A Word About Flashbacks

Back to the Future-The Ride
Get your novel up to 88 miles per hour, but watch for paradoxes. (Photo credit: cliff1066™)

The flashback can be one of the most wonderful and magical ways to give background for a character.  It can also become a horribly overused device that can cripple a text.  It works for comic effect on Family Guy because its overuse becomes the butt of the joke, but when writing fiction it can be something that can get out of control.

Many beginning writers make use of several unnecessary flashbacks.  This method is seen by these writers as sometimes the only way to give the reader background information on a character when it is really only one way to do this.  Here are three other ways to accomplish this without messy flashbacks:

  1. Dialogue – Have the characters talk about past events or reference them gently.  This is a much better and more palatable way to tell the backstory without going into a long story-within-a-story.
  2. Narration – First person narrators and even third person narrators can set this up through showing the reader a brief look into the past without going into very heavy detail.
  3. Reference – One thing that I like to do is refer to something that happened in the past briefly by either a character’s dialogue or a narrator that gives just enough information for the reader to fill in the blanks.  I love to let a reader’s imagination write my story for me.

When using flashbacks, make sure they occur early on before the characters get caught up in the action.  If the flashback occurs later in the story, it can bog down the story and quickly become something that an editor or someone who is critiquing the text to abhor.  It’s like standing up in the middle of a fast paced movie and asking for the projectionist to stop the film so that someone can fill us in on why so-and-so is thinking this or doing this right now.  Nobody wants that.

I write a long form back story in a journal, and then only use the parts of it that do not bore my readers.  J.R.R. Tolkien did this in the form of appendices, but most of his backstory did not end up in his books.  It is good to plan, but every detail of the planning stage does not need to appear in your novel.

The most important thing is to cut out everything from the narrative that does not drive the story along.  If the flashback bogs this down, cut it out and tell the backstory in one of the other ways mentioned above.

Some other ways to do this:

  1. Provide a transition – Please do not write “He thought back to a simpler time” or “traveling back in his mind”.  Be creative with the way a flashback is introduced.  The transition is the most important part of a flashback, but don’t dwell there too long.  Show the reader that glimpse of the past and then get out of there.  If’ you’ve written more than three sentences, you’ve written too much.
  2. Past to Past Perfect – The flashback should be written in the past perfect if the main story is written in past tense.  This requires the writer to add “had” in front of most verbs.
  3. No Flashback Within a Flashback – This is totally awkward and will confuse the reader.  The last thing a writer wants to do is confuse a reader.  Get over yourself.  It has nothing to do with art if the person looking at it can’t understand what is trying to be said.
  4. – When the flashback ends, make sure that the reader knows this.  Make it very obvious.  Fall gently back into the action we left to tell the brief back story.

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

3 thoughts on “A Word About Flashbacks

  1. I’m having a bit of trouble with flashbacks in my novel. One character’s very important – not exactly to the main story line, but in his relationships with the characters that are, and to the overall outcome – but he doesn’t get a lot of ‘action’ as such until quite near the end. Most of his stuff is flashback-esque because of this, to give the opportunity to get to know him. I know I’ll have to go back over everything soon and see if I can do something about it – particularly the one blatant flashback-within-a-flashback … whoops 🙂

  2. One of the (many) flaws in my first full-length manuscript was an extended flashback that hogged up the middle of the book. My story had a major twist about halfway through, but to make sense of it, I had to essentially put a novelette in the middle of my novel. After about 10 drafts, I couldn’t figure out how to get around it without rewriting the whole thing from scratch.

    I eventually re-titled my manuscript “The Learning Experience.”

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