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How to Write Flashbacks: 4 Flashback Writing Tips

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jan 30, 2020 • 3 min read

When done well, flashbacks can bring depth and complexity to the emotional high-wire acts into your main story.



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2 Reasons to Incorporate Flashbacks into Your Story

While flashbacks are not a requirement of writing fiction, they can create layers of complexity and intrigue.

  1. Flashbacks can be a powerful way to make a promise to a reader. It’s common to open a chapter with a cataclysmic event, then move abruptly into the past (“Three Weeks Earlier”) where (usually with a dose of dramatic irony) your protagonist finds himself in an entirely normal situation. This forges a contract with the reader that you’ll explain how the hero went from one situation to its opposite.
  2. Revealing a character's backstory this way can help to make sense of their present-day actions. You can use flashbacks to fill in a backstory about a character’s past or situation, and the flashback sequence creates new micro-promises in itself.

4 Tips for Writing Flashbacks

Books make time travel effortless. Here are a few writing tips for moving elegantly between different time periods in your narrative:

  1. Use verb tense shifts to move between the flashback and main narrative. Whenever your narrative or characters recall a memory from a time before the story began, you have two choices. If the memory is short, you can describe it briefly. If it’s longer, you may want to pull the reader back into a full scene describing a past event. It important to mark the beginning and end of a flashback to make your time jumps clear to the reader. If you’re already using past tense to tell your story, once inside the flashback, use a few lines of past perfect tense to introduce the change—e.g. “he had gone to the marina.” Past perfect tense uses the verb “to have” with the past participle of another verb (in this case “gone”). After a few lines of this, transition into simple past tense—e.g. “he climbed onto the boat.” Generally speaking, using past perfect for a long section of text is jarring for most readers. It’s enough to use it only at the start of the flashback before switching to simple past tense. At the end of the flashback, return briefly to past perfect tense and then transition back into the tense you started out with to signal a return to real time.
  2. Keep them relevant. Flashbacks help fill in the characters’ motives and history, but if they are too long or tedious, the reader will get bored. If you use flashbacks, always be aware that time is still moving in the front story, and make sure that your reader can hear the clock in that front story ticking. It can be tempting to unload every last one of your character’s memories but tell the reader what they really need to know, and no more than that. Keep the language in these passages clear, always keeping the readers’ understanding in mind.
  3. Sometimes the whole book is the flashback. Occasionally, the first scene or first chapter of a book will feature the main character (or a supporting character) beginning to tell a story to someone else. Framing the events of the storyline this way, with a dual point-of-view into a character’s life over the passage of time, can bring more nuance to the storytelling. Before using this technique, ask yourself whether the character’s arc is dramatic enough to make for interesting retrospection.
  4. Tell the present story first. Sometimes it may not be clear where a flashback belongs until you’ve completed your first draft and have a complete view of the storyline. Don’t feel any pressure to weave in flashbacks as you write: simply tell your story in a linear fashion first, then shed more light on a character's motives that may need more clarity, or set up later events in the revision process.
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