Writers Write creates writing resources and shares writing tips. In this post, we tell you how to write the perfect flashback.
What Is A Flashback?
A flashback is a piece of writing that shows the reader what happened in the past. The author does this by writing a scene set in the past. This flashback interrupts the flow of the current story.
Should We Use Flashbacks?
Writers love writing flashbacks. Readers hate reading them. If you insist on them, make sure you know how and when to use them. When you write a flashback you should be careful not to ruin the pacing of the story.
Readers prefer to read a story that moves from the beginning through the middle to the end. Anything that interferes with this chronology is distracting. [Suggested reading: Element 7 in The 7 Critical Elements Of A Great Book]
Flashbacks lack immediacy. They are essentially backstory and they can be a terrible distraction if they aren’t well-thought-out and well-written. You may even lose your readers.
When To Use Flashbacks
You should only use a flashback if it adds to your story. If you can get away with telling the scene in a dialogue exchange or a short diary entry, rather do that.
You can use them:
- To show a character’s motives.
- To fill in an important piece of the puzzle.
- When something happened long ago and there is simply no other way to include it.
How To Use A Flashback
Before you use flashbacks make sure that you’ve done the following:
- Engaged your reader in the protagonist’s current problem.
- Established the goal of the story.
- Established a threat to the goal. (This usually includes an antagonist.)
- Used a flashback that compels readers to know what happened in the past.
You should be able to resume the story where you left it with no significant developments having taken place during the flashback.
Example Of A Flashback
In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins uses a brief flashback to establish the backstory between Katniss and Peeta. Katniss remembers when she was at her lowest ebb after her father died. She was starving and Peeta, the baker’s son, threw bread into the snow that saved her and fed her family for a few days. Collins brings us back to the present immediately after this.
It works because:
- We are emotionally invested in Katniss’s story (her family needs her to win).
- We know her story goal (to win the games).
- Peeta at this point represents a threat to that goal (he is her opponent in the games).
- We need to know about this incident to show how she feels indebted to him on some level. It could not happen any other way, because Katniss is not a chatty person.
Top Tip: If you want to introduce a flashback in the first few pages of your novel, you should probably start the story when the flashback is taking place.
A Checklist For Writing The Perfect Flashback
A flashback is essentially a memory. This is a good way of testing how you write it.
- Something Sets It Off: Flashbacks are triggered by something. Most of our memories are triggered by a place, an object, a conversation, or through our senses. Use one of these to send us back in time.
- Where Are We? Orient us at the start of the flashback in time and space. A clear transition must be used. Examples: Five years ago, we…; When I was a teenager…; My father used to….
- Keep It Short And Sharp. When you have a memory, it does not go on and on. It usually lasts a few seconds. The longer the flashback, the longer it takes for the reader to get back into the main story.
- Make Sure We Need It. Make the flashback advance the narrative. This memory could be crucial to the motivations of a character or it could show us how we go to a point in the story.
- Show The Results. Flashbacks in stories should have consequences. If we remember something traumatic or challenging, it will affect us in the present day. The reaction to the memory should be in keeping with its severity.
Top Tip: Mini-flashbacks can be used more frequently. This could be a few remembered lines of dialogue from another character when your protagonist is thinking about the past. Readers often don’t even notice that they are flashbacks.
© Amanda Patterson
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