeing a flashback, then the flashback may be justified.
Choosing between using flashback or backstory exposition depends on the importance of the reader ‘living’ that part of the story, versus the dangers of halting the narrative’s momentum.
While you certainly can hook a reader with questions about the past, beware taking this so far that the reader has absolutely no idea what’s happening or why.
Flashbacks can be invaluable tools for providing plot twists—e.g., in cases where we’ve thought we understood a character’s motivations, but have actually only seen part of the full story.
You may see advice such as:
- No flashbacks before the Inciting Incident
- No flashbacks within the first fifty pages
- No flashbacks after Plot Point 2
The basis of of this advice is sound.
Flashbacks impede the story’s forward motion, and you don’t want to do this early or late in your story.
I hesitate to give this as a hard-and-fast rule, because so many exceptions exist in successful novels. Let’s examine one case of a novel breaking these guidelines successfully, to see why it works.
Elizabeth’s MacNeal’s historical novel The Doll Factory provides a flashback on page 31, immediately prior to the Inciting Incident.
Why does this flashback work, despite it’s early placement?
The flashback is short at only two paragraphs
It’s appropriately contained within a longer sequel (reaction) scene in the protagonist’s point of view. There’s no clear scene break for this flashback, which helps prevent narrative disruption.
Point of View
Our protagonist and point-of-view character here is Iris.
Iris remembers watching her sister Rose’s engagement dissolve, after Rose caught smallpox and lost her beauty.
Rose’s fiancé didn’t want a scarred wife.
MacNeal has already hooked our curiosity regarding the relationship between the two sisters, telling us ten pages earlier that Iris would sometimes wake up and catch Rose staring at her with a frighteningly cold expression.
It reveals motivation
Therefore, this flashback promises to show the reasons for this hatred.
The short pause in the story’s forward motion is acceptable, because it begins to answer one of our burning questions.
We already care about iris
We already care about Iris at this point.
We’ve seen her compassion towards Rose, despite Rose’s frosty behaviour to her. We’re emotionally engaged in their relationship.
This flashback hints at the novel’s theme
Which is the objectification and commoditization of female beauty under the male gaze.
This flashback, showing a man discarding a physically unpleasing woman as damaged goods, is strategically placed right before the Inciting Incident, in which Iris becomes the target of another man’s obsessive stalking.
Its placement helps us quickly grasp the novel’s primary theme as we read on.
In summary, well-written flashbacks should:
- Show us something we’re already desperate to understand, and;
- Help us better understand the story’s characters, themes and world.
#2: Manage your transitions between tenses with care
Ensure it’s clear to your reader when a flashback begins and ends.
Senses can provide useful transition tools. In The Doll Factory example above, Iris is brought out of her flashback by heavy footsteps.
A long flashback, comprising an entire scene, often benefits from a scene break. For example:
The waft of CK One sends Daniel back to the day when he first met Kate—back in 1992, when they were both fifteen.
Daniel couldn’t stop staring at the extraordinary girl slouching next to him in those chunky Doc Martens and garish pink lace. Her citrusy perfume made him want to sneeze.
You may write your flashback in a different tense to the present action.
If the present action is present tense, you could put flashbacks in past tense, or vice versa. Beware writing long flashbacks in the past perfect: this can be clunky.
In these cases, it’s often better give a line or two of past perfect, then transition to simple past. Changing tenses isn’t essential.
Flashbacks are useful tools when you use them skilfully, and in moderation. Read widely, examining how novels in your genre use flashbacks, and explore incorporating their methods into your own work.
For more guidance on using flashbacks, see Kristina Stanley’s blog here
Article Written by Polly Watt
A former refugee lawyer in the UK, Polly Watt honed her skills working on cases where careful editing often really was a matter of life and death.
As a Fictionary StoryCoach Editor, she will apply the same care and attention to detail to your structural story edit. She’s passionate about stories and loves working on all different types of literary genres.
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