The Art of Flashbacks

Flashbacks are a very useful tool in  writing. They offer new dimensions to works and allow the reader to literally glimpse into your character’s life during the flashback, but there are a few things to be aware of when you write flashbacks into your story.

Be Sure They Are Relevant

The point of flashbacks, just like scenes, is to convey some important characteristic of the characters involved. You don’t want to be in the middle of writing about a character and then throw in a disconnected flashback. That would only confuse your readers. For example, Sarah was working in the coffee shop just like she always had. She was rubbing down the counter, hoping he would come in before closing. His credit card told her his name was Peter Schools, and she had his order memorized since he only came in to buy one thing: a chai tea latte with extra cream and a shot of espresso. She remembered back to when she was a girl in class and her go-to was the purple crayon.

Wait, what?! Unless she has memory problems or is a little crazy, the flashback means nothing to the readers and could very well dissuade them from continuing. Instead of remembering about crayons, she could remember back to when he had ordered the first time and shyly apologized for the odd order. She might even think back to when she had accidentally spilled his latte all over him and the counter because she was so nervous to serve such a cute guy.

Use Them Sparingly

No one wants to read a novel that’s littered with flashbacks. Not only are they somewhat distracting by stopping current narration to show a past even, but if too many flashbacks are used, they will interfere with the flow of the novel. No one wants to be deep in the middle of an epic fight scene and then, suddenly, the action stops because a flashback was used. For example, Sarah was brewing her fortieth cafe late that day, and her feet were hurting. She thought back to when she used to work at a desk job and sighed. She handed the customer his drink and took his bill. She looked at the worn paper and smiled as she remembered the one time a customer had given her a bill in which Washington had been doodled on to look like batman. She have him his change and glanced up when the bell jingled and thought of the time someone had opened the door so quickly, the bell flew off and landed in someone’s cappuccino. It was him! She remembered the first time she saw him: it had rained, and his hair was plastered to his face. She smiled at him and took his order. The last time he ordered, he was wearing a red shirt and she had given his drink to him on the house. As she was brewing the drink, she frowned when she remembered her boss yelling at her for giving him the coffee.

It’s taxing, isn’t it? The reader has a hard time keeping up with current events as the flashbacks just keep coming. Not only that, but the reader is also left with a lot of questions: What happened to her desk job? What did she do with the bill since it was vandalized? What did the customer do when the bell flew into his drink? What’s the significance of her remembering his wet hair? What happened when her boss was yelling? Why was he yelling? Etc. Some readers would get frustrated with so many questions left unanswered, and this was only one paragraph! Flashbacks are helpful, but too many of them could be harmful to the success of your story. Never add a flashback if you think the reader may wonder why it’s even there in the first place; they are meant to add to the plot, not distract from it.

Narrate Them

There’s no point in stopping your narrative to have your character think back on a past event with a broad statement (e.g. Sam reached forward to grab the rope and thought about the last time. He grabbed the rope…). What last time? It’s like a flashback that only the character can see. It’s your job as the writer to involve your reader in your characters’ lives. So, instead of alluding to something, actually narrate what had happened. Sam reached forward to grab the rope and couldn’t help remembering last time: he had missed the rope, and Sandra had crashed to the floor, breaking her arm. He grabbed the rope and felt his muscles relax with relief.

Be sure that as you incorporate flashback, you introduce them in some way so that the reader isn’t confused. Don’t be afraid to use transitions. Some examples are: Sally remembered back when…George thought about the time that…Suddenly, Sue was transported to her childhood when…etc.

The only time you wouldn’t necessarily have to introduce the flashback is if you were writing in present tense. For example: Jimmy leaps over the last hurdle and throws his fist in the air victoriously. He fell flat on his face the last time he tried. Jimmy runs up to his girlfriend, takes the water bottle from her, and gives her a kiss.

This technique doesn’t work if you’re writing in past tense, as many writers do. You HAVE to prepare your reader for the flashback, or they will get confused.

I hope this helps you in your writing journey!

Thanks for reading!

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Categories: Fiction/Non-Fiction Writing, For Your Journey | Tags: , , , , | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “The Art of Flashbacks

  1. Thanks for the great tips, Lindi. I agree, too many flashbacks can be extremely distracting.

  2. Thank you for this. Sometimes flashbacks seem clear to us but when other people read them, they’re totally lost. Always good to keep ourselves on our toes when revising.

    • You’re welcome 🙂 I always like to have another pair of eyes read over what I had written or re-read it after letting it sit for a while.

  3. Pingback: Reader Profiles: Know who you write for | Dream Mirrors

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