The conventional wisdom about flashbacks goes something like this: use them sparingly, if at all. It’s good advice, because a mishandled flashback can stunt the flow of your narrative, lose a reader’s interest, harm suspension of disbelief, create confusion, or cause any number of other problems.
But, don’t be discouraged, flashbacks can work, and they’re worth the risk; a well-constructed scene can add texture to your story, deliver much-needed information to your reader, and provide insight into your characters’ motives.
Anatomy of a flashback
In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins uses a flashback early on to establish the scant but essential backstory between Katniss and Peeta, two of the book’s most central figures. Throughout the story, their relationship fuels both plot and character development, and this moment acts as such a memorable beginning that readers never quite forget it, despite the couple’s amazing and terrifying journey.
Creating a strong framework
Because a flashback halts the forward motion of the narrative, the reader must care about the character before you throw the car in reverse. Collins’ flashback comes in Chapter 2, which might seem early, but we’re already hooked into the action of the story and tied to the fate of the character. Because Katniss has just volunteered to take her sister’s place in the Games — a death sentence for sure. And she’s about to find out who else she’ll have to face in the arena.
Flashbacks slow the story's momentum, so the reader must already care about the character. Click To Tweet
Peeta Mellark! Oh, no, I think. Not him… I try to convince myself it doesn’t matter. Peeta Mellark and I are not friends. Not even neighbors. We don’t speak. Our only real interaction happened years ago. He’s probably forgotten it. But I haven’t and I know I never will…
The first sentences
There are two things to note about a strong first sentence of a flashback. First, it’s a transition, so it needs to be strategic. Whether it’s smooth or abrupt, seamless or jarring, it should be that way intentionally. Maybe this flashback comes to your character in a natural way when a sense of smell triggers the memory. Or maybe they’re thrust back into a tense and painful moment in time, caught completely off guard. The effect is different, so use this transition point to full advantage.
Second, signal the reader that you’re going back in time; if you fail to do this, readers may not even recognize the switch and could be confused. This signal is achieved by changing the verb tense. If your narrative is in past tense, the first sentence of the flashback should be in past perfect. This grammatical change is essential; it tells your reader that they’re going back in time to a specific moment. You only have to maintain it for one or two sentences, and then you can go back to simple past tense so that the reader experiences it in real time.You can clearly signal a flashback using a change in verb tense. Click To Tweet
If you’re writing in present tense, the shift goes from present to simple past. That’s how it’s handled in our example from The Hunger Games. Notice that the opening line of this scene may not seem a remarkable transition sentence; but in the context (unfortunately, too long to post here) it serves as world building. For several paragraphs, Collins develops the bleary, hopeless world of District 12, in which Katniss is failing even to find food for her starving mother and sister, she’s tried selling threadbare clothes for a few coins, but to no avail. It’s the stark stage upon which Peeta is soon to appear.
On the afternoon of my encounter with Peeta Mellark, the rain was falling in relentless icy sheets… I passed the baker’s, the smell of fresh bread was so overwhelming I felt dizzy… I lifted the lid to the baker’s trash bin and found it spotlessly, heartlessly bare.
Suddenly a voice was screaming at me and I looked up to see the baker’s wife, telling me to move on and did I want her to call the Peacekeepers and how sick she was of having those brats from the Seam pawing through her trash. The words were ugly and I had no defense. As I carefully replaced the lid and backed away, I noticed him, a boy with blond hair peering out from behind his mother’s back.
The middle action
The meat of a flashback is storytelling, but as with the transition sentence, it should serve a specific purpose. Every word, every line, should be telling your reader essential information about your characters, their world, and the emotional landscape that formed who they have become. Otherwise, it’s a missed opportunity.
Similarly, the way it’s written is just as important as what’s written. If you want your readers to indulge this stalling of the forward motion of the narrative, you need to engage them. An effective way of doing this is to write it as an active scene, put them into the moment rather than summarizing it. In short, show them, don’t tell them. You’ll give them essential information and tie them more strongly to the plight of your character. Look how much new information — about the past, present, and future of both characters — we can glean from this middle section of Collins’ flashback scene:
His mother went back into the bakery, grumbling, but he must have been watching me as… the realization that I’d have nothing to take home had finally sunk in…
There was a clatter in the bakery and I heard the woman screaming again and the sound of a blow, and I vaguely wondered what was going on. Feet sloshed toward me through the mud… It was the boy. In his arms, he carried two large loaves of bread that must have fallen into the fire because the crusts were scorched black… The boy never even glanced my way, but I was watching him. Because of the bread, because of the red weal that stood out on his cheekbone. What had she hit him with? My parents never hit us. I couldn’t even imagine it. The boy took one look back to the bakery as if checking that the coast was clear, then… he threw a loaf of bread in my direction. The second quickly followed, and he sloshed back to the bakery, closing the kitchen door tightly behind him…
It didn’t occur to me until the next morning that the boy might have burned the bread on purpose. Might have dropped the loaves into the flames, knowing it meant being punished, and then delivered them to me.
