Hi everyone! Today we have a past Resident Writing Coach visiting us: Sara Letourneau, editor and owner of Heart of the Story Editorial & Coaching Services. She’s sharing some terrific insight on flashbacks, so please read on!
Flashbacks can be tricky to write. On one hand, they can reveal a powerful emotional moment from the protagonist’s past or reveal important information about her, her circumstances, or other characters. But on the other hand, they can lack urgency, become confused with the present-day narrative, or seem more like backstory. So for your readers to believe the flashbacks matter just as much as what’s happening in the protagonist’s life right now, you’ll need to craft those scenes with intention, skill, and care.
Again, sounds challenging, right? Don’t worry, though. This is where the P.A.S.T. Method comes in.
What is the P.A.S.T. Method, you might be wondering? It’s a simple mnemonic tool to help you remember four techniques for crafting effective and powerful flashbacks. Here’s what each letter stands for:
Let’s go over each one in more detail.
P is for Purpose, or Ensure Each Flashback Has a Purpose
Every flashback should have a reason for being in the story. Whatever that reason may be, it should be clear to the reader immediately or (if the flashbacks tell a story or reveal clues for a revelation) sometime within the sequence of memories.
One way of ensuring each flashback has a purpose is to ask yourself, “What is the purpose of sharing this memory with the reader? How is it important to the story?” Your answers will likely include one or more of the following objectives for flashbacks:
- It helps explain how the protagonist’s current dilemma developed.
- It offers clues that, by the end of the story, will reveal a secret or shocking truth that the protagonist currently isn’t aware of.
- It illuminates the protagonist’s relationships with other characters.
- It shares critical details about the protagonist’s backstory, historical information, or a fictional setting’s worldbuilding.
- It contributes to the story’s themes in some way.
Here are two examples of purposeful flashbacks from published novels:
- Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys: At first, Lina’s flashbacks of the months leading up to her deportation with her brother and her mother from Lithuania to Russia seem like “slices of life.” But in reality, they offer hints that help Lina (and the reader) discover why she and her family were been deported and why her father was separated from them.
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: During the Reaping scene (when Katniss and Peeta are selected to participate in the Games), Katniss recalls the rainy day when Peeta, a baker’s son, gave her two loaves of bread and how Katniss’s family had been on the verge of starvation up to that point. This introduces Peeta as a kind, generous young man despite his circumstances, and provides much-needed backstory about Katniss and her family as well as additional worldbuilding details.
A is for Attention, or Give Each Flashback the Attention (a.k.a. Length and Depth) It Deserves
Recently I read a book where select chapters for one POV character began with flashbacks about each of the character’s seven adoptive fathers. The purpose of these flashbacks was clear (to show each father’s influence on the character), but the flashbacks themselves were… well, not all that interesting.
Why? Because the flashbacks didn’t go into enough depth. Rather than offering details that showed the character’s relationship with each father, each memory summarized the relationship in a couple paragraphs and focused more on elaborate prose than specifics. In this way, the author glosses over each relationship, and readers aren’t able to witness or experience the character’s bond (or lack thereof) with each father. It even made me question whether those relationships mattered to the character – and why the flashbacks were there to begin with.
It’s true that we can’t recall all the bits and pieces of our own memories. But if an event from the past evokes strong emotions in us, we often remember it clearly for a long time. The same goes for our characters. When you include enough dialogue, sensory details, brief setting descriptions, and significant objects in a flashback, you accomplish two important feats:
- You show the reader why the protagonist cares about this moment from her past.
- You give the reader a reason to care about that flashback and feel more endeared to that character.
And nurturing that character-reader bond is one of the most crucial parts of story-writing, right?
S is for Switch, or Use Clues in the Text to Indicate the Switch from Present to Past… or Not
When writing flashbacks, it’s a good idea to use “visual” cues in the text to signal the change from past to present. This will make it clear to readers that what the protagonist is about to share isn’t part of the present-day narrative.
You can indicate this switch in two ways:
- Change the Verb Tense: If the main storyline is written in present tense (is, eats, asks), write the flashbacks in simple past tense (was, ate, asked). And if the main storyline is in past tense, use the past perfect (had been, had eaten, had asked) for the first few verbs in the flashback, then switch back to simple past until the last few verbs, when you switch again to past perfect to signal that the flashback is ending.
