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How to Write a Flashback (Without Disrupting Your Momentum)

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Let’s talk about flashbacks.

There comes a time in every writer’s life where you’ll have to write a flashback. Are you prepared to stop time and space and jettison back to the past? Is it even necessary to your story or will it unnecessarily slow down the pace of your story?

Flashbacks have a bad reputation and for good reason. Here's why flashbacks can potentially wreck your story:

Flashbacks are confusing. It’s the literary equivalent to finding oneself in the middle of a different time period. Your reader will feel disoriented while they scramble to figure out what’s going on.

Flashbacks are jarring. The reader is going forward down one path, but your flashback jerks them off-course. Now they have to deal with whiplash because of your sudden reversal of direction. That’s great.

Flashbacks are boring. Nothing like being whipped around for an unimpressive back story. No reader wants to waste their time reading about preceding events if they don’t ultimately push the story forward.

Flashbacks are speed bumps. Imagine driving at high speed, wind in your face, non-stop action, and then— out of nowhere— you hit a hump in the road. Now, you’re having decidedly less fun because you’ve been slowed down. Flashbacks can slow the increasing forward momentum in your story to a crawl.

Yes, we all know that flashbacks can be bad. Really bad.

However, flashbacks can also be useful.

When done correctly, a flashback can give the reader insight into the character’s back story and shed light on their motivation. Because they can reveal hidden things about your characters, flashbacks are great for characterization.

Flashbacks can also be used for pacing. You may actually want to slow the story down. If your story is moving too quickly, insert a flashback and give the reader a chance to catch his or her breath.

So, flashbacks are a handy tool for your writer’s toolbox. But there’s a right and a wrong way to insert flashbacks into your narrative. Let’s discuss how to whip out the flashback in a responsible manner.

Work With Verb Tenses

Writing a flashback

I know this is a blast from the past (no pun intended), but let's flashback to 5th-grade grammar class and talk about verb tenses.

As you probably know subconsciously, most novels are written in the past tense. While it's possible to write in present or even future tense, it's hard to do it well. Plus, the average reader is comfortable with the past tense. It's an acceptable distance that allows the reader to follow along without feeling the need to race through the story (as often happens when reading a story in the present tense).

Compare these tenses:

(Past tense)

She woke up. She went to the garden. She blew on the dandelion and watched the fluffy florets drift into the wind.

(Present tense)

She wakes up. She goes to the garden. She blows on the dandelion and watches the fluffy florets drift into the wind.

While both give you a sense of anticipation, one is more urgent, but not in a good way. Present tense writing makes the reader feel like they must stay moving to keep up with the action. They can't linger and observe what's happening in the scene. Instead, the reader feels they must speed up to keep up. It's not relaxing, meditative, or introspective, which are marks of quality storytelling.

Present tense also feels like a prison because you and the reader are trapped in real-time. When there are gaps in the present tense, it’s more noticeable. You don't have the ability to fast forward to a different timestamp in the future and you cannot revisit the past.

The good thing about writing in the past tense is that it still feels present even though it's already happened.

So what does any of this have to do with flashbacks?

Flashbacks take place in the past, just like the rest of your story. But there needs to be a distinction between pasts, or it will confuse your reader. If your story takes place in the simple past, the flashback needs to take place in the perfect past.

The perfect past refers to a time before another past event. It indicates an action that occurred and was completed (i.e. perfected) in the past before other past events.

Confused? Here's the difference:

(Simple past)

He walked to the basketball court.

(Perfect past)

He had walked to the basketball court many times before.

Notice the use of had. The past perfect tense uses the past tense form of the verb "to have" plus the past participle (-ed).

To successfully jump into a flashback, you need to give your reader a clue that they're traveling back to a time in the story's past. How do you do this?

Use the past perfect tense to clue your reader in.

Start and end your flashbacks with the past perfect tense, but then return to the simple past so that your writing doesn't feel awkward to read. The past perfect tense can be tiring to read.

After you’ve established that you’re in the past (with two or three past perfect tense verbs), return to simple past verbiage. This puts the reader back in the visceral, real-time “now” (even though it’s technically the past).

Remember to end your flashback with a set of perfect past verbs. It eases the transition, even though it’s a subtle trick that only us writers may recognize.

Know the Reason for Your Flashback

Don’t flashback for the heck of it. Have a compelling reason to insert a flashback.

Flashbacks are a handy tool for your writer’s toolbox. But there’s a right and a wrong way to insert flashbacks into your narrative.

Here are some good reasons to flashback:

  • Provide context to what’s currently happening in your story
  • Learn more about your protagonist’s relationship with another character
  • Understand a character’s internal or external motivation
  • Discover what’s at stake, if it hasn’t already been introduced

There are a lot of great reasons for flashing back in time. Make sure that you choose one of them so that your flashback feels necessary and integral to the plot. A flashback that doesn’t add anything to your story is pointless.

Show Don't Tell

Because you're discussing the past, it's easy to summarize. But don't fall into that trap. Make sure that your flashback is as vivid and action-filled as the rest of your narrative. Describe what’s happening and allow your readers to come to their own conclusions.

Don't Flash Back Too Early

So, you’re in chapter one of your epic story and you feel the itch to write a flashback.

Guess what? No one cares.

To be effective, readers need to be fully engaged in your story. They need to care about the characters and they also need to have some clue of what’s happening. If they aren’t already emotionally invested, your flashback will do a lot of damage and potentially stop them from reading your story.

Remember that flashbacks slow the story down, and that’s the last thing you want to do too early. You want to set a pace and then get readers on the edge of their seats before you pump the breaks.

Limit Your Time Frame

Writing a flashback

Ideally, a flashback should only last for a brief period of time. That time may range from a few minutes to a few hours, but avoid going longer than that. A flashback that takes place over the course of several days (or longer) can drain your present narrative of its power. Every minute spent in flashback is like a year in the simple past.

Limit Your Use of Flashbacks

Most stories can only handle a few flashbacks before tackling them becomes a chore to your reader. Personally, I’ve responded to many flashbacks with a dejected sigh.

Unless flashbacks serve as an intentional component of your storytelling, you don’t need to add them to every chapter. That’s overkill. And it indicates that you’re probably telling more than you’re showing.

It’s okay to pepper your flashbacks throughout your narrative, but don’t saturate.

Final Thoughts

Flashbacks are useful for switching up the pace, providing character insight, and giving the reader a necessary back story. Be sure to use this literary device sparingly so that your story continues to move forward.

For additional resources, check out these posts:

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