The last sentences
The last sentences of the flashback mark another important transition. As with the earlier transition, be strategic in the way you bring your reader back to the main storyline. If it’s abrupt, it should be that way for a reason — is she startled back to the present? What did she miss? If it’s gradual, easing the character and reader back to the present, what is the lingering emotion? Does she feel different in the same space she inhabited before the memory?The form of your flashback (tense, tone, structure) should match its function. Click To Tweet
Remember your grammar shift from the first transition too; once the flashback ends, you’ll return to the verb tense of the main story.
We ate slices of bread for breakfast and headed to school. It was as if spring had come overnight. Warm sweet air. Fluffy clouds…
To this day, I can never shake the connection between this boy, Peeta Mellark, and the bread that gave me hope…
We’re not quite finished yet. Perhaps the most important consideration is how the flashback affects the reader’s understanding of the story and the character’s motivations. Did it cause the reader to reinterpret what they know of the character so far? Will it inform their view of the character going forward? Whatever the effect, be sure it’s there — whether stated or implied — and that you can identify it as the story goes on.
Your flashback needs to reshape reader understanding of character or plot.Click To Tweet
I feel like I owe him something, and I hate owing people. Maybe if I had thanked him at some point, I’d be feeling less conflicted now. I thought about it a couple of times, but the opportunity never seemed to present itself. And now it never will. Because we’re going to be thrown into an arena to fight to the death. Exactly how am I supposed to work in a thank-you in there? Somehow it just won’t seem sincere if I’m trying to slit his throat.
A flashback scene can be a great tool for setting the stage of your story, informing readers, and taking them deeper into the hearts and minds of your characters. Examine the way you’re using flashbacks in your writing; make the most of each element, and you’ll be on your way to constructing strong scenes that captivate your readers’ attention and draw them deeply into the journey of your characters.
How did this exercise help you reevaluate a flashback in your work-in-progress? What did you find surprising here that you’ll incorporate into future scenes? Let me know in the comments. Or, for more great info on flashbacks, try The 4 Decisions That Will Help You Write An Amazing Flashback, Nail Your Character’s Backstory With This One Simple Tip and Passing Time Is The Secret To Improving Your Story.
Some stories behave conveniently for their authors: They take place in several consecutive scenes not very far apart in time, and everything the reader needs to know is contained in those scenes. Such stories are easy to structure. You start when the action starts, write sequentially to the end of the action and stop.
Then there are the other stories. The ones that take place all over the temporal map: scenes in the story’s present, scenes from the protagonist’s childhood that are needed to understand the story’s present, scenes from halfway across the country the Tuesday before the story began. All of these scenes, you have determined, are utterly necessary to the story. You can’t dump any of them. To create any sort of coherent structure for this story, you are going to need flashbacks.
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.
Consider an example of the last case. Your story concerns the behavior of your protagonist, Gary, toward his teenage son, Jack, who has just been arrested for illegal possession of firearms. Gary’s own father was shot during a robbery when Gary was a child, and he witnessed the killing. This memory shapes all his behavior toward Jack. How do you convey to the reader what guns mean to Gary? You have three choices:
- Tell the reader in exposition, or have Gary ruminate about his father’s murder. The problem is that the scene is too vital and dramatic for either exposition or expository memory. You’d be missing a strong opportunity to make your story affect the reader viscerally.
- Start the story with the murder, then jump ahead 30 years to Jack’s arrest. This would be fatally clumsy. The story would seem to start twice, because the time leap is so long, and chances are very good that the reader would stop reading on the grounds that you don’t seem to know what you’re doing.
- Use a flashback. When a flashback is the best choice, it will still lack immediacy; however, you can minimize this drawback and maximize the flashback’s advantages by following three simple guidelines.
Time travel done right
- Your 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” like the following:
Gary stared out his kitchen window. Cold rain beat on the brown grass and bare trees. It took him back to that other rainy day thirty years ago, the day that had changed Gary’s life forever …
The reason this is not an adequate first scene to support a flashback is that it’s not really a scene at all. Nothing happens except weather. We have no idea who Gary is, so we don’t care about his past. Why should we? As far as we’re concerned, he doesn’t yet have a present.
