Showing posts with label Flashbacks. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Flashbacks. Show all posts

Tips on Adding Flashbacks to your Author Kit

A flashback is a literary device that momentarily departs from a story to a scene in the past. A flashback can be as brief as a sudden thought, a dream, or a memory. Flashback can help give your story depth, and make your main character more interesting. As Diane O’Connell, author of The Novel-Maker’s Handbook, put it on her blog, “Used wisely, flashbacks can add richness, emotional resonance and depth to your novel.”

“Flashbacks can thicken plots, create dynamic and complex characters, reveal information otherwise left unspoken, or surprise the audience with shocking secrets. A large part of a character’s essence can be found in the past and the memories which resurface over time.” (Helpful examples of flashbacks can be found on this site as well.)

“Using flashbacks wisely” is the key. If you’d like to try using flashback in your story, follow these tips and read the articles suggested at the end of this post, and you’ll be good to go.

The Good News First
When a flashback scene enhances your story:
  • A scene that depicts an incident from your protagonist’s childhood could shed light on her current situation and help your reader understand her better.
  • An incident that occurred before your story began, in a far-off time and place, could enhance your story present. 
  • What has driven your character to act? Something that happened to her in the past? Flashing back to that incident could help explain her motives.
Now for the pitfalls:
  • The biggest disadvantage of flashbacks is that they happened in the past. Not in story time. 
  • Flashbacks need to be done effectively to avoid removing your reader from your story.
Tips for Effective Flashbacks
  • Never start a scene with a flashback.
  • Have a flashback follow a strong scene.
  • Keep flashback brief.
  • Make sure the flashback advances the story.
  • Use flashbacks sparingly.
  • Orient reader at the start of a flashback, in time and space, and transition back to the story present.
  • Tenses: for past tense, use past perfect and simple past; for present tense, use present tense in the entire flashback, and resume story in present tense.
  • Transitioning: Make transitions clear. Use the above tenses to guide readers in and out of flashback.
The following flashback, as Nancy Kress wrote in her Writer's Digest article, does a good job of transition. It’s from Thomas Perry’s mystery novel Sleeping Dogs. Protagonist Michael Schaeffer, a former hit man, has just come upon the site of a multiple murder:

All his old habits came back automatically. At a glance he assessed [everyone’s] posture and hands. Was there a man whose fingers curled in a little tremor when their eyes met, a woman whose hand moved to rest inside her handbag? He knew all the practical moves and involuntary gestures, and he scanned everyone, granting no exceptions. He and Eddie had done a job like this one when he was no more than twelve. Eddie had dressed him for baseball, and had even bought him a new glove to carry folded under his arm. When they had come upon the man in the crowd, he hadn’t even seen them; his eyes were too occupied in studying the crowd for danger to waste a moment on a little kid and his father walking home from a sandlot game. As they passed the man … (From “3 Tips for Writing Successful Flashbacks,” by Nancy Kress.)

Flash Forward
The opposite of flashback is a glance at the future, or the flash forward. Example:

  • The light flashed so bright, Emma had to shut her eyes. She couldn’t know that once she took even a peek, she’d be seeing a ghost.
Flashbacks and flash forwards might come more naturally to you than you might think. While reading a few chapters of my current WIP to my husband today, I was surprised to find a flashback, written before I did my research for today's post. So, now that you know how to slip these literary devices into your own writing, if you haven't tried them yet, you might experiment with them as a way to enhance your own writing. Just keep one guideline in mind: use flashbacks and flash forwards sparingly.

Please note: My post "Live Author Interviews," Part II from last month's post, "Tips on Author Interviews" will be appearing soon.
Clipart courtesy of: 

Linda Wilson, a former elementary teacher and ICL graduate, has published over 150 articles for adults and children, and several short stories for children. Her first book, Secret in the Stars: An Abi Wunder Mystery, a mystery/ghost story for children 7-11 years old, is hot off the press and will be available soon. Currently, she is hard at work on The Ghost of Janey Brown, Book Two in the series. Follow Linda at

There's a Gorilla in the Phone Booth! - The dangers of flashbacks

by Shirley Corder

The fog was closing in. Marsha dashed across the road to the phone booth to call her husband to come and fetch her. With relief, she pulled open the stiff door and slipped inside. She peered towards the phone dial, and instead her eyes focused on a gigantic dark hairy chest. Fearfully she looked up, and up . . . until she made out the terrifying features of an adult gorilla. There was a gorilla in the phone booth! 

His immense mouth opened and she gazed in horror at his vicious-looking teeth. She was about to be devoured by a raging primate. It reminded her of the time when she and her husband had gone to see the film, “Gorillas in the Mist.” It was a beautiful evening, their first real date. They had sat and eaten popcorn and drank soda. When they ran out of popcorn, Robert slipped his hand across and gripped hers. The rest of the film was a blur. All she remembered was what happened on their walk home . . .

Okay, this is a variation of a common theme for writers. You’ve created an exciting scenario. A gorilla is a massive animal, renowned for its phenomenal strength. We can think of the well-known advert of King Kong as he rips apart the jaws of a T-Rex, or of him wreaking havoc in New York City. He is not a creature to tangle with. And he’s certainly not something you want to share a phone booth with.

Why did the author put the gorilla in the phone booth in the first place? Because it’s a tiny enclosure. There’s no way anyone can win a battle with a gorilla in a phone booth. The victim would be ripped apart in no time. The tension is unbearable. The reader holds his breath.

And then he’s transported to the cinema. On a trip down memory lane. What a letdown.

What was the writer thinking? He’s created a breathtaking scene, and then left the reader hanging while he explores another part of the heroine’s life. It’s called a flashback, but it’s a dangerous technique. If the author doesn’t want to lose his reader, a flashback has to be handled wisely.

