We oftentimes hear the word flashback and we begin to think of all the don’ts associated with them. Don’t use them too early. Don’t let them go on too long. Don’t include too many. The list goes on and on. Flashbacks get a bad rap because they’re oftentimes misunderstood in terms of how to use them. If used intentionally and with deliberate purpose, flashbacks can reel your reader in, transforming their understanding of your character and transforming the way your character’s journey evolves. Let’s talk through four ways flashbacks can achieve these wonderful ends without drawing any sort of negative attention via all the don’ts we’ve come to know all too well.
1. Flashbacks can give rise to emotional attachment to facets of the character’s ordinary world.
If you’ve sent your character away from their normal world somewhat early in your story, flashbacks can work like a gauge for where your protagonist is emotionally inside their new world versus when they were in their ordinary world. When they arrive to a new setting, they will encounter new faces, places, objects, and other unfamiliar things. Consider how you can bridge elements about these new things to elements from the ordinary world to evoke a sense of longing. For example, if the character settles in for the night in a strange room, maybe there’s a mirror hanging in a spot similar to where their favorite picture of them and their best friend is back home. Recalling that picture can be a gateway into a small flashback that lets us glean that friendship, and how being away from it makes the protagonist feel. Think of this as a sliding scale. We might expect more of these types of flashbacks closer to when the protagonist enters the new world, signaling their reluctance to be comfortable in the new world. But as time goes on, the flashbacks signal old attachments are fewer and further between to suggest growth and a “letting go” of the ordinary world.
2. Flashbacks can give rise to an aha about something in the ordinary world.
Time and distance away from the ordinary world can afford your protagonist an aha as they look back. Piggybacking on the point above, you can use new faces, new places, new objects, and other unfamiliar things to show a shift in their perspective. Maybe a new character has the same hair color as your protagonist’s friend back in the ordinary world. Only this new character is always upbeat and encouraging and eager to help your protagonist, which gives rise to the realization that the friend back in the ordinary world actually isn’t the friend your protagonist once thought they were. Or maybe your character visits a wonderful place in the new world and realizes that in their ordinary world, they didn’t take risks or explore enough. The dichotomy of the old and the new can evoke a realization and mark inner growth for your character.
3. Flashbacks can be tools to gradually reveal a character’s hidden past if they’re not yet ready to face it.
In books where the protagonist has trauma buried in their past, it makes sense that we may choose to unroll that past as the front story increases their confidence and comfort to do so. In other words, flashbacks can be like you handing the reader (and the character) puzzle pieces of the protagonist’s past. Little by little, the reader gradually understands the traumatic event that created the character they meet on page one. And to honor the nature of trauma and the authenticity of a healing journey, we can deliberately select flashback snippets that build—almost like a plot all their own—to a full reveal. Some of the most masterful examples of this are HEART IN A BODY IN THE WORLD by Deb Caletti and WALK TWO MOONS by Sharon Creech.
Despite the way flashbacks can enrich our stories, yes, there are caveats to consider:
Flashbacks Should be Written Tightly
Because we effectively stop the front story for them, they risk pulling down tension and they cause the reader to start forgetting what was going on pre-flashback. As I often tell clients, get in and get out. Consider showing us only what we absolutely need to see and build the flashback around one snapshot of emotional punch and plot reveal. Flashbacks can be a small as one sentence. And while you might expect I’m going to say wait to show flashbacks, I’m going to say the opposite. Don’t wait to start sprinkling in those mini-flashbacks. The one-liners that pique curiosity and start giving shape to why you started your novel where you did. Those clues that keep your reader engaged as they piece together your character’s past and how your front story is going to address it.
Flashbacks Should be Logically-Timed
It helps to have a concrete thing the reader can point to that kicks off the timing of the flashback. For example, your character may walk down a gravel path as they approach the front door of their new foster family, and the sound evokes a memory of driving down a gravel road, singing alongside the father they lost. Connect the flashback so the narrator isn’t manipulating their timing strictly for tension’s sake, but rather doling them out in a way that feels intentional.
