Flashbacks in books

Flashbacks in Books

Writing flashbacks is an important skill to master if your novel cuts across time periods or strongly features characters’ memories. Here are 7 key steps for how to write a flashback scene:

1. Know why your story needs a flashback

2. Look at flashback examples in fiction to get insights

3. Choose your flashback’s time-frame

4. List any details that will be different during your character’s flashback

5. Learn how to write a flashback that has consistent tense

6. Decide how to cut away to your flashback scene

7. Check that your flashback focuses on a single experience or event that supports your story arc

To unpack each step a little:

1. Know why your story needs a flashback

Flashbacks in BooksIn many novels, the events of the story take place chronologically, in straightforward succession from scene to scene. However, in stories involving characters’ memories or large leaps in time, flashbacks are useful for showing formative or crucial moments that drive characters’ present-time psychologies and decisions.

What is a flashback in literature?

Flashbacks are scenes inserted into the present narrative time-frame from a time period that precedes the primary story arc. A flashback example: A female narrator in her 50s describes the day her younger sibling drowned on a family vacation.

The example above strikes at something important about flashbacks: Flashbacks typically recall a scene of emotional power. They show the memories that haunt characters, although they can also be intensely happy moments.

Deciding whether or not your narrative needs a flashback

As an alternative to writing flashbacks, you can substitute exposition. Your central character can recall the day a traumatic or wonderful event happened.

Yet describing the scene as though your character is living and experiencing it for the first time can be much more emotionally affecting.

This allows the reader to see the pivotal story event with immediacy through your character’s eyes.

To decide whether an earlier event in your character’s backstory (e.g. witnessing a murder) needs a flashback scene, ask yourself:

  • What are the benefits of showing the reader the earlier scene through my character’s eyes?
  • Is the scene important enough to my central story arc to break from narrative continuity?
  • How will I convey to the reader that this is a flashback and not an event happening in the present time of the story?

Provided your flashback contains important clues or explanations for your characters’ personalities and/or actions, it will not make your story less cohesive. Provided that readers understand your scene is a flashback (and not present-time narration), the flashback won’t create confusion.

2. Look at flashback examples in fiction to get insights

Writing flashbacks is storytelling time travel. Getting it right can be hard. So research novels that use this narrative device and see how other authors approach flashbacks.

An excellent example of a flashback is the opening of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, where the narrator Nick Carraway recalls formative advice given him by his father:

Do Flashbacks Work in Literature?

Flashbacks in BooksMax Ferguson/Bridgeman ImagesMax Ferguson: Time (oil painting), 2006

Every few days, working on my new novel, my thoughts flash back to something Colm Tóibín said at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival nine months ago: that flashbacks are infuriating. Speaking at an event to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, Tóibín said Austen was marvelous because she was able to convey character and plot in the most satisfying way without the “clumsiness” of the flashback. Today, on the other hand, we have to hear how a character’s parents and even grandparents met and married. Writers skip back and forth in time filling in the gaps in their shaky stories. It is dull and incompetent.

Is Tóibín right? I worry, as I prepare to put together a flashback myself. Is there no merit or sense in the device? Didn’t Joyce use it? And Faulkner? Or David Lodge, for that matter? Or John Updike? Or going back before Austen, Laurence Sterne? In which case, can there really be, as Tóibín appears to suggest, an association between the flashback and “our unhappy age”?

Certainly, use of the flashback is widespread and mainstream. Jonathan Franzen’s Purity opens with his eponymous heroine being invited to work at the WikiLeaks-style organization of the charismatic Andreas Woolf, based in a remote valley in Bolivia.

Among many other narrative developments, there is then an extensive flashback to Woolf’s tormented youth in East Germany.

This is told over a hundred and more pages and will eventually allow us to understand that the woman who shares Purity’s apartment is, in fact, an ex-lover of Woolf’s on a mission to find ingenuous recruits for his shady project—while Purity’s father, whose identity Purity has never learned, is both Woolf’s associate in a crime and his bitter rival.

