When used correctly, a flashback can be a powerful storytelling element. In prose, flashbacks are more than just narrated memories—they’re active scenes taking place in the past. Well-written flashbacks will engage your readers and deepen their understanding of your characters’ motivations and their actions. But because they have the potential to affect the momentum of your short story or novel, creating an effective flashback can be tricky. The experts at Writer’s Relief have some writing tips and advice on how to write a flashback scene that makes sense and works in your story.
The Right Ways To Use A Flashback In Your Story
Convey important exposition. One of the biggest mistakes creative writers make is bogging down their story with long passages of “telling.” If there’s a past event that’s extremely important to your story, consider using a flashback to show it to the audience, rather than telling them about it through blocks of narrative text.
Add drama to a pivotal scene. Because flashbacks are seen from a character’s point of view, they tend to be more visceral and immediate than memories that are simply recounted for the audience. Though you don’t want to use flashbacks for every memory, they can be very effective for showing readers recollections that are especially emotional.
Explain a character’s emotions. Sometimes, flawed characters develop their imperfections due to past trauma. Showing that formative event through the character’s eyes will help readers better understand the motivation.
Jump between time periods. Does your story span multiple generations? Is a past event that took place at your setting especially important to the plot? If so, flashbacks can help you convey that history in a way that grabs attention.
In a prologue. Though not every book needs a prologue, it can be a valuable tool when written well! Is there a single scene that’s crucial for readers to understand before they dive into the main action of your story? Did a vital scene take place long before the main action? If so, a flashback scene in your prologue will set the stage for the story that follows.
How To Write A Flashback Scene
Consider shifting verb tense or POV. Though your flashback is an integral part of the story, you want to make sure your readers understand it’s happening in the past. Verb tense provides one easy way to make this clear. If your story is written in present tense, consider using past tense for your flashback. Or if you’re showing it from the perspective of a character besides your main protagonist, consider shifting to that person’s POV (point of view).
Carefully plan your transitions. Flashbacks should always have a concrete trigger point to begin and end. Ask yourself, how will you move in and out of your flashback scenes? You want flashbacks to be incorporated organically into your novel, so writing a passage of introduction to your scene likely isn’t the right way to go. Instead, you may find that it’s best to start chapters with flashbacks, or insert them after section breaks. It’s also a good idea to insert them after a major event in your story, so that readers will easily remember where the main plot left off when the flashback is over.
Don’t confuse your readers. You want to keep your readers hooked, so it’s important to find the right balance of exposition. While you don’t want to pull your readers out of the immediacy of the flashback scene, there may be information they need in order to fully comprehend the flashback. Because flashbacks can be such useful storytelling tools, it’s important to give your readers all the details they need to fully understand the purpose and impact of the scene.
Keep the flashback succinct. Make sure your flashback doesn’t overstay its welcome in your story. Think about it: If your flashback is a prologue, readers will be impatient to get to the main action. If your flashback comes after a crucial scene, they’ll be eager to find out what happens next in the present timeline. Keep your flashback scene as brief as possible—and packing a punch that makes it clear why it’s included.
A Word Of Caution About Flashback Scenes
Though flashbacks can be very powerful when used well, be careful not to overuse them. Too many flashbacks will make your story choppy and exasperate your readers. If you find yourself including too many flashbacks, ask yourself if there’s exposition that should instead be incorporated into the main action of your story. And if you’re flashing back to the past too often, you might consider creating a dual timeline for your story.
Question: What is your favorite flashback scene from a novel or memoir?