How to Do a Flashback

Flashbacks appear in many novels, comic books, television shows, and movies, yet they are some of the most difficult sequences to write in all of fiction. After all, how does one take a reader from the present point in the story to a former point in the story and then back again without a visual dissolve and a strange tint or border to the scene followed by another dissolve like they do on TV? It’s not easy, and it requires some practice to get any good at it. And even with practice it can still be a lot of work writing a flashback sequence. I’ve done some flashback scenes myself, sometimes several in a single novel, and I always wonder how to go about doing it.

I’m not sure if these tips will work for everyone, but here are some I’ve picked up over the years, and I’ve found each and every one of them helpful in writing flashback scenes. Some I’ve learned from other authors, others I’ve learned on my own, and a few I cannot remember where I picked up, but wherever they came from I’m grateful for them. And if you have any tips for doing flashbacks, please leave us a comment. I’ll add it in at a later date.

1. Is a flashback necessary? I know it seems silly to add this one in, but it’s one I learned the hard way. In the first draft of my novel Reborn City, I had a character flashback to a romantic encounter she had six months prior to the events of the novel. I nixed it from the second draft though for two reasons: one was that I already had enough flashbacks in that novel, so it seemed like I was spending too much time in the past, and the second was that this one scene really didn’t add anything to the characters or to the story. So asking if a flashback is necessary isn’t always a bad idea. It can actually save you some time.

2. What does the flashback do? You may be thinking at home, “It tells us a past event in the story or in the character’s life”. That is correct. So my next question is, if the flashback is the event in the past that needs to be told, why does it need to be told? Does it explain something vital about the character? Does it explain why the world of the character is the way it is? These are important questions, and every time I do a flashback, I always consider this question so that I know one-hundred percent whether or not I should use the flashback.

And now for actually implementing the flashback after deciding it’s necessary. Here’s some ways to start and end one:

3. Start a new chapter. This is the method that usually works for me. In the previous chapter I say that the character has just realized something that relates to a past event or that they’ve been knocked out and are dreaming of the past, or their thoughts have wandered and they found themselves looking to the past. Then I’ll start the flashback in the next chapter. By the next chapter I’ve gotten them back to the current events to connect the flashback to what’s happening now, or they’ve woken up with a terrible headache, or they’ve come out of their thoughts and they’re wondering how they got into the hospital’s ICU and no idea where the exit is (I’ve actually written that last scenario).

4. Use a transition mid-scene. I’ve seen this method in a few novels, but the one that always sticks in my mind is the many flashbacks in Stephen King’s IT. His flashbacks usually went something like this:

“…Beverly bent down next to Eddie. She couldn’t believe this was happening. Eddie was one of them, he was their navigator, he was the first one…

…he was the first one to come to her. He was shorter than her, nervous, but he was ready.”

The important thing with these sort of transitions is not to jar the reader too much. It takes a real expert at flashbacks to do a flashback mid-scene that goes “Bob was running while bullets flew around him and it reminded him of his time working for the CIA when he became embedded in a terrorist cell” without making the reader go “What the heck just happened here?”

If you do decide to do a mid-scene flashback, a change in font or using italics to differentiate between the present and flashback, or a series of identical symbol before and after the flashback (popular symbols include *** or ~~~) can help readers transition more easily into the flashback and help the story flow more easily.

5. Have your character tell the event to someone. This isn’t always considered a form of flashback, but I consider it one. It’s useful for books where the idea is a fictional person writing down his/her memoirs or telling someone their life story, like in a psychologist’s office. And in my opinion, it’s a method for those memories that a character is uncomfortable with. For example, in my novel Snake, the titular character relates his first kill to another character this way because he’s not proud of the way that event went down and tries not to think about it. Telling it this way offers a unique chance for a character to tell the events in his/her own voice, rather than the voice of a third-person narrator. The only difficult part is, if you’re not using this method for the whole book, then for the brief time you’re using it, keeping the flashback in the voice of the character rather than in the voice of the third-person narrator.

