How to Handle Flashbacks

Should I use a flashback in my novel? If so where does it go? How do I get in and out of the flashback scene?

Good questions. Not every novel benefits from the addition of a flashback–a scene that takes a character back in time to  relive a previous event. But it can be  useful if your novel covers a period of years, or if your present story has its origins in a past event. For example, if your hero and heroine were once in love, but broke up, and are now reconnecting, you can use a flashback to show significant events from their past that have a bearing on the present.

A flashback shows events as they happened, so y0ur narrative should be straightforward to avoid confusing your reader. To take your reader into the flashback, signal the change by the use of the past perfect verb tense. Write your flashback in simple past tense, then return to past perfect to take your reader out of the flashback and back to the present.  Example: Jane watched as Tarzan jogged across the street and entered the bank. She fiddled with the radio dial, trying not to think about the last time she waited for him.  Flashback: Tarzan had promised (past perfect tense) to be back by ten. She waited (simple past) in the small apartment they shared off the Rue Chambon, peering out the window every few minutes as the street quieted and darkness fell. By midnight she realized he had no intention of coming back. She had promised ( past perfect again, to indicate the flashback is ending) herself never to believe a single word he said.  Return to the present: Yet here she was, waiting.  An old Elvis tune blared from the radio. She twirled the dial, one eye on the bank entrance and sighed. How stupid was she,  to trust Tarzan with her heart, much less with her money.

Flashbacks should be placed at a believable spot in the story, at a time when the character has time to remember past events. And a  flashback needs a trigger. In my example, Tarzan has placed Jane in the same situation as before, triggering her memory. But a certain locale, a song from the past that had special meaning for your characters, running into an old friend, can also serve as triggers.

Long flashbacks should be interspersed with chunks of the present story to keep the reader grounded in the present action. Don’t let your flashback go on for so long that it takes over your story.

Never start a story with a flashback. The beginning of your story should introduce your main character or characters, and hint at the conflict. Once your readers are invested in these characters and their story, then you can sprinkle in bits of backstory. Flashbacks are one way to deliver that back story. Donald Maas, in his book  The Fire in Fiction says that back story belongs at the back of the book. Delay information for as long as possible, giving  just enough hints to keep your readers’ curiosity going.

Lately, I’ve received several requests to repost various articles from Writers Caffeine. I am happy for you to do so, with proper credit and a link to this site.

2 thoughts on “How to Handle Flashbacks

  1. Harry Wegley

    I like the discussion on flashbacks. If your readers are interested, there’s another great discussion in the latest issue of Writer’s Digest, October 2011. It contains guidelines on the use of flashback for back story early in a novel in a way that moves the story forward. Of course, as Donald Maas says, you shouldn’t reveal too much too soon. The article is entitled ‘Your First 50 Pages – The 4 Goals Your Beginning Must meet.’ In my ignorance I inadvertently used their techniques in the first book of my 3-book series. My novel drew a lot of attention from editors at a recent writer’s conference. Now I have 3 book proposals and 2 series proposals to write. It really does pay off to follow the advice of those with more experience, whether by design or accident. Thanks again for posting your article.

    1. dorothy Post author

      Harry, thanks so much for the heads up on the WD article. I’ll be sure to check it out. And congrats on all the proposals. That’s fabulous news.

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