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How to Write a Flashback

Updated on August 7, 2017
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Most beginner writers struggle to write flashbacks because they don't know how to write one. They interject flashbacks in the wrong places, making the story's pace feel choppy. Many advanced writers warn beginners to avoid flashbacks for this reason.

Yet, if done correctly, a flashback engages your reader with important background information, making them interested in reading further into your story.

To write a good flashback, you'll need to learn about the proper placement and structure of one.

Flashback Placement

When it comes to writing a flashback, timing is everything.

Before writing your flashback scene, consider these three things:

  • Has the plot developed enough? It may be too soon to start constructing a flashback. For novels, wait until you have written the first 50 pages of your book. For short stories, place them in the middle of the tale. If you write a flashback too soon, your readers aren't invested enough to continue reading the story.
  • Does the flashback provide an immediate benefit? If your readers don't know the value of this information, you risk losing their interest. Do not write a flashback until the benefit of the information becomes clear. Once it becomes essential to the plot, your readers will understand its importance, and read more closely.
  • When do you want your flashback to take place? Flashbacks are most effective after an action-packed scene. This allows your characters and readers to reflect on the information they were just told.

Considering the best placement for your flashback is essential to getting the most impact. Shifting where the flashback takes place gives you the opportunity to enhance your reader's experience.

Types of Flashbacks

There are two types of flashbacks: full scenes and small recollections.

1. Full Scenes:

  • Full scenes are reserved for explaining and reflecting on larger plot points. Scenes like these examine trends in the narrative in depth by looking to the past. Through looking at the past, the readers can gain a better understanding of what will happen for the characters.
  • Because of the nature of the scenes, they can span several pages or chapters. Some books, like Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, are made up entirely of flashbacks.

2. Recollections

  • Recollections provide small pieces of insight in a much shorter way. Oftentimes, they are no longer than several paragraphs. Because of this, recollections only have enough time to reveal a new idea or concept. It plants the idea in the reader's head so that it may be expanded on later.
  • Recollections can also take place in the form of dreams. For example, Neil Gaiman's American Gods used dreams to foreshadow the events of the plot.

Either type has its advantage. Full scenes provide more information, while recollections tend to hold people's interests more. Which type of flashback you should use depends on the flow of your novel and what exactly you want to reveal.

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What's the Trigger?

Something must be powerful enough to trigger a flashback from one of your characters. It must be both relevant to the flashback and relevant to the story at hand. Otherwise, your transition into a flashback is awkward.

Writing a trigger is easy. Simply pick one of the five senses that will remind your character of the past. Then, write the flashback.

It's simple, yet powerful. Using one of the five senses provides the context for the flashback. For example, if the smell of bread reminds your character of his mother's cooking, you can immediately draw a few conclusions:

  • He was close to his mother.
  • His mother cooked often.
  • His mother was a great cook.

These assumptions were based off of his reaction to the bread smell alone. This gives you the ability to explain less through words, and more through the actions of your character.

Where's the Action?

How you write your flashback is as important as what you write in it. Besides an effective trigger, your flashback needs action.

Trying to fill your flashback with exposition will bore your readers. Exposition slows down your story, but active scenes will engage your readers. Thus, showing your readers why the flashback is more important now than ever.

Every word in your scene should drive the flashback forward. Every line should paint a picture of the character and his world. Doing so adds a layer of complexity and interest to your story.

Where's the Emotion?

Action by itself may be interesting to your readers, but action with emotions makes your narrative compelling. Without knowing how your characters feel on an emotional level, your readers will struggle to connect with them. Adding emotions is simple.

With any piece of information you get across through a flashback, consider how it make your character feel. Does it cause them to feel conflicted, hurt, angry, or sad? Does the same emotion haunt them in the present, or have they rationalized the event?

Answering these questions makes your story more complex. Instead of regurgitating information, you add realism and depth to your characters and plot.

How Does the Flashback End?

Transitioning out of a flashback can be tricky. How you transition out of a flashback depends on what effect you want the flashback to have. There are two ways to transition out of a flashback: smoothly or abruptly.

1. Abrupt transitions startle your character back into the present. This imparts a feeling of incompleteness onto your readers. Here are some questions to ask yourself when writing this transition:

  • Was he startled by a person or a thought? Why was he startled? What did he miss while reminiscing? Now that he is in the present, what needs his focus?

2. Smooth transitions are deliberate on the character's part. They allow you to explore how the character is affected by the flashback. Here are another set of questions to ask yourself when writing this transition:

  • When he does transition out of the flashback, how does he feel? How does he feel about the world at the present? Did the flashback change his perspective any? If so, how?

A perfect transition does a thing to the reader and gears them up for the present.

When used correctly, flashbacks are an elegant way to explain important information. This gives your reader insight on the events of the story, as well as a greater understanding of the characters.

How do you approach writing flashbacks? Leave a comment below!

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