Friday, April 10, 2015

Cover Me, I'm Going Back: Tips on Writing Flashbacks

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

We spend a lot of time building the histories of our characters, so it's no wonder we want to get some of that into the story. A flashback can be a useful way to convey information and add depth to both plot and character, but it can also stop a story cold if done poorly. By definition, flashbacks interrupt the story to convey information from another time.

Like so many things in writing, there's nothing wrong with flashbacks if they're done well and are necessary for the story. When the protagonist's past has bearing on the current plot, it might be an opportunity to stop and show what happened in that past. If the information is shoved in there to explain something for the readers, it might be the type of flashback to reconsider.

Any time you say, "he remembered when..." or anything similar, you're flashing back. Most people think of flashbacks as long scenes, but they can be short, feeling more like memories than scenes.
Bob remembered the day he first met Jane. She was so sweet, standing there by the copier with toner spilled all around her and this cute "oops" look on her face.
Sometimes they're entire chapters written out in dramatic form like the rest of the book.
Bob remembered that day so fondly.
They were all in the conference room, waiting for Jones to get there and start the meeting. A woman squealed and everyone in the office stopped and looked. Bob turned, curious himself.

The new girl, Jane, was by the copier, standing in a sea of black toner. It covered her feet, her floral skirt, even a few speckles across her nose. Or were those freckles? He couldn't tell from there.

Large or small, the trick to a good flashback is to provide information readers actually want to know. Until they care about a character and are curious about that character's past, spending time showing that past (or worse, explaining it) risks boring them and encouraging skimming ahead.

(Here's more on What "Stranger Things"Can Teach Us About Flashbacks)

Tips for Writing a Good Flashback

1. Make it about things readers want to know.

If you've teased readers with a secret for a while, and they're dying to know what happened, a longer flashback will likely hold their interest. In The Shifter, my protagonist Nya has memories of her life before the war, and what happened to her in that war. Small lines here and there, casual mentions of things that affect her deeply, but I never flashed back more than a paragraph or two. After a while, reader curiosity was piqued, and they really wanted to know her history. I waited until book three (Darkfall) to finally spill all the beans in a longer flashback scene.

2. Make it relevant. 

Information revealed in a flashback should advance the plot in some way and moves the story forward. It can also be something relevant to the character's development. Using a flashback to trigger a realization can be quite useful. For example, Nya has a lot of little flashbacks where a memory that had no meaning for her as a child suddenly has relevance to the plot as she puts the piece of her childhood together.

If the flashback doesn't do these two things (it's not relevant to the scene and readers won't care about the information), there's a good chance you can cut it and insert the information another way.

3. Shorter is usually better (though not always).

The story stops when it shifts into a flashback, which risks losing readers. The longer they stay away from the main narrative, the higher the chance they'll start skimming to get back to "the good stuff" of the main plot. This isn't always true though, and some novels have worked well with extended flashbacks, especially if the point of the novel is to expose a bigger mystery of the past. This is tricky to do, so I recommend adhering strongly to #3 and make sure every flashback portion is just as compelling as the main narrative. It has to be more than just, "this is how it all happened" explanation to hold reader attention.

4. Don't use a flashback to explain.

Resist the urge to explain how your character got there/was affected by/shaped by this event. A good flashback is a revelation, not an explanation. Subtle difference, but it changes how readers absorb the information. If they feel as if they're figuring something out, they'll read on. If they feel as if they're being told what's important in the story, they'll likely start to skim just to get the key plot details. Dramatize any longer flashbacks and make them as interesting and important as a regular scene. As soon as you start to feel that explanation coming on, stop yourself and see how you can show it instead.

However...sometimes you need to explain a little and that's okay. My rule of thumb: keep it in the character's voice and make it read naturally to whatever is going on. Make sure there's a reason for that character to flash back on that memory. If the explanation does more than just "explain" something, (perhaps it shows a character's trait, describes the setting, or raises the tension a little) that's even better and readers will absorb that information and move on without stopping.

5. Give longer flashbacks the same drive as a regular scene.

If the flashback has it's own goal--conflict--stakes structure, it will draw readers in and make them curious to see where the "scene" goes. The longer you ask them to pause the main storyline, the more responsibility you have to entertain them during that side trip.

Flashbacks can be a very effective tool when used well, and they can help you eliminate back story. A few lines of memory can often dramatize a past fact a lot better than exposition, and help you characterize to boot. What a character remembers and how she feels about it does more than just explain the information.

How do you feel about flashbacks? Like them? Hate them? Do you use them or avoid them in your own writing? 

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Great advice. You are so right that the back story/flashback has to relate to what's happening now. I just read storm glass by Maria Snyder and thought she did a really good job of introducing profound back story/flashbacks that totally tied into the story.

  2. I'm really hoping things work out okay in my book. Since it deals with past-life memories, there are scenes that are effectively flashbacks, though they represent the character's discovery of his past incarnations rather than recalling past events in his own life.

