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.

Sources

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

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