Writing a Back Flash

Back flashes don't affect a story's forward movement. They keep readers in the present while revealing something about a character and a past event that's affected him/her

Back flashes don’t affect a story’s forward movement. They keep readers in the present while revealing something about a character and a past event that’s affected him or her.

A back flash provides information about a character’s past either through dialogue or the character’s thoughts. It’s the best option for writers when they want to reveal something about a character’s past. Be careful not to write long back flashes, however. Instead, include snippets of information about a character’s past as the story progresses.

Back Flash in Thoughts

When Walter saw the accident on the road up ahead, a pain stabbed his heart. As he lifted his foot off the gas pedal, he pointed at it. His friend and passenger, James, stared at the scene’s police cars and ambulance.

            “Amelia,” Walter muttered.

            “Amelia?” James said. “Oh, yes. I remember.”

            Walter passed the accident in silence. It happened two years ago. Amelia Easterling and he were engaged, and then that horrible accident happened at the movie theater. He’d hit a large van backing out of its parking space. The crash killed her instantly. Oh, how he missed her!

            He pulled into a grocery store’s parking lot. He had to get his mind on other things. “Let’s get our soda and chips fast.”

            James slammed the car door behind him. “Right, Walter. I’m hungry.”

Back Flash in Dialogue

Walter nudged his friend James when they entered the grocery store. “Hey, look over yonder. That pretty lady examining the oranges.”

            James halted near the cash registers. “Yeah. She looks sorta like Amelia. I’m glad you’ve recovered from that accident you had. It wasn’t your fault.”

            “We were arguing at the time, James,” Walter said. “I was driving, so it was my fault. I should’ve been paying better attention to the traffic. She’d still be alive if I’d been doing that.”

            James smiled at the lady as she headed for the vegetables. “Let’s go introduce ourselves.”

            Walter shrugged. “Why not?”


Writing a Flashback

Some authors don’t use flashbacks in their stories while others do. Although flashbacks present certain problems, if written wisely and at the right points in your story, they can be useful.

Definition of a Flashback

A flashback is a scene written in the present that looks back on a past event.

Why Use a Flashback

Flashbacks deepen our characters, explaining their behaviors and motivations. This is one of many good reasons for writing a biography for the main characters.

Two Problems with Flashbacks

  • If used in an opening chapter, it tells a story before the novel’s real story begins. This causes the book to start slow.
  • Flashbacks used in the middle of a book interrupt the story and slows down its pace.

Rules for Flashbacks

The flashback must be relevant to a story and not just “thrown in.”

Flashbacks should be written in the present, like a scene happening now.

General rule: Don’t write a flashback until the story’s first 50 pages. However, like all rules, this one can be broken if the writer has a good reason for doing it. See the next rule.

Only use flashbacks when you have a good reason. Does the flashback contribute to understanding a character and that character’s motivation? Will it add something to the plot? If not, don’t use it.

Don’t write an information dump. Write is as a scene: dialogue, action, and conflict.

Get in and out of the flashback seamlessly. Write it in such a way that readers don’t notice a transition from past to present.

Sir Walter Scott, creator of the historical fiction genre

Example of a Flashback

Walter slowed his car when he spotted the accident on the road ahead. A Ford Mustang was on fire. Two police cars, an ambulance … a fire truck squealed past him, siren blaring. Its siren sent shudders through him, like he shuddered on that fateful day years ago when he was driving his girlfriend, Amelia, to a movie.

“I don’t want to see Rocky,” she said.  

“Well, I do,” Walter said.

“You don’t love me.” Amelia huffed and glared straight ahead. “You’re not taking me to see Freaky Friday.”

“Dumb movie. Waste of money.”

“Humph. How would you know?” She stuck a piece of chewing gum in her mouth. She often chewed gum when she was mad.

Walter accelerated into the theater’s parking lot as their arguing reached a fever pitch. “All right. We’ll go to that stupid flick.” Irritated, he accelerated and smashed into a large van backing out of a parking space. Crunched his car on Amelia’s side. His engine exploded. He managed to climb out and struggled to help her while a witness called 9-1-1.

As police cars squealed onto the scene, their sirens blaring, Amelia died while flames swallowed his car.

Up ahead, the fire truck silenced its siren as it stopped at the accident. Walter drove past, uttering a prayer for those who were injured while he wept for Amelia.