It is melodramatic, paranoid stuff, suggesting that the whole world spread over space and time is conniving to draw Purity into a fatal trap. A certain use of the flashback, that is, implies a certain vision of the world. You could never give your fiction a Jane Austen feel with this kind of technique, nor a Franzen feel without it.

One advantage of this sort of flashback is that it allows the writer, first, to declare where our central narrative interest is—with Purity right now, as she decides whether or not to work with Woolf—and, second, to build up the past that gives importance to that decision.

The problem in Franzen’s novel is that the flashbacks are so very long and elaborate that we lose sight of the initial focus.

The book is called Purity and the character Purity would appear to be its author’s declared center of interest, but the energy of the extensive backstory is all elsewhere. It’s confusing.

How to Handle Flashbacks In Writing

Flashbacks in writing are simply scenes from the past. If a story begins at Point A and finishes some time later at Point Z, a flashback is a scene that happened before Point A. Usually many years before.

Notice the word scene. In exposition, you tell the readers something about a fictional character’s past. But in flashbacks, you show them in the form of a fully dramatized scene.

Do you need to use flashbacks in a novel?

Absolutely not. If you can tell the story without them then so much the better.

What the readers are really interested in is the present story (which runs between points A and Z). Anything which interferes with this is a distraction.

So if the episode from a character’s past can be told in a few lines of exposition (telling it, not showing it) then that is what you should do.

If you have no option but to use dramatized flashbacks in your fiction, here are three things you must do…

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1. Make It Clear You are Moving Back in Time

Have you ever read a novel and somehow missed the fact that the author has moved back in time?

There you are, happily reading about a character in present-day New York, say, when all of a sudden you are in Paris in the 1960s. And you can’t remember how you got there. You have to read back to find where the transition took place.

Don’t let that happen to your readers.

An obvious way to overcome the problem is to give a flashback a chapter all to itself. And to make the time and place crystal clear at the start of the chapter.

If a fresh chapter isn’t desirable or even possible, you have to make doubly sure that the readers are aware of the time and the place. Both when you move back in time and again when you rejoin the present.

2. Hook the Reader First

However interesting an incident from the past might be, it still represents a disruption to the story currently being told.

(I know as a reader that I always groan a little inside when the writer moves back in time. And then cheer a little inside when they return to the more exciting here and now.)

That is why you shouldn’t use flashbacks in writing at all if you have no good reason for doing so.

But if they are necessary, it is vital that you don’t move back in time unless the reader is hooked…

  • This means not using a flashback at all in the first chapter or two.
  • And it means not leaving the present during a less-than-exciting stretch of the main story. Why? Because the reader might not care enough to want to return to it.

Ideally, don’t have a flashback until you are at least 30 pages in. And only then during an exciting part of the story when the audience will be itching to find out what happens next.

The only exception? When you have so much material from the past that you decide to write a dual-story novel, with one story happening now and the other 30 years ago. Here, you might start in the present, move back to the past for the second chapter, return to the present in the third, and so on.

3. Make the Flashbacks Natural

Forget about fiction for a moment and think about the real world. What happens when we experience memories from the past in our own lives?

How are they caused?

Usually, memories are triggered by an object. An old photograph, perhaps, or discovering our favorite childhood toy in the attic.

Sometimes, they are triggered by our senses. We smell a salty wind or hear a blackbird tapping on glass and we are immediately transported back to an incident from our pasts – an incident in which we smelt precisely that smell or heard that same sound.

  • (These are known as “sense memories”.)
  • Using objects or senses to trigger a memory of a past scene are precisely the devices you should use to trigger flashbacks in writing.
  • Say that you want a character to remember something about his mother…
  • Make him find her old apron at the back of a drawer.
  • Make him see a stranger who reminds him of his mother.
  • Or make him catch a waft of the perfume she used to wear.

Let’s say you choose the apron…

The Effective Use of Flashbacks

Blogger: Mary Keeley

I have read a few submissions lately in which the writer used a flashback in the first several chapters of their novel, and I thought maybe it’s time for a flashback refresher. Personally, I enjoy a great flashback in a story. But that’s the key point. What makes a flashback great?

