Writing Tip – Using Flashbacks


Timelines can be tricky in fiction. As I’ve mentioned previously it’s easy to get muddled up with your plot when writing in a non-chronological order. So let’s look in more detail about using flashbacks in practise.

Flashback - a photo+story event

Image by Ravages via Flickr

What are Flashbacks?

These are scenes in which the events occur in the past and so they show you a situation or event that has already happened. The reason for using a flashbackis normally to reveal an extra bit of information from the past that has impacted on or caused the present events or has shaped the character’s personality in some way.

Example:

`Ten Years Before… She had sat in the same coffee-house, drinking from a superman mug when Keisha had walked in. It had been in July just after the summer festivals…’

This is the basic example of a flashback but they don’t all have to be marked so distinctly. It can be done in a more subtle way, even occurring mid-scene in some fiction. This is an excellent way of bringing forward important information or revealing important information about a character without giving everything away in the beginning of the story.

Rewritten Example:

`She had sat in the same coffee-house, ten years before, drinking from a superman mug when Keisha had walked in. It had been in July just after the summer festivals…’

The Drawbacks

Physical bullying at school, as depicted in th...

Image via Wikipedia

The main problem with using flashbacks is that it can get confusing if the reader isn’t sure what timeframe they are in. If you are using flashbacks every other sentence then you might lose your reader in the constant shifts. Having said that if done well flashbacks can be fine, just remember to allow for understanding and to use flashbacks that are relevant rather than indulgent.

Think of it this way:

 You are asking your audience to go to another time period in the story and if they do they expect it to be important to the story. Otherwise the reader will wonder what the point of the shift was.

The Key Points

  1. Check it’s relevant to the story.
  2. Don’t overdo it. Consider your reader’s attention span.
  3. Try to keep it clear. The easiest way to do this is to denote a completely separate paragraph for the flashback at a relevant point and then return to the story at the next paragraph, almost like a present-past-present sandwich.
  4. Keep it linked in with what is going on in the plot at that particular point in the story. See the working example below for more information on this.

Working example: You are writing a story about a girl who is skipping off her lessons at school because she is being bullied. You’ve decided you want to flashback to the changes in her relationship with the bully who was once her friend until they’d gone to high school when she’d met new friends and stopped talking to the protagonist. You want to highlight the differences between them both aged eight with them both aged thirteen.

You could do it several ways:

1. SANDWICH

The first scene is showing her being bullied. Then in the next scene flashback to when they were friends in their former school. The following scene would be the main character leaving school upset because her former friend had been bullying her.

2. STARTING WITH THE PAST

Write a flashback scene first, showing them as former friends and then continuing scenes will follow on in the present where she is being bullied and leaving school.

3. ENDING WITH THE PAST

This is similar to above except that you will move the flashback scene to after the bullying and leaving school incidents, i.e. The flashback is her thoughts once she’s outside the school and walking around her home town thinking about the bullying.

Pocket watch, savonette-type.
Image via Wikipedia

There are other ways you could fit them into the story but these are the three basic ones I’ve come across the most. Like everything else in creative writing this is down to personal judgement and depends on what part of the plot you want to highlight and what effect it has. I would always suggest, except in particularly experimental stories (like sci-fi) to keep flashbacks to a reasonable minimum, given that they have the effect of slowing down the current plot in a story. They are often better used sparingly so that the reader has time to adjust to each shift, especially if there are multiple narrators.

So, I hope that has helped with the fear of using flashbacks. They aren’t too scary. Just make sure it works with your story and not against it.

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10 thoughts on “Writing Tip – Using Flashbacks

  1. Pingback: Backstory: In Description, Dialogue, and Flashback « Never Give Up by Joan Y. Edwards

  2. Flashbacks are very tricky. Some writers are very adept at using them, some not so much. I’m in the “not so much” category, I’m afraid. I used to use them, but then I think I got to the point I was depending on them too much and I realized they were hurting the overall impact of the the story.

    Of course, sometimes they are necessary to the story and then must be used. But for myself employing them sparingly is probably best. 🙂

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