Oh, I Remember Now! How to use Flashbacks

Flashbacks Done Right

Flashbacks can play pivotal roles in any story, whether it be fiction, nonfiction or a script. So what is flashback in a story? Some folks confuse it with backstory, but the time constraints of a flashback don’t allow us to share too many details. They just allow us to reveal tidbits.

A flashback is a sudden, brief relocation to a previous time and then, just as suddenly, a return to the present story. Flashbacks can hint at backstories, but they aren’t backstories themselves.

Flashbacks are quick. Backstories, because they drag in the baggage of a character or a situation, are longer.

Backstory refers to the characters’ history and other story elements that underlie the situation at the start of the book. Backstory helps to establish the setting and makes the reader care about what happens to the characters.

But be careful: Backstory by definition takes the story backward. Whether you employ flashbacks, character musings and recollections, or passages of exposition to reveal what came before, every instance of backstory stops the novel’s forward momentum, and risks leaving the story dead in the water.

Backstory, when layered effectively, can be a good way to establish setting and provide description. Diverting the readers’ attention away from the here and now allows you to focus on times and places that give deeper insight into a character or a situation.

Do time travel right. A flashback should follow a strong scene. This means that the flashback is never the first scene. It’s not even the second scene following a brief, sketchy, introductory “scene”

Orient us at the start of the flashback in time and space.

Conventions have evolved about using verb tenses to signal both the start and end of flashbacks. “Now we’ve moved back in time” and “Now we’ve left the flashback to rejoin story time,” is the best way to keep your reader from flashback confusion.

Use verb tense conventions to guide your reader in and out of the flashback.

If the story is being told in the past tense, then write the first few verbs of the flashback in the past perfect and the rest in simple past.

If you tell the story-time events in the past tense you’d say “he came back,” “he knew,” “he scanned.” To signal the start of the flashback, you can put the first few verbs in past perfect like “had done,” “had dressed,” “had bought,” “had come. After that tell the rest of the flashback in past tense (“eyes were shut,” “they passed,” etc.). The reason for this is that an entire flashback in past perfect would be cumbersome, especially if it’s very long. When you’re ready to end the flashback, revert to past perfect for the last few verbs. Then use past tense to resume story time.

Framing the Story

A “frame story,” which may be any length from a few thousand words to a long novel, is one which begins after all the action is over. Someone, announces that he is going to tell a story. He may even give the entire outcome of the story ahead of time.

Romeo and Juliet: Prologue

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

Consider this structure carefully before using it for a story. Is there an interesting contrast between a young narrator and their later self? Interesting enough to sacrifice having your reader feel she is experiencing the story as it happens, instead of being told about it after it’s over? If so, try a frame. If not, save your flashbacks for use in the body of the work

Flashbacks Done Wrong

Flashbacks offer many pitfalls. This is because even the best-written flashback carries a built-in disadvantage: It is, by definition, already over. The scene you are detailing in your flashback isn’t happening in story time. It happened sometime earlier, and so we are being given old information. Like old bread, old information is never as fresh or tasty as new bread. The flashback lacks immediacy.

But offsetting this inherent disadvantage are the several advantages a good flashback can bring to a story. It can make plausible a character’s motives, by showing what events in his past compel him to act the way he is now. It can fill in events that show how the story situation reached the exciting state it’s in now. And it can present crucial information that happened so long ago,—years, or even decades, earlier—that there is simply no other way to include it.

Too much, too soon: the line between flashbacks and backstory in the opening pages

Including backstory in the opening pages is the same as saying to the reader, “Wait a minute—hold on. Before I tell you the story, first there’s something about these characters and this situation that you need to know.”

Timing is everything

Managing backstory in a novel is a matter of control. If backstory in a novel’s opening pages is a problem, why do you need to include it? You might not realize that as you begin your novel, you’re not actually writing the story—not yet. Those early pages might look like a novel, but they’re really prep work.

Writing backstory might feel like storytelling, but it isn’t. It’s regurgitating facts, or dolling up aspects of world-building and plugging in what that you already know, in the hopes that it will entertain and enlighten the reader but instead it might have the opposite effect. Less is more. Backstory is like creating a ‘connect-the-dots’ picture—you just need the dots. The reader will draw the lines.”

Ask: does the reader really need to know this fact about the character? Or is this detail something that you find interesting, but isn’t crucial to the story? Will the story fall apart if you withhold this information?

A good opening sets the scene, introduces the characters, and sets the story in motion. What it never does is answer the question, “Why?” Why the characters behave and think as they do, and how they came to this point in the opening are questions that will be answered throughout the book.

If you’ve inadvertently loaded the beginning of your novel with backstory, cut it from the beginning and weave it into the narrative. Fight those backstory battles and use flashbacks like a dash of salt and pepper for flavor— not a dicey chopped onion.


Contents of this article were pulled directly from some of the best writers advice columns to be found at http://www.writersdigest.com/. If you would like to read the articles in their entirety please follow the links and enjoy.

How to Weave Backstory Into Your Novel Seamlessly, by Brian Klems of, The Writers Dig

3 Tips for Writing Successful Flashbacks, by Nancy Kress

Mistake 24: Misusing Flashbacks and Memories, by Scott Francis

Also, special thanks to dearphotograph.com for the beautiful pictures featured in this article.

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