How to Write Useful Flashbacks

See also: How to Write Dream Sequences

how to write useful flashbacksWhy use flashbacks?

Flashbacks are fun to write. And in early drafts, they are super helpful for showing you who your characters are and where they come from. However, as with visions and dream sequences, it can be difficult to discern whether or not the flashback makes it into the final draft.

You should use flashbacks as much as you want in your rough draft. But when revising you need to make sure that your flashback is moving your plot forward and that it makes sense.

I’ve read plenty of stories that mishmash the past with the present to tell two stories simultaneously (think something like Arrivals). But most flashbacks exist to give critical information to readers about the history of the characters.

What makes a flashback work?

We have flashbacks every day. If you’re hanging out with your friends, they are often cued by a “remember when…?” With friends, the memories are often shared; with grandparents, the information is often new. So it is with stories.

Humans are easily reminded of their past, usually by way of a trigger. To make your flashback realistic, your character’s memory should be triggered by a present moment in the story. Maybe it’s the smell of a room, or the particular way something is said, or a Timehop reminder. Anything can trigger a flashback, but you should take care to point out that detail to your reader.

There are four critical elements to a flashback:

  1. The lead-in sentence(s)
  2. The scene
  3. The transition sentence(s)
  4. The effect

Cue your readers for a flashback. This is done in the transition sentences on either side of the flashback scene itself—they identify the triggers and hint at why the flashback is significant.

Use these transition sentences to frame the flashback. Let your reader know where and when in space they’ve traveled for the duration of the flashback.

The flashback scene also needs to be distinct from the present story. This can be done by changing verb tense, italicizing the passage, or by creating its own space to live in on the page, depending on the effect you want your flashback to have.

If your transition sentences are up to par, you may not need to use such drastic measures to distinguish the present from the past. Writing your scene in the same tense can help your story remain cohesive and further justify the use of a flashback.

Memories have present-moment effects, and if your character is remembering something, then it will change the way they are behaving. If they are reminded of a happy memory they may be more at peace or light in their interactions; sad memories can turn a happy character grumpy.

Flashbacks are world and character-building tools: flashbacks work because they tell the reader something important about the world or the character.

How to write a flashback

Whether this is your rough draft or your final draft, these are the things you’ll want to think about for your flashback.

  1. Start with the lead-in sentence(s). What triggers the flashback? Why are you transporting back in time? What detail needs to be shared? Is this flashback from the perspective of the same character(s) you’ve been following? Make sure that the lead-in sentences answer some of these questions.
  2. Write the scene. Tell the story of the memory. What details in this time/place are different? What details are the same as the trigger? What detail are you trying to get across to your reader?
  3. Transition out of the flashback. Draw your reader back into the primary time/space of the story. Make sure it’s clear that the flashback is over.
  4. Describe the aftermath. What effect did the trigger and the memory have on your character? Was there any resolution found in the memory? Or does the memory further pique the conflict?

When deciding whether or not to keep the flashback you’ve written, make sure that the flashback’s effect on the character or the effect on the reader moves the plot. The trick to flashbacks is all in the details. So make sure your details are indicative of the effect you want.

(Here is a detailed article outlining other good flashback practices, and this article helps make your flashback successful.)

Do you like flashbacks? How do you indicate a scene is in the past? What advice would you give for discerning whether the scene needs to be in your story? Share in the comments!

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