Flashbacks can be extremely effective tools when it comes to telling your story.
You may have read advice to avoid them if possible – yet good flashbacks can reveal backstory, and they can surprise and delight readers, while giving authors the freedom to tell story events out of chronological order. So why are some people lukewarm about them?
It’s all about technique. As with so many elements of writing, flashbacks can work brilliantly if used well, but can ruin your story when used incorrectly.
If you’re considering whether your book will benefit from one or many flashbacks, this guide will help you understand their uses and teach you how to use flashbacks effectively in your writing.
Purpose Of A Flashback
Authors don’t always want to show the reader the scenes in the order they happened. There can be many reasons we want to play with time:
- We don’t want to bombard a reader with detailed information too early – we want the reader to get hooked by the characters or situation first.
- We are holding back a key plot point for a twist, or the ‘shock factor’.
- We want to draw comparison between the past and the present – to show irony, or character growth.
- There may be character backstory that only becomes relevant partway through the story – if shared too early, the reader won’t understand the relevance.
We generally use flashbacks in literature, not to dwell on what happened in the past, but to provide insight into a character and their decision-making in the present.
For instance, a flashback helps a reader learn it’s because a character was bullied in high school that they are oversensitive to a throwaway comment now. Or that a character is reluctant to believe what her father is saying in the present, because we see from the past he has a history of lying to her.
Flashbacks are a way of illustrating this link between past and present, but the best flashbacks do more than this. They work on multiple levels, enhancing knowledge of plot and character.
Flashback Examples In Fiction
Many novels flip between past and present timelines, such as The House at Riverton by Kate Morton or The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell in contemporary literature, or The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford and Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad in classic fiction.
See how Conrad uses this line of dialogue to trigger a reminiscence in Heart of Darkness:
“We looked on, waiting patiently—there was nothing else to do till the end of the flood; but it was only after a long silence, when he said, in a hesitating voice, “I suppose you fellows remember I did once turn fresh-water sailor for a bit,” that we knew we were fated, before the ebb began to run, to hear about one of Marlow’s inconclusive experiences.”
In My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite we see flashback being used in a seamless way:
“According to family lore, the first time I laid eyes on Ayoola I thought she was a doll.”
The description that follows, of Ayoola as an innocent baby, adds a layer of irony to Ayoola’s willingness to murder in the present.
How To Write A Flashback In Fiction
The key to managing a flashback technically well is to ensure the reader always knows ‘where’ and ‘when’ they are in a story, by giving the reader timing prompts, to clearly differentiate past and present.
There are several ways you can do this, and they can be used alone, or in conjunction with each other:
1. Using Headers
There are many novels which tell stories over two timelines, often in alternating chapters headed something like ‘Then’ and ‘Now’, to orientate the reader. These ‘Then’ chapters operate as a series of flashbacks. Novels which flashback to more than one timeline can use different headers like ‘2008’ or ‘Earlier That Day’.
This is the most straightforward way of writing flashbacks – it’s neat and tidy, and the headings make it clear for the reader where they are.
This can be used in conjunction with:
2. Changing Tense
Many novels use the technique of changing tenses – with ‘Now’ sections told in the present tense and ‘Then’ sections told in past tense.
In Mhairi McFarlane’s Don’t you Forget About Me, one chapter’s ‘Now’ section ends with:
“It’s also the first time I’d been near a funeral since my dad’s, twelve years ago.”
There is then a line space before:
“When I was fifteen or so, my mum pinned the order of service for her cousin Janet, a physiotherapist in Swansea, to the corkboard in the kitchen.”
In the final line of the previous section “it’s” is in the present tense. There’s a line space, then “pinned” is past tense.
This is a simple technique for stories told in the present tense – but changing tenses can also be used for stories told in the past tense. Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny uses ‘had’s – past present tense – to show the story is moving into flashback:
“Jane’s memory of the night of the accident was patchy. She remembered Luke driving her to the hospital in Petoskey to see her mother in the ER. The sight of her mother sitting on a gurney with her left arm in a sling, her large leonine face looking so slack and old, had caused Jane to burst into tears. Her mother had turned to her and held out her good hand. “Don’t cry, dearheart,’ she said. “I’m okay.””
One tip many writers who write in past tense use for flashbacks is to place a past present tense description – he had jumped, he had eaten – in the first and last lines of a flashback, to indicate the section starting and finishing. They then write the rest of the section in plain past tense, the same as the rest of the novel. This technique is invisible to a general reader – but it works!
3. Framing Techniques
Your character could see a photograph or hear specific line of dialogue to prompt reminiscing, and then the reader is taken to a flashback scene. A timely doorbell or someone entering the room can break the spell and trigger your narrator back to the present.
In the example from Mhairi McFarlane’s, Don’t Forget About Me, McFarlane ends this flashback section with “I return to these memories reluctantly. Then I push them away again. It’s like forcing too many things into a cupboard and using the door to keep them jammed in.”
This is a framing technique, showing the character has ended their reminiscence.
Why Have I Read Advice Saying Authors Shouldn’t Use Flashbacks?
There is a lot of writing advice out there, and you can find people arguing for and against pretty much anything! And flashbacks, in particular, get a bad rap.
As with most elements of writing, there is no absolute right or wrong – just personal preferences, and ways of doing things effectively, or ineffectively.
The main reason some people dissuade new authors from using flashbacks is that a flashback is always backstory. If not earned and relevant, it can slow story pace – so we need to use caution. We want our readers to be desperate to turn the page to find out what happens next – yet we are delaying their gratification by moving out of the present to a completely different scene. No reader likes to be pushed away from the action. This is why it’s so important to ensure your flashback is done well and has earned its place in the text.
Questions To Ask Yourself When Deciding Whether To Use A Flashback
- Is your flashback relevant and directly related to the main plot?
- Does the reader need to see this scene? Can the scene be cut without the story losing coherence?
- Could you share this information easily another way – in a line of dialogue, for example?
- Is this the right place for a flashback? Are your readers invested in your story enough at this point to be willing to take a change of pace? Have you earned the reader’s interest enough to start playing around with chronology?
- Is your flashback clear to follow? Is your reader able to clearly intuit where they are in the timeline of the story?
- Do you have too many flashbacks? Are you risking irritating the reader by repeatedly interrupting them, and not giving them enough forward momentum in the present?
- Is the flashback scene exciting in its own right? Does it contain internal or external conflict, as well as providing backstory?
- Does your scene work on multiple levels? Does it advance character and plot and read well?
After All That, Are Flashbacks For You?
They may be, and they may not. A lot of it comes down to the story you are trying to tell, and your preferences.
Some authors write for their whole careers without using a single flashback but, for those of us who want to bend story time for narrative purposes, they are a crucial tool. Flashbacks are powerful story elements, and sparingly and effectively used, they can really benefit your writing.
Jericho Writers is a global membership group for writers, providing everything you need to get published. Keep up with our news, membership offers, and updates by signing up to our newsletter. For more writing articles, take a look at our blog page.