Three Tips for Smooth Flashbacks

Sensory Detail: Use a sensory detail to get in and out of flashbacks. In my example, I used the detail, hearing.  The fire truck’s siren prompted Walter’s tragic memory. Then, to get out of his flashback, I again referred to the fire truck’s siren in the last sentence ashe drives past the accident.

Transitional Words: These also help writers get in and out of a flashback. For example, words such as recall, remember, etc. For example: When Walter heard the fire truck’s siren., he remembered that fateful day when … Then move into the flashback scene.

Had: James Scott Bell, in his book Plot & Structure, recommends using had no more than two times to get into a flashback scene, but do not use this word in the scene itself.

Example of Using Had

Walter slowed his car when he spotted the accident on the road ahead. A Ford Mustang was on fire. Two police cars, an ambulance…a fire truck squealed past him, siren blaring. Its siren sent shudders through him, like it had on that fateful day years ago when he and his girlfriend, Amelia, were on their way to a movie….

Next week, the back flash.


Bell, James Scott. Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure, Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2004.

How to Write a Flashback Scene: 7 Key Steps | Now Novel

How to Write a Flashback | Advanced Fiction Writing

What My Cat Taught Me

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And there we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight (Numbers 13:33, KJV).

Behind my childhood home runs an alley. From this alley, stray cats often wandered onto our property where my mother always fed them. Alley cats they were, in the strictest sense, so it’s no wonder that I adopted a stray who wandered onto my lawn in Kenner, Louisiana.

A beautiful gray kitty with a gentle temperament, she was the perfect pet. I named her Koshka, Russian for a female cat, I’d learned in my college’s Russian class. One day, though, a neighbor looked down at her and said to me, “Your cat looks pregnant.”

Pregnant! The word gripped my throat. That was the last thing I needed. I could afford Koshka, but care for a litter of kittens? Oh, no! For several days, I studied Koshka’s swollen belly. Mews and meows of imaginary kittens wreaked havoc on my brain’s “movie screen.” What would happen after she gave birth? Happen? To her? To her kittens? What about me? My bank account? My money?

Every day, visions of dwindling finances dominated my concerns. Anxieties intensified. I wanted to scream: “Koshka, girl, why are you doing this to me?”

Finally, I took her to the veterinarian to verify her pregnancy.

After his examination, he announced the verdict. “She’s not pregnant. She’s been spayed. She’s just fat.”

Whew! All my nervous tension broke at his announcement. Peace swept over and through me like a gurgling stream.

But isn’t this what the enemy does to us if we let him? After Moses’ twelves spies returned from scouting out Canaan, panic seized ten of them. They couldn’t take the land. Giants were there, “and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.” First Satan planted doubt in their minds, then faithlessness supplanted faith, and finally, an overactive imagination produced an overwhelming terror. Because they believed what they saw and listened to the enemy’s lie, they missed God’s blessing.

Not so, two other spies, Caleb and Joshua. God told them He’d given them the land, and they believed it. They listened to His word. When the day finally arrived, they marched into the Promised Land, the last survivors of Moses’ generation.

Because I listened to the authority regarding Koshka, I gained peace of mind. Likewise, when we listen to and heed God’s authority, His Word, the Lord will lead us to victory through every battle just as He did Caleb and Joshua.

PRAYER: Dear Lord, I believe Your Word, Your holy Scriptures, the only authority for how I live my life. Thank You for it, and for the peace You give me when I listen to and obey You. May I continue heeding Your guidance. Help me to ignore the enemy’s lies. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Brief Reflection
When we listen to Satan’s negative thoughts, we allow him to steal our faith. Do we believe God’s promises and walk in faith like Caleb and Joshua?

Passages for Study
John 8:33-47
John 6:34-4

This excerpt is taken from Reflections of a Southern Boy: Devotions from the Deep South. Published by Ashland Park Books, it is available at amazon.com in both paperback and Kindle. To purchase a copy, visit the Bookstore page on this site.
All Rights Reserved.
Copyright 2018 by John “Jack” M. Cunningham, Jr. 

Dr. Johnson’s Advice

Dr. Samuel Johnson was a famous poet, literary critic, and editor. He compiled and organized A Dictionary of the English Language, which was used for 150 years before the Oxford English Dictionarys publication

In Joshua Reynolds’ portrait, the painter shows Dr. Johnson holding a manuscript close to his eyes. Why? Because the great writer was nearsighted, and Reynolds wanted to show this.

Dr. Johnson’s advice: “The greatest part of a writer’s life is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.” Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)