For writers, the lesson is: Stay with the gorilla in the phone booth! The story needs to keep moving forward. The reader doesn’t want to know about the time at the cinema. He wants to know how Marsha is going to handle her ordeal in the phone booth.

There are times for flashbacks, but less is more. Think twice before you leave your reader stuck indefinitely in a phone booth with a gorilla. It's not a nice place to be.

OVER TO YOU: How do you feel about flashbacks when you're reading? Any authors that do them well? Do you use them in your own writing? Leave a comment below.


SHIRLEY CORDER lives on the coast in South Africa with her husband, Rob. Her book, Strength Renewed: Meditations for your Journey through Breast Cancer contains 90 meditations based on the time she faced a gorilla in the cancer valley.

Please visit Shirley through, where she encourages writers, or at, where she encourages those in the cancer valley. You can also meet with her on Twitter or FaceBook

How to Handle Flashbacks

Once the reader’s interest is caught, after the storyline is firmly established, the reader may want to know that past history that brought the character to where he is today. If a girl’s going to slap a boy’s face, then he in turn knocks her down, let the reader see that first before you explain the background of their quarrel.

1. Recollection. The character goes briefly into a memory within a couple of sentences or a paragraph.

2. True Flashback—A trigger—a song, a smell, something reminds the character of something or someone and sends him/her back into the past. Then trigger the character back into the present (the song ends, someone asks a question, etc.)

3. Introspection. Be VERY CAREFUL. It should be exceptionally quirky or an exceptional reason to write this way. Make introspection a small percentage of the novel.

4. Summary. A way to introduce back story. Example: The Book of Ruth, Jane Hamilton, gives a tour of the town, giving little tidbits of info about places & people.

5. Prologue. A haunting incident or piece of info that continues through the story.

6. Dialogue. You can explain past action in a short discussion. Again, don’t start the story with it. See if you can figure out a way to show the event itself, instead of having people talk about it.

7. Memory. You can use an inner monologue to take a short trip down memory lane. Example, from Ann Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist: Just when the reader is fed up with Macon’s bad-tempered dog Edward, Tyler lets us know why Macon insists on keeping the dog. The dog had belonged to his son Ethan, who had been murdered the previous year. “Once upon a time, Ethan had brushed him, bathed him, wrestled on the floor with him, and when Edward stopped to paw at one ear, Ethan would ask, with the soberest courtesy, ‘Oh, may I scratch that for you?’ The two of them watched daily at the window for the afternoon paper, and the instant it arrived, Ethan sent Edward bounding out to fetch it—hind legs meeting front legs, heels kicking up joyfully.”

8. Frames. Only two flashbacks, one at the beginning and one at the end. For example, an older person introduces the story, then we leave her and go directly into the main story—that of the 20-year-old. Then you end with the older person again. It’s kind of a prologue and epilogue form.

To Think About:
• Look at your flashbacks.
• How often are you interrupting the forward flow of your story?
• Do you have flashback at more than one level—flashbacks from flashbacks?
• If you spend a lot of time in the past, take a look at each flashback individually. If it were cut, would the present story be harder to follow? Or, can you rewrite it into a more present, or real-time scene?

Do You Use Flashbacks?

What is flashback? It’s someone remembering, in the present, what happened in the past. If you tell of bygone events in narrative summary, it’s exposition (telling). If you dramatize them as a scene, it’s a flashback. The virtue of flashbacks is that, unlike exposition, they’re showing, not telling. They have action and drama.

However, many writing experts advise not to use flashbacks, or to limit them Of course this is one of those “rules” that has exceptions. In writing, never say never.

Here are the reasons for trying to avoid using flashbacks:
1.They’re not as strong or vivid as present-time scenes, simply because they’re done with. Readers tend to take the past less seriously than the present because it’s over. We’re only hearing about it rather than seeing it happen—even though it’s presented as a scene.

2. Any flashback, no matter how well written or interesting, can distance your reader from the action. This is because flashbacks shatter the illusion that the reader is a fly on the wall, witnessing events as they happen, right now. Are you more thrilled by a kiss you experience today or one you remember from a year ago?

3. Flashbacks disrupt the story’s timeline and can stop the momentum. And if there are a lot of them, they can leech the vividness out of the whole story and invalidate the story’s present.

So, whenever you feel the need to fill in backstory, ask yourself first:
• Is this needed to move the story along?
• If the answer is yes, then ask yourself, can this be written as a real-time scene?
• If no, try to determine if you gain more in depth and clarity than you lose in immediacy.

Every story has its history or backstory. But we can’t start every one at birth and include all of the traumatic childhood or life events that shaped the character and made him what he is today. You might choose to write up this background in one or more scenes—just for your own personal knowledge of your character—and not use much or any of it in your story.

When to use Flashbacks.
This is not to say that you can NEVER use flashbacks. They can be done effectively. Like with so many writing techniques, it’s a matter of moderation.

Again, according to the experts, don’t open with a flashback. (Of course there’s an exception to that rule, too.) But the danger of opening with a flashback is that in the early stages of a story, interest is a fragile thing. Your reader is in search of entertainment, and he’s not sure yet if he’s going to find what he wants in your particular story.

Sometimes flashback might be the only way to develop your plot. But make sure to spend the largest proportion of your time in the present.

So, if you’re going to use a flashback, make sure the running plot in your story is strong, clear and well-established before splitting off to do anything else, whether following a subplot or embarking on a flashback. Make sure the flashback is vivid and interesting in itself. Connect the flashback plot with the present plot.

Next month I'll talk about how to handle flashbacks when you do use them.

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