  3. Great advice. Working your way in and out of flashbacks has to be clear to keep the reader grounded. And they should be handled more like IV drips rather than tube feeding.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  4. My flash-back pet peeve is when, after a first line or paragraph, a story drops into flashback. This almost never works, and often means the story's starting in the wrong place. Flashbacks done well, I love. I think my favorite is from Shadow Spinner -- the author made me wait and wait to figure out a piece of the character's history, and it wasn't quite what I'd expected.

  5. Making your reader want the flashback--BRILLIANT! Thanks Janice.

  6. Great advice, Janice; thank you! Flashbacks are important, sure, but they can be tedious and boring and, like you so well said, take the reader out of a well-paced narrative. The thing that jumped out at me most was to avoid explanation and turn the flashback instead into a revelation. That's something I'll print and keep next to my 'puter :) Much appreciated!

  7. Paul, very tricky, but since it's that integrated into your story, odds are all those flashbacks have their own narrative drive. Good luck with it!

    Terry, you have the best analogies!

    MK: Oo, that drives me crazy too.

    Angie and Guilie, you're welcome!

  8. Thanks! It'll either work out brilliantly or be a horrible disaster! :-D

  9. LOL. I'll keep my fingers crossed for brilliant!

  10. I recently had a critique that recommended I cut my flashbacks or move them later in the story. A few other people said they really liked one flashback, but wanted an emotional response to go with it, so I've been struggling with where to put flashbacks, which ones to keep, and how to frame them. I think your examples are really good, but it's going to be a tricky one for me to figure out, at least for a while.

  11. Margit, you might try tightening them. Maybe keep the vital information, but streamline it so it doesn't slow the pacing. If you tweak the emotions to go with it it could be very powerful.

  12. I'll give that a try and see how it reads for my new CPs. Thanks!

  13. My pleasure. Good luck! Hope you find the happy medium there.

  14. I've just been reading a story that had flashbacks (whole but short chapters) some years back that were formatted in italics. I didn't find this interrupted the reading at all, but helped me understand why the character(s) were at a particular point in the present.

    1. Sounds like a great example of an author who did it well. What novel if I may ask? Others might be interested to see how they did it.

  15. What I think about flashbacks is just what you said. As long as they are done well and fit seamlessly in the story, I love them. I try to think "What is my POV character doing now that makes a flashback necessary?" JEN Garrett

    1. That's a great question to test if the flashback is needed or not. Thanks!

  16. Great advice in this post! I seem to come across quite a lot of people who hate flashbacks on principle, but your analysis is far more balanced. Very interesting.

    1. Thanks. I'm a firm believer that it's all about the execution and what works for the story. If it serves the story it usually works. If it's trying to explain or prop up a story that can't stand on its own, it usually fails.

  17. Amazing, I'm thinking about my character having sudden flashbacks at times (she had her memory erased as a child), but I'm not quite positive on how to present the sudden flash backs. My story is written in first person and it is an actual thing that happens as though she freezes for a moment and travels back to the lost memory.

    1. I did something similar in mine (flashes of memories) and I used italics. But mine were short, never longer than half a page. If yours are longer you might want to try something different.

      Is there a "memory trigger" you could create, where she has a certain affect every time it happens? Like a smell, or a feeling, so each time this happens the reader knows they're about to go into a memory?

  18. Im trying to write a spiritual memoir x fiction and am having difficulty to write from beginning. When I have tried in past it felt more like it starts with a prophecy and then unfolds. Ive been thinking a better way would be to start at the end and be triggered back to mid way of the unfolding of events (like a framed flashback) and then slowly reveal the prophecy (which could have started the story) woven throughout the unfolding of events. However from what I am seeing, people don't like framed flashbacks? Do you think this is wrong way to approach? I believe I have a intriguing frame that would trigger into flashback.....but really the story is about the prophecy and unfolding of events. It is quite complex I I wouldnt want the flashbacks to overcomplicate it.
    Thanks so much.

    1. It's really a matter of personal taste. The trouble with flashbacks, is that they often only matter to the author who knows what they mean. A brand-new reader doesn't see them same way, so they carry no meaning and can even be confusing.

      Seeing the end first carries similar pitfalls. If readers know how it ends, then why read the book? It can sabotage your story and steal all the mystery and tension.

      If you feel that your frame is the most intriguing way to write your story, then go for it. They can work if done well, it's just a sad fact that many of these types of stories don't work. So it's risky.

      You'd have to decide what the flashback gains you that just starting the story where it starts doesn't. Does it set a tone or expectation that the actual start doesn't? Does it provide critical information that can't be reveal any other way? Is it a solid opening all on its own? Many of these types of scenes don't work as openings, since they rely on knowing more about the story going in.

      You can always write it the way you want, then test it against some beta readers and see what they say. If they're confused or skim over it, then you know it isn't working. If they love it, you know it did.

  19. I love flashbacks, I always start writing my stories from the middle, draw in the reader with great suspense that wanting to know what happened in the beginning will be nagging at them to read those flashbacks. And at the end I tie everything together, get a resolution and a mind boggling climax.
    Thanks for these articles.