A far stronger approach is to start your story with a scene in story time. It should be an interesting, vivid scene, which brings its character(s) to life for us. It should contain action pertinent to the story’s central concern, whether that’s a murder, a family argument or a personal internal crisis. It should also go on long enough to really get us into the story. Then you can use the flashback as your second scene.
What if your story contains more than one flashback? In that case, I hope it’s either a novel or a long short story. Most of what you write should actually occur in story time (with one exception, which we’ll get to later). If you do need two or more flashbacks, intersperse strong present-story-time scenes among them. Don’t go immediately from one flashback into an even earlier one. The reader will likely become either confused or irritated, wondering when you’re going to actually get on with your main story.
- Orient us at the start of the flashback in time and space.
The transition to some flashbacks are so clumsily written that the reader isn’t even sure until halfway through the scene that it is a flashback. Others let us know we’ve moved back in time, but not how far or to what place. A reader who is expending energy trying to figure out where and when she is now is not able to engage with your story.
The following flashback does a good job of transition. It’s from Thomas Perry’s mystery novel Sleeping Dogs. Protagonist Michael Schaeffer, a former hit man, has just come upon the site of a multiple murder:
All his old habits came back automatically. At a glance he assessed [everyone’s] posture and hands. Was there a man whose fingers curled in a little tremor when their eyes met, a woman whose hand moved to rest inside her handbag? He knew all the practical moves and involuntary gestures, and he scanned everyone, granting no exceptions.He and Eddie had done a job like this one when he was no more than twelve. Eddie had dressed him for baseball, and had even bought him a new glove to carry folded under his arm. When they had come upon the man in the crowd, he hadn’t even seen them; his eyes were too occupied in studying the crowd for danger to waste a moment on a little kid and his father walking home from a sandlot game. As they passed the man …
There’s no chance here that the reader will get lost. The author tells us in the first sentence of the flashback that we have shifted in time. He tells us how much earlier we are now (when Michael was 12), where we are (in a crowd of people) and who is present that matters (Michael, Eddie and their potential victim). Make your transitions just as clear.
- Use verb tense conventions to guide your reader in and out of the flashback.
Conventions have evolved about using verb tenses to signal both the start and end of flashbacks. Although most readers don’t consciously notice these tense shifts, the shifts register below the level of consciousness to signal “Now we’ve moved back in time” and “Now we’ve left the flashback to rejoin story time.” Using these conventions is the best way to keep your reader from flashback confusion.
If your 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. For example, in the above excerpt, Perry tells story-time events in the past tense (“habits came back,” “he knew,” “he scanned.”) To signal the start of the flashback, Perry puts its first five verbs in past perfect (“had done,” “had dressed,” “had bought,” “had come,” “hadn’t even seen”). After that, he tells the rest of the flashback in past tense (“eyes were,” “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. This is the way Perry comes out of the flashback quoted above:
As Eddie hustled him away, he had heard people saying something about heart attacks and strokes. Bystanders had made way for them, apparently feeling sorry that Eddie’s little boy had seen some stranger at the moment when a vessel in his brain exploded.Schaeffer felt his pulse begin to settle down now.
What if your story is being told in present tense? The convention is even simpler. Put story-time action in present tense and put the entire flashback in past tense. When you’re ready to return to story time, simply resume present tense.
Framing your 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, protagonist or author, announces that he is going to tell a story. He may even give the entire outcome of the story ahead of time, as John Irving does in the opening to A Prayer For Owen Meany:
I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice?not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.
And there you have many of the main events of the book. Why would Irving announce them ahead of time, thereby robbing his novel of any suspense about whether the mother will survive, whether the protagonist will recover his faith and (the frame is longer than I’ve quoted above) many other key events? He did it, presumably, because he thought he would gain more than he lost. Although A Prayer For Owen Meanyhas sacrificed some immediacy, it has gained the chance for the first-person protagonist to look back on these events and thus interpret them as we go along. We get two perspectives: the young protagonist to whom all this is happening, and the older person who can comment on what it eventually meant to him. The frame offers a dual perspective, and the book is richer for it.
Consider this structure carefully before you use it for your story. Do you have an interesting contrast between your youthful narrator and his 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.
However you use flashbacks, they can add depth and interest to your characters. “The past is foreign country,” L.P. Hartley said. Flashbacks let us, however briefly, visit that country.
This article appeared in the October 2000 issue of Writer’s Digest.
Nancy Kress’ latest book is the novel Probability Moon, a science fiction novel about the balance between the good of a species and the absolute good of moral action. It contains flashbacks.
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