Jumping Back in Time: How to Write Flashbacks in Fiction

Flashbacks are scenes that occurred prior to the present story. They can have a powerful impact on the main story and can be a useful tool when writing. Not all stories move from points A to B to C. Some stories must take a look at a previous event to gain deeper insight into the characters, plot, etc. This is when flashbacks become handy.

Let me quickly differentiate between flashback-300x225exposition and a flashback. Information about the past can be given in one of three ways: (1) a character tells another character through spoken dialogue about something that occurred in the past, (2) exposition is used, where readers are told about a character’s past – in both (1) and (2) readers are told something – or (3) readers are shown a character’s past via flashbacks.

Are flashbacks necessary? No, and if a story can be told completely through the main story then that’s great. However, some moments in a character’s past may have had such an influence on the character that there is no other way to have readers understand the gravity of the situation unless shown it.

When using flashbacks, you must:

  • Have the flashback triggered by a present day event. More so, a flashback should come after a strong scene. There has to be a good reason as to why a flashback is being used. By connecting it to an important present day event the transition into the flashback isn’t jerky. There’ll be a natural flow to entering the flashback. One of the last things you want to do is jolt your readers out of the story. This leads into the next bullet point.
  • Orient to space and time. Make sure it’s clear that a flashback is occurring. It’s never a good thing for readers to be halfway through a flashback and not know if the scene is a flashback. Anytime readers are unsure of something, they pause, and chances are they are pulled out of the story. (Also, just as you made sure readers know they’ve entered a flashback, make sure they know when they’re returning to present time.)
  • Get your readers interested first. A story shouldn’t begin with a flashback. It should start with the present day plot, and then continue with that plot long enough to get and keep readers interested. Remember a flashback is a deviation from the main plot. It disrupts the plot no matter how well situated within the story, so use a flashback after the first two to three chapters and during an exciting part in the story, which will make readers want to keep reading to find out what’s happening in the present day action.

An example of a well-used flashback would be in “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins, where she uses a flashback to provide crucial backstory on Katniss and Peeta. These two characters are vital to the plot, and how they met is extremely important. It shapes their actions between each other. The story wouldn’t unfold how it did if these two never met in the way they had.

In “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien flashbacks occur to provide a clearer understanding of current actions and increase intensity. J.R.R. Tolkien’s present day plot is so intricate that flashbacks are necessary for readers to comprehend why things are the way they are.

A different style of flashback would be in Anne Rice’s “Interview with the Vampire.” The story begins with an interview taking place between the vampire and a reporter, but as the conversation continues the vampire begins speaking for longer and longer periods. Eventually the reporter’s voice virtually disappears and it’s only the vampire’s voice readers hear, as the vampire delves into his past. The vast majority of the novel is flashback with the vampire telling his life story.

What do you think of flashbacks?

(Photo courtesy of Muse Medicine.)

8 thoughts on “Jumping Back in Time: How to Write Flashbacks in Fiction

  1. Ellen Smith

    Great post! The book “This is Where I Leave You” springs to mind when I think about flashback scenes done well. I think I heard they were making it into a movie too- wonder how they’ll handle the flashbacks on film!

  2. sandeerc

    For the most part I like flashbacks, if used sparingly. They are a handy tool that adds history and depth to a story and its characters. Also, I watched “This is Where I Leave You” recently. It was a great movie, never read the book though.

  3. chrisitnamc

    Great post! I like flashbacks, but I usually end up cutting most of them while editing my own work because I often write ones that are more fun for me than useful to the story or reader. I’ll have to keep your builts point in mind next time I’m writing one and hopefully I’ll be able to keep them.

    1. brittanyekrueger Post author

      Yes! They can be a lot of fun to write! I use them only on occasion, and I’ve had times where I’ve written a long flashback and then realized it would work better condensed and interspersed with present day events.

  4. D. Lara Smith

    This is good food for thought. Flashbacks are a delicate balance. I like the example you used of “Interview with the Vampire” because I enjoy sinking into a story and letting it unfold. I also like to understand some of what makes a character tick – so a flashback can show how character was shaped by events or people.

    1. brittanyekrueger Post author

      I completely agree! The past is so important that even if you don’t include a character’s entire past, or even much of it in a story, it’s a great idea to write out a bio for that character on a separate document. If you can see a character’s life clearly, it will show through in the story.

  5. Pingback: UK Children Are Enamored with Dystopian Fiction

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