Flashbacks can help to build an enthralling and effective story; they can give your story layers of intrigue and complexity. Using them can show the reader why a character behaves in a certain way; to give backstory about a character’s past or situation. But they are tricky to get right!
What is a flashback? It’s a scene that you show in real time but which happened in the past – it could be a dream your character has, or an object or person that triggers a memory.
Here are some articles that can help you write those all-important flashback scenes:
This brilliant article from Masterclass advises you to use verb tense shifts when moving between the flashback and the main narrative. You must keep the flashbacks relevant, only use what’s necessary; you don’t want to take your reader out of the main story for too long. Getting the story down first and adding the flashbacks later can help the writer see where they are needed to move the story along.
Discussed in this article are the pros and cons of using a flashback. It then proceeds to show us that a flashback can work if it’s done properly. It suggests breaking down the flashback into three parts to make it work effectively: – the segue out of the present and into the past
– the backstory itself
– the segue out of the backstory and into the present.
It goes on to explains how to manage these segues effectively with examples.
5 tips to help you write flashbacks are given here, covering the smooth transition into it and out. It highlights the importance of how relevant and necessary the flashback is; to use it sparingly and keep it brief and meaningful. It also talks about the two main types of flashback – a full flashback scene and a brief in-scene flashback. Examples of flashback are given to show what works and what doesn’t.
This article gives the writer an excellent insight into writing flashbacks using the P.A.S.T method. It’s an easy-to-use mnemonic tool to help the writer remember four techniques for constructing effective and powerful flashbacks. P.A.S.T stands for Purpose, Attention, Switch and Transition.
Why flashbacks have a bad reputation is talked about here and countered with why they can be useful. It gets down to the nitty gritty and shows you how by changing the verb tenses in your scene, you can easily transition in and out of flashbacks. Emphasising the need to show not tell – it’s all too easy to just summarise but your flashback should be as vivid and pacy as the rest of your story. As well as limiting the length and use of flashbacks, it also warns about using them too early in a story; the reader needs to be invested in your story before you give them a flashback.
This short podcast is full of great tips on flashbacks.
Using the first chapter of The Fifty-Two Week Chronicles, a comedy novel by Joslyn Westbrook, two fiction editors offer critique on flashbacks.
As Nancy Kress says ‘Any flashback, no matter how well written or interesting, will 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. The flashback is, by definition, already over. Even so, the flashback can be a good choice for a second scene if you gain more in depth and clarity than you lose in immediacy.’
Take all this advice on board but remember that you, as the writer, will have the gut feeling if the flashback works or not. Share it with other writers, accept their critique and play around with it until it does work. Good luck with it. I hope this week’s column has been helpful for you. If there is any particular writing topic you want me to cover, please get in touch.
(c) Lucy O’Callaghan