Carefully Plan Flashbacks
Any time we choose to unroll a character’s past through flashbacks, we must do so with solid reasoning that goes beyond setting up a twist for the sake of shock factor. As I mentioned above, books with trauma have grounds to utilize this technique because we can assume characters have been too traumatized to give their full backstory to us up front. But if you withhold past memories in an effort to keep the reader’s attention, chances are it will backfire.
Each Flashback Should Show Something New
If we have multiple flashbacks showing us how much your protagonist loved their pet lizard, the flashbacks flatten the plot arc. They’re interchangeable since they’re more or less the same. But if each flashback shows something more secretive, or something harder for the protagonist to face, or something higher in terms of what your character values, the sequence of flashbacks create an arc all their own.
Flashbacks Should Not be Your Only Connection to Your Character’s Past
We should still see hints of the flashback inside the front story itself. We may not know what caused the character’s wounds, but we see the scars. The past we don’t yet fully know should drive their behavior, their choices, their interactions, and their dialogue. As the writer, you know the backstory and so you can craft clue drops that let us puzzle our way along until we get the full story.
How else can flashbacks be used to enrich the reader’s experience? As a reader, how best do flashbacks resonate with you, and what flashback features turn you off? Chime in! Happy Writing!
Marissa has been a freelance editor and reader for literary agent Sarah Davies at Greenhouse Literary Agency for over seven years. In conjunction with Angelella Editorial, she offers developmental editing, author coaching, and more. Marissa feels if she’s done her job well, a client should probably never need her help again because she’s given them a crash-course MFA via deep editorial support and/or coaching.
MINDY ALYSE WEISS says
Thanks for this awesome post, Marissa. I love when flashbacks are sprinkled in organically, giving important new info to readers (and sometimes to the main character, too).
I should turn your ‘caveats to consider’ points into a checklist for SCBWI FL critique groups to use. They’ll help so many writers.
Marissa Graff says
I’m so happy you found the post helpful. I admit I used to dismiss flashbacks. But the more I understand how they can be used to reveal plot and character, the more I try to dream up ways to make them really work for me! Thanks for letting me know the content was useful.
Saraina Whitney says
YES! I love this post – thank you for writing it!!! Julie Lessman’s books have great examples of delicious flashbacks that pique your interest, give something new most if not each time, and build up to the full memory at just the right time. XD
Marissa Graff says
OOh, thanks for the recommendation! It’s always helpful to have strong mentor texts to get our creative juices flowing, isn’t it? Thank you for chiming in!
Scott Stoops says
General storytelling wisdom tells us to start the story as close to a crisis as we can. That gets the reader engaged in the main story. Flashbacks give us the opportunity to go back and set the stage for what is happening now. I’ve read a few novels where the flashback lasted for long and extended sections of the novel. I lost interest in the story. A flashback that lasts a few pages can really enhance the story.
I found your third point helpful. Flashbacks allow us to see something of the character’s past that they might not be willing to reveal.
The important thing is that the flashback needs to be written the same way as present-time scenes. It must advance the story and it must be interesting.
Marissa Graff says
Agree to all of this! It’s especially a great trick to use to keep giving the reader that “ordinary world” context so that they have contrast with the front story and the backstory. I’m so glad you joined the discussion!
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Such a great post, I love how you highlighted all the great things they can do for the story, because you’re right – most are first and foremost cautionary tales because they can be mismanaged. Great tips here on how to use them well. 🙂
Marissa Graff says
Indeed! It’s very easy for things to go sideways with flashbacks. One of my favorite flashback books—or what winds up equating to dual-timeline narrative—is WALK TWO MOONS by Sharon Creech. To this day, I’m still asking myself how she did it. The flashbacks weave in so smoothly, and she used them perfectly for the character’s journey. When they work well, they REALLY work! Thank you for having me stop by!
BECCA PUGLISI says
This is great stuff, Marissa! I love the idea of “mini flashbacks”—one-liners, even. A flashback doesn’t have to be a full-blown scene to be effective.
Marissa Graff says
Yes! I never thought of flashbacks as being just one line, but they really can be little clue drops that give us a glimpse into the past. I tend to be an impatient reader, so I’m a huge fan of the mini-flashback! Thank you sincerely for letting me share content with your readers!