- Make the Flashback Its Own Scene: Sometimes it helps to set off a lengthy flashback as a separate scene from the present-day scene that “triggers” it (more on this shortly). You can usually achieve this with a simple line break. If you want to emphasize the change further, use an ornamental symbol in the middle of the line break and/or italicized text for the flashback.
What if, however, your intention is to blur the lines between memory and reality? In that case, you can play with these rules to your liking, maybe by alternating between past and present tense or crafting ambiguous transitions between flashbacks and the current-day storyline. Be careful, though. This approach can give a distorted, disjointed tone that might not be appropriate for the story. It needs to fit the character’s circumstances, the plot, and themes, like with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
In each novel, the protagonist experiences frequent flashbacks because of the grimness of their present – and when the distinction between those flashbacks and reality becomes less distinct, it heightens each character’s sense of nostalgia in surreal and terrifying ways that fit each story perfectly.
T is for Transition, or Craft Your Flashback Transitions Carefully
Just as how each flashback serves a purpose, the transition from the story’s “real-time” to that flashback should make sense. Something in the current scene should trigger the memory: another character’s words, the task at hand, an eerily similar setting or situation, or even a hand gesture. Between Shades of Gray features excellent examples of these skillful transitions, including this excerpt that shifts from Lina’s present situation to a memory of her cutting her father’s hair.
I thought about Papa. Did he know about the war? Did he know we all had lice? …. Did he know how much I missed him? I clutched the handkerchief in my pocket, thinking of Papa’s smiling face.
“Hold still!” I complained.
“I had an itch,” my father said, grinning. (Page 73)
See what Sepetys does here? She uses Lina’s longing for her father (whom she’s separated from in the main story) and her current health predicament as a launching pad for the flashback, which involves both her father and hair. Plus, the questions Lina asks herself about her father and his well-being create a natural path to her thinking of his smile and then to the haircut memory.
So when writing your own flashbacks, make sure the trigger for each one is in some way related to the character’s current circumstances. This will create a transition from the main story to the past that’s not only logical, but also smooth and seamless.
How do you use the four parts of the P.A.S.T. Method to write flashbacks? Do you find it challenging or easy to effectively incorporate flashbacks into the present-day narrative? What other tips would you add?
Bio: Sara Letourneau is the independent editor and writing coach behind Heart of the Story Editorial & Coaching Services. She offers a wide range of editing packages and one-on-one coaching to help writers tell compelling and well-crafted stories, finish (or get started on) their projects, and develop greater trust in their creativity. She is also a columnist at DIY MFA, an insatiable reader, and a poet whose work has been published in various literary journals. Visit the Heart of the Story website to learn more about working with Sara, or her writer website to read some of her work.
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Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.
Excellent advice – I know many of my students often find this aspect of writing technically challenging.
DP Lyle says
Excellent post with good insights into an often difficult aspect of writing—but a good one to master. The biggest mistakes I see are awkward transitions and weak connections to the main storyline. I always tell my students if they want to see them handled well go to Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” Thanks for this post.
Sara Letourneau says
Thanks, D.P.! And I agree, writing flashbacks is a tricky skill to master, but also a necessary one. I’ve seen some of the same mistakes you mentioned, too. But the good thing for writers who read those stories is that they can learn from what not to do from the poor examples (and what to do from the great examples).
BECCA PUGLISI says
As with any element of writing, you’ve got to know when to use it and how to do it right. Thanks for these tips, Sara.
Sara Letourneau says
You’re welcome, Becca! Thanks so much for having me back. 🙂
Ingmar Albizu says
Sound advice about the often maligned flashbacks. I personally love using them in my fiction to explore motivation and character.
Thanks for such an educational post, Sara!
Sara Letourneau says
You’re welcome, Ingmar! And thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts. 🙂
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Lots of great ideas here, Sara. Flashbacks can definitely work if there is a very compelling reason for using them. I think it all comes down to being able to justify one, and then knowing how to best get in and out of one to make it as seamless as possible. 🙂 Thanks for visiting us today!
Sara Letourneau says
Absolutely! That’s a big reason why I listed purpose as the first tip. Every flashback should have a reason for being in the story, and that reason should be clear either right away or (if a revelation is involved) at some point later in the story.
And you’re welcome! Thank you for having me back. 🙂