Since a flashback scene is “old news” and lacks imminent action or tension, there must be compelling reasons for its presence because it interrupts the pace of the story. Two reasons are:

  1. It gives insight into a character’s current motivation and emotional state.
  2. It shows an event that happened years before the story begins, which is vitally important for the reader to know in order to fully understand the tension or mysterious circumstances of the current story.

Don’t shy away from using a flashback because you aren’t sure how to make it work. Done well, a flashback adds depth to a main character’s struggle and insight into his or her actions and emotional responses in the story. Strong reasons to include them. Here are tips for writing an effective flashback:

  • Write it as a complete scene.
  • It must be written in a way that keeps readers’ interest.
  • Never use a flashback in the early chapters of your book, when you should be busy introducing the main characters and building the action. The resulting effect will be to confuse readers and interrupt the action before it has time to engage readers in the story.
  • Insert a flashback after a powerful scene in the novel. It must directly impact the current action of the story.
  • Give the time and place in which the flashback takes place in the first sentence. Readers who have to concentrate on trying to figure out where and when the flashback scene is taking place will become frustrated and may disengage from your current story and stop caring about your characters. If that happens, they might quit reading.
  • Use correct verb tense for the entire flashback to clarify for readers when the flashback begins and ends.
  • Wait to insert a flashback as long as possible, that is, until the critical moment when readers absolutely must have the backstory information before they can move ahead to follow the action. Leaving some mystery in the story keeps readers turning pages to get clues. They want to worry about the protagonist. The longer you hold off, the more readers will stay engaged in your novel. This explains why a flashback inserted in the first half of a book doesn’t work. If readers have all the answers too early, there is nothing to keep them interested.

Can you think of another compelling reason to use a flashback? Do you recall a book you read in which a flashback was used in a powerfully effective way? If you have used a flashback in your WIP, why might you need to rethink its construction or placement?

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A flashback can add depth and intensity to your novel. The key is to do it well. Here are some tips. Click to Tweet.

Why you should never use flashback in the first half of you novel, and other tips. Click to Tweet.

3 Tips for Writing Successful Flashbacks

Most writers try to avoid writing flashbacks, but if you just can't resist sending your readers back in time, fiction columnist Nancy Kress has some advice. Kress explains what makes a flashback work, and how to perfect your own time traveling techniques.

Some stories behave conveniently for their authors: They take place in several consecutive scenes not very far apart in time, and everything the reader needs to know is contained in those scenes. Such stories are easy to structure. You start when the action starts, write sequentially to the end of the action and stop.

(Launching into scenes with action.)

Then there are the other stories.

The ones that take place all over the temporal map: scenes in the story's present, scenes from the protagonist's childhood that are needed to understand the story's present, scenes from halfway across the country the Tuesday before the story began. All of these scenes, you have determined, are utterly necessary to the story. You can't dump any of them. To create any sort of coherent structure for this story, you are going to need flashbacks.

5 Mistakes When Writing Flashbacks in Memoir (and Fiction)

Today’s guest post is by freelance editor Sarah Chauncey (@SarahChauncey).

Flashbacks are scenes that take place prior to the narrative arc of a story. They can illuminate any number of story elements, from revealing the origins of an unusual habit to new information about a relationship. Flashbacks can give the reader a depth of context not available in the primary narrative.

Alternately, flashbacks can help the reader understand your reaction to an event in the primary timeline. For example, maybe you had a fight with your spouse, and the exchange reminded you of how you used to cower in your closet when your parents fought. While you can tell with that line, showing via a flashback can be more engaging for the reader.

However, flashbacks can be tricky to write. Written unskillfully, flashbacks can leave a reader disoriented and disengaged.

What follows are the five mistakes I see most often in memoir manuscripts, though these principles are also relevant to fiction. If you’re writing fiction, just substitute “your main character” for “you.”

1. Including irrelevant flashbacks

When used properly, flashbacks can be illuminating. When used haphazardly, they detract from the primary narrative and leave the reader confused (or worse, bored).