6. Use a video or a diary or something along those lines. I didn’t think much of the novel Catching Fire, but I did find it ingenious that the way Katniss and Peeta found out about their mentor Haymitch’s Hunger Games and the traumatic experiences he suffered was through a video. It was very well written, and it explained a number of things about Haymitch that had been left up to the imagination at that point. Using a recorded medium like a video, diary, poetry, or other means is a great way to do a flashback without directly involving the character the flashback may be about, such as the case with Haymitch.

7. What tense and POV? My final point is on questions some writers have on tense and point of view. People often worry about tenses in flashbacks, if it should be changed or different just for that particular scene. Sometimes they’ll even change the point of view for a flashback. I think the best way to do it is not to worry about the tense too much while writing the flashback and just use the same tense you’ve been using the whole novel. If you have been using past tense third-person omniscient narrator, continue in past tense third-person omniscient narrator. If you use present tense, second-person point of view, continue with second-person point of view. If you really have to change the tense though, then do so, but consult with another writer, an editor, or a beta reader on what tense would be best before doing so.

 

I hope you enjoyed these tips and found some of them useful. Flashbacks are great ways to tell back-story, develop characters or plot, and use exposition in a novel. Some flashbacks can even become the most memorable scenes in a novel, if well written and executed correctly. They’re difficult to do, but with enough practice, an author can incorporate them into most novels and enhance the story greatly through their presence.

15 Comments

  1. Ron Fritsch says:

    I love flashbacks, as a reader and a writer. I like them best as a character’s looking back in time for a clue. Most of them need only be a few paragraphs with no high-lighting. Those meriting scenes still don’t need font changes, etc. The author should otherwise tip the reader off: we’re going back in time now.

    1. Indeed, letting the reader know we’re going back in time is the most important part of a flashback. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Very good tips, Rami.

    Not sure if it qualifies, but I needed with my MS to tell how my antagonists became the way they were, so the first three chapters are all set in the past, from fifteen to eight years before the current day action. Then it moves into present day action.

    1. I think most authors would define that as a prologue or even an origins story. However, if it involves one or both of the characters looking back into the past from the present point in the story, then it most certainly would qualify as a flashback.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the tips. I always worry that the tips I give sound condescending or rude, so hearing that people like them makes me feel much better.

      1. No, it’s definitely a prologue.

        1. And I bet it’s a great one.

  3. I love this list! Starting out with asking yourself if you even need a flashback is awesome. I wouldn’t have thought to add it to the list, but it’s the most important one to start with. Flashbacks are tricky. I like your method of putting it in its own chapter. Having the video or diary is a neat idea I hadn’t thought of before.

    Thanks for the tips!

    1. Coming from you, that’s high praise Ruth. I’m glad you liked them. I hope to do other posts like this in the future.

  4. Al says:

    Great tips. Thank you

  5. phenweb says:

    I recently asked the question on GoodReads about the amount of history to include in my current MS a Sci-Fi novel set in the distant future. I wanted to get opinions of whether social systems that have been developed in the future should have their historical context explained. This goes further than the flashback which I also use as back history of the lead character. I’ve just finished the first draft so I’ll be revisiting the story in a few weeks, but I am concerned that unless I explain the way the future society works many of the key plot issues will just make no sense. Any advice?

    1. As far as I can tell, if you can work the context into which these societies developed without taking away or diverging from the main narrative, then you should be fine. However if going into the history takes away from the story, you might be better off editing those parts out or at least making them a bit shorter. Does that help?

      1. phenweb says:

        Thanks, for the comment. When I come back to the story in a few eeks I’ll see how it reads, too close at the moment

        1. Yeah, taking a break is a very good idea after finishing a manuscript. Gives you a chance to detach from the child of a story you’ve just written into existence and see it as a reader might see it.

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