How to Use Flashbacks in Your Fiction Writing
Flashbacks done well can have a profound effect on your story. They can add depth to your characters, intrigue to your plot lines, or serve as eye-opening reveals.
In this post, we’ll dive deep into what flashbacks are, why they can be so compelling, and how to use them for maximum effect in your writing.
What is a flashback?
A flashback is a scene from a character’s past. It is not something simply shared during dialogue, or a handful of lines about a character’s history. It is an actual scene the reader steps into and experiences firsthand from the point-of-view character.
The beauty of flashbacks is that they give writers the freedom to fully show instead of tell the details of a traumatic or significant event in a character’s history, at the moment when it will be most powerful.
A flashback is a life-changing scene
Flashbacks come in all different lengths. They can be as short as a paragraph, or as long as full scenes or even chapters. At their longest, flashbacks can take up the bulk of an entire book, using the framing device of a character setting the stage for the story they’ll tell. No matter which length of flashback you see, however, they all have something in common: the moment we are flashing back on is momentous enough that it affects the character’s life to this very day. If it doesn’t, there is no reason for your protagonist to relive that moment, and no reason for the reader to care.
A flashback advances your main story
Your story steadily doles out new information as it progresses, and a flashback should be no exception. Showing your reader a flashback does not mean putting your main story on hold. Rather than a pause in action, your flashback is actually an important reveal. It might be a reveal of someone’s motivations for a current action, the introduction of an important character from your protagonist’s past, or a replay of a traumatic event. Regardless of the memory you show, though, your reader should come out of that flashback with information they didn’t have before—information that’s just as crucial as anything in the current timeline.
When and where to use them
If you’re not writing a story that treats flashbacks as part of the structure, it’s usually best to use them sparingly, so your reader doesn’t tire of yet another jump to the past. It’s also best not to use flashbacks in your opening scene; your reader won’t be invested in your character enough yet to be wondering about their past, and you’ll lose tension by stopping your book’s forward momentum right off the bat.
Where you use them will depend on what you’re trying to accomplish with each particular flashback. If the purpose is to illustrate background information essential to the main plot, then you’ll want it earlier in the book, during the setup.
However, if this flashback won’t be relevant until the hero faces complications that bring back bad memories—memories that could affect their ability to go on—it might work better to introduce the flashback at the midpoint, or even during the “All Is Lost” beat before the climax.
Wherever you put your flashbacks, make sure they fall as close as possible to the plot points where they’re relevant, so the memory is fresh in your reader’s mind as they see what the character is now facing.
How do you avoid confusing your reader?
We now know why flashbacks can be powerful tools in your plot, and we know where to put them, so let’s talk about the nitty gritty details: how do you move into and out of a flashback without confusing your reader?
Step 1: Use a trigger
First of all, you need a trigger in your current timeline that throws your character back to the memory in the flashback. Maybe it’s a word or phrase, a certain smell, or a sound, like a door slamming or the rumble of a train. Not only will it provide a good bridge between the present and the past, as the character experiences the same thing in both timelines, but it also shows how powerful the memory is to grab ahold of your character using an otherwise ordinary sensation.
Step 2: Transition to the past
From there, use certain words or punctuation to make it clear we’re now moving into the past, like, “He had been nine years old,” “That day was still vivid in my mind,” or even just putting an ellipsis (“…”) after the reference to the memory. Phrases like these are usually enough to signal the scene-shift to the past, without using overly telegraphing and clichéd phrases like, “She replayed the moment in her head.”
Step 3: Change the verb tense
Another important aspect of moving into the flashback is changing your verb tense. You are moving from a current timeline to a past one, so your verb tense should reflect that as you transition into it. If your book is in present tense, this means changing to past tense (“he says” to “he said”), and if it’s in past tense, it means moving to past perfect (“she said” to “she had said”).
Flashbacks in present tense stories will oftentimes use past perfect as well, to really highlight the fact that we’re in the past now. Usually, it takes only a few lines to get the idea across—for the past perfect tense, in particular, it’s cumbersome to remain in for the whole flashback—so once you’re firmly in the memory, the rest can be written in past tense.
Sometimes, flashbacks are written in present tense to bring home how vivid the memory feels, but even then, it’s a good idea to use past or past perfect verbs to immerse the reader before shifting into it.
Step 4: Transition back to the present
The transition back out of the flashback follows similar rules. You can use a trigger to pull the character back into the present, such as another character asking if they’re okay or the sound of a horn honking nearby. You can also repeat an image or phrase the character experienced before the flashback.
Bringing It All Together
Notice how the following passage uses triggers, phrases like “I remember” and “almost ten years earlier”, and both past and past perfect verb tenses to transition the reader into the flashback:
I enter the storage room and flick on the light, but only a dim glow brightens the room below the single bulb. I have to strain my eyes to make out plastic containers and cans beneath the shelves. My heart speeds up. All at once, everything feels familiar—too familiar. I remember dust-covered cans just like these reflecting the beam of my flashlight as I descended into the darkness of that basement, almost ten years earlier.
“Dad?” I had called out. “Are you down here?”
There had been no answer, but the flashlight illuminated a shape slumped against the far wall. I gasped and hurried forward, my light flickering as I ran.
To transition back out of the flashback, we use another trigger, followed by a brief glimpse of the setting in its current state again to reset us to the present timeline. The verbs have shifted from past tense back to present tense:
A loud yell from outside breaks through the vision, and suddenly the dark basement is just a storage room again, no body, no blood on the floor. I’m still standing frozen, staring at the plastic containers and cans under the shelves. I force myself to move again, grabbing the jar I’d come down for and hurrying back to the house before anyone misses me.
Not sure if you need a flashback? Write down everything you know about a character’s backstory. Can any of it can be related through dialogue or narrative instead? Less significant events from characters’ pasts, such as places they used to live or former careers, may be shared in passing through conversation or brief summaries, if they need to be shared at all.
Also, ask yourself if this memory is so powerful that someone in real life might be stopped in their tracks if something triggered it. If not, then don’t stop the reader in their tracks to replay it, either. Flashbacks should be saved for those vivid memories that your character can never escape from, whether they want to or not.
For more tips on using flashbacks, check out the Narrative Style section of Writing Mastery Academy's Foundations of Fiction course!