You should understand how each flashback enhances the story. If it doesn’t, cut it. Flashbacks should be earned, just as any plot development is earned.

Ask yourself these three questions about every flashback in your current draft:

  • How does this flashback serve the story?
  • Could the information be revealed chronologically within the time frame of the primary narrative?
  • Is there a direct relevance to the present-day scene?

Writers sometimes pepper their manuscripts with flashbacks to appear more “literary,” though from my perspective, there is nothing intrinsically literary about a flashback. I’m a big fan of chronological structure, because it keeps the reader clearly oriented. However, you may want to reveal certain information from the past at a specific, strategic point in your narrative.

A related mistake is the use of multiple flashbacks to shine light on one particular issue. For example, let’s say that you had a job as a dog walker in college.

If that’s relevant to your (primary narrative) decision to adopt an English Springer Spaniel 20 years later, it might warrant a flashback.

Write one compelling flashback that gives the reader a taste of your experience, but don’t create five or six different dog-walking flashbacks to make your point.

2. Writing a flashback “because it really happened”

Sometimes, especially in memoir, writers want to include everything interesting that happened, and they rationalize including an irrelevant flashback by saying, “But it really happened!”

With memoir in particular, it can be difficult for a writer to discern which events are relevant to the story and which aren’t. Implausible, mind-boggling experiences that defy logic happen every day. It’s very cool that you (or the character) had that experience, but that alone is not a reason to include it in your story.

Flashback Examples and Definition

In literature, a flashback is an occurrence in which a character remembers an earlier event that happened before the current point of the story.

The definition of flashback is identical to that of analepsis, which comes from the Greek for “the act of taking up.

” There are two types of flashbacks—those that recount events that happened before the story started (external analepsis) and those that take the reader back to an event that already happened but that the character is considering again (internal analepsis).

Common Examples of Flashback

Many of us have flashbacks quite frequently. We may have flashbacks when we think of someone whom we haven’t thought of in a while, and remember some memory that that person was a part of. Or we may look at an object and think of when we first got it, or why it’s significant. Lots of different things in our daily lives can trigger flashbacks and we are not always aware of it.

There are also examples of flashback in film and television. For example, the series How I Met Your Mother is delivered entirely in a set of flashbacks, for it is supposed to be showing the evolution of characters over time as the main character tells his children how he met the children’s mother.

Significance of Flashback in Literature

Authors use flashbacks in their works for many different reasons. One key reason is to fill in elements of one or more characters’ backstories. Flashbacks can help the reader understand certain motivations that were otherwise unclear, or provide characterization in other ways. Flashbacks can also create suspense or add structure to a story.

Flashbacks in Books

  • Recently, a listener named Joy had a question about writing a flashback in a work of fiction. She wrote:
  • I’m writing a story in the past tense and I’ve reached a scene where my protagonist recalls an event that happened further in the past. The story within a story runs for about a page and a half and starts with “I’d had a few drinks…”
  • Should I continue the whole recollection in the past perfect or shift to the simple [past]?
  • I want to be sure the past of the main storyline and the earlier past of the recollection don’t blend together and confuse the reader.
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This is a great question, so I asked Neal Whitman to talk about techniques authors use to take their readers from one point in the past to a place even further in the past. He’ll use examples from two novels he’s enjoyed.

Joy is right that you can use the past perfect tense to show a flashback. The verb phrase “had had a few drinks” is in the past perfect tense because it begins with the past tense of the helping verb “have,” and then has the past participle of the ordinary verb “have,” to give us “had had.”

Past Perfect Tense Comes in Handy for Flashbacks

The past perfect tense is useful for showing a shift away from a time in the past to a time even further in the past. However, for an extended flashback, you might not want to use the past perfect tense for the whole thing, for a couple of reasons.

First of all, some readers might find it distracting. Second, what if you need to do a flashback within your flashback? If you’re already using the past perfect tense, it’s difficult to use it to show an additional move back in time.

So what do you do?

Example: Mixing Past Perfect Tense and Past Tense

Let’s see what the author Tim Powers did in my favorite time-travel novel, The Anubis Gates.

Don’t worry; I’m taking my examples from Chapter 1, so there won’t be spoilers! In this scene, the protagonist Brendan Doyle is on his way to meet a mysterious man named Darrow, who has offered him $20,000 for services yet to be named. Notice that the verb phrases “was hurrying” and “told himself” are in the past progressive and simple past tenses: 

On the other side of the fence a uniformed guard was hurrying toward them. Well, you’re in it now, Doyle told himself. At least you get to keep the five thousand dollar retainer check even if you decline his offer … whatever it turns out to be.

At this point, there’s a blank line in the text, showing a change of scene. Powers then uses the past perfect tense, along with the phrase “an hour earlier,” to shift to an earlier time:

Doyle had been grateful, an hour earlier, when the stewardess woke him to tell him to fasten his seat belt, for he’d been dreaming about Rebecca’s death again.

The verb phrases “had been grateful” and “had been dreaming” are in the past perfect and past perfect progressive tenses. Powers also uses the simple past tense in “when the stewardess woke him,” because he doesn’t need the past perfect in every clause to show that the time is still an hour earlier, during the airplane flight.

Next: More Examples: Going Even Further Back in a Flashback

Example: Going Even Further Back in a Flashback

In the rest of the paragraph, Powers uses the simple past tense to describe Doyle’s nightmares. This frees up the past perfect tense to shift us even further into the past as needed.

For example, near the end of the paragraph, Powers writes, in the simple past tense, “[g]enerally he was able to force himself awake,” but then he switches to the past perfect again, this time to refer even further back, to an earlier part of the flight. He writes, “but he’d had several scotches earlier….”

Example: Ending a Flashback

The flashback continues for four and a half more pages, using mostly the simple past tense, with an occasional past perfect to reveal a few events that occurred in the days and weeks before Doyle’s journey. The flashback ends as the plane is touching down.

Then Powers resumes the story at the point where Doyle is standing outside the gate as a guard comes to let him in. How does Powers show that the flashback is over? Visually, there’s another break in the text, which prepares us for a scene change.

In addition, he mentions some of the important items from where we left off, writing “The guard unlocked the gate and took Doyle’s suitcase from the driver….”

More Examples

To see how a different author handles an extended flashback, I’m now turning to the novel Reamde, by Neal Stephenson. Again, my example comes from early in the book, so there are no major spoilers. Coincidentally, this example involves a plane flight, too. The character of Richard Forthrast is looking down at the neat squares of farmland. Listen to how Stephenson uses the past perfect tense to put us into the flashback talking about Richard’s old friend, Chet:

Richard could never look at them without thinking of Chet. For Chet was a Midwestern boy too and had grown up in a small town in the eastern, neatly gridded part of South Dakota where he and his boyhood friends had formed a proto-motorcyle gang….

Stephenson continues to use the past perfect tense to describe Chet’s activities for four more sentences. Now listen to how he slips us into the simple past tense, just in time to tell a dramatic story:

One evening in 1977 he had been riding south from a lucrative rendezvous in Pipestone, Minnesota. It was a warm summer night; the moon and stars were out.

He leaned back against his sissy bar and let the wind blow in his long hair and cranked up the throttle.

Then he woke up in a long-term care facility in Minneapolis in February.

Stephenson begins with a past perfect progressive tense, “had been riding,” and then takes advantage of a sentence that doesn’t contain an action to make his move to the simple past: “It was a warm summer night….

” After that, all the verbs are in the simple past: “leaned,” “let,” “cranked,” and “woke up.

” In this way, Stephenson has freed up the past perfect tense to give us a sub-flashback to explain what in the world happened that landed Chet in a hospital. Listen:

As was slowly explained to him by the occupational therapists, he had been found in the middle of a cornfield by a farmer’s dog. It seemed that this nocturnal ride had been terminated by a sudden westward jog in the section-line road. Failing to jog, he had flown

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