Flashbacks are a common tool used by writers to give some context to the story they’re writing. It’s so common, in fact, that readers are accustomed to regularly getting glimpses of characters’ pasts, historical insights, and events that lead up to the beginning of the story. Not every story uses flashbacks; really, not every story needs a flashback. But when your story contains a rich history, deep lore, or complex character backstories, a flashback might be just what you need to keep readers in the loop.
Writing a good flashback is easier said than done, though. A flashback needs to be clearly identifiable as being part of the past, and it needs to serve a specific purpose. A flashback that doesn’t support the plot or character development shouldn’t be included at all. Knowing when to utilize a flashback, how to format it, and how to make it effective can be hard, but those are skills that all writers should have.
What is a Flashback?
A flashback is a scene from the past that interrupts the chronological progression of a story. Usually, these scenes are from before the beginning of the story, but in longer works, they can also be a retelling of previous scenes.
Jumping right into a flashback scene with no exposition can be pretty jarring to readers, so you should give some indication that a flashback is coming up. Many times, flashbacks are written into a story using the characters’ behaviors, such as dreaming, reminiscing, or examining parts of the past. Other times, a flashback is justified through the use of secondary elements like diaries, history books, folk tales, and other things. A scene could also transition into a flashback when a character begins telling a tale of their past adventures or an event that they witnessed.
It is important to remember that you cannot simply explain something that happened in the past and call it a flashback. In order for a scene to be considered a flashback, it needs to show readers what happened. Flashbacks should play out like any other kind of scene, allowing readers to experience it first-hand. Readers should feel as if they are being transported back in time to witness this scene.
If you need a more in-depth explanation of what showing entails, I recommend checking out Show, Don’t Tell: What It Is and How to Use It (With Examples).
What is the Purpose of a Flashback?
The point of a flashback is to give readers special insight into how an event from the past played out, so they can draw connections between that event and what is going on in the present storyline. Flashbacks should support the plot by contributing necessary context that the reader wouldn’t have had otherwise.
With that said, flashbacks have many uses in fiction, so the purpose of a specific flashback depends on the story utilizing it, as well as the scene in which it takes place. You may need a flashback to show a particularly impactful moment of a character’s childhood, or maybe you could use a flashback to show how a crime was committed as a detective examines the evidence. You may even want to flashback to a previous scene to describe it from a different character’s perspective.
When to Use a Flashback
When you choose to use a flashback in your story, you should make sure that is the most effective way of revealing that information. Flashbacks are inherently somewhat dramatic, so if you utilize one to show a relatively mundane situation, it could feel awkward, or even unnecessary.
Consider why you want to use a flashback, and whether or not there is another way of revealing the same information. Some good reasons include:
- You need your readers to know about a past conversation between characters, word-for-word.
- You are showing readers a character’s specific nightmare, PTSD flashback, memory, or dream, and the details are important.
- You want to show a sentimental, powerful, or otherwise relevant scene that doesn’t fit in with the present timeline.
- You want to highlight a memorable event from a character’s past to contextualize elements of their personality.
- You need to provide historical context in order for a scene in the present to make sense.
- You need readers to know something your characters don’t know.
- You want to highlight similarities between the past and the present.
Although there are many good reasons for utilizing flashbacks, you should be careful not to overuse them. Too many flashbacks can be jarring and confusing to follow, so use this technique sparingly.
How to Write a Flashback
There are a few elements to consider when writing a flashback. The following sections will break down the process and walk you through the most important steps!
Before you start writing your flashback, you need to do a little bit of planning. Start by deciding specifically what you want your flashback to achieve. What is the point of this particular flashback? Are you giving historical context for a major event in the narrative? Are you revealing part of a character’s childhood to highlight why they behave a specific way in the present? Are you showing a past argument between two characters that explains the tension between them now? Decide exactly what you need the flashback to do now, and don’t deviate from that goal as you write.
Once you have it written out, read it, reread it, and reread it again. You need to make sure that your flashback clearly communicates what you need it to, and doesn’t do much else. Avoid overcomplicating things, and don’t drag in any unrelated descriptions to muddle the point.
It’s also important to make sure you aren’t forcing your flashbacks to do too much. Keep it simple and direct, and try to focus on one major revelation per flashback.
Establish the Time Period
Probably the most important detail to get right is the time period that the flashback is revealing. The last thing you’d want is for readers to wonder when this scene took place (unless that mystery is part of your plan).
One of the ways you can establish the timeline is with the characters that appear. If the flashback involves a character that readers will be familiar with, how old are they? If they’re a child in the flashback, mention some of their childish traits, like height, missing front teeth, or toys they carry around. Or, if the flashback goes back further, mention the name of a character’s grandparent or a historical figure who would be alive at the time.
Another way you can solidify the time period is with details, such as the music on the radio, the news, and the kind of technology that the characters can interact with. A character who uses an iPod Nano is going to be from the more recent past than a character using an 8-track player.
If all else fails, it’s better to simply state something along the lines of “20 years ago” or “when I was a child,” rather than let your readers wonder.
The next thing you’ll need to do is make sure the flashback is a digestible length. Your flashback shouldn’t be an entire chapter—unless each chapter is only a few pages long. Flashbacks should focus on a single event, interaction, or situation, so they shouldn’t be longer than a few paragraphs. If the flashback is giving context to something fairly complex, like a decades-long war, then maybe it would require a few pages. Just don’t drag it on, or your readers will get bored.
If your flashback is on the longer side and you want to cut it down a bit, try examining the details. A lot of the time, writers can get caught up with describing the setting and other aspects in too much detail, when it doesn’t matter much to the overall goal of the flashback. A certain amount of detail can be helpful to establish the time period of the flashback, as well as make changes between the past and present more obvious, but you should still be cautious about how many details you use.
For example, a flashback may show that a character used to keep many houseplants, but their apartment is messy and plant-free in the present. That can be a good way to imply that they lost motivation to take care of themself, let alone other living things.
On the other hand, however, if you include the color of the curtains, the exact layout of the room, or the exact number of papers on a desk, then chances are you can cut out some of those bloaty details.
Now that you have your flashback written and edited, you’ll need to stick it into the story. Like with any scene, you’re going to need to transition to the flashback in a way that makes sense, so you don’t end up leaving your readers surprised or unable to follow.
The way you choose to transition into the flashback is going to depend on a lot of different factors. The length and complexity of the flashback plays a large role, but you’ll also need to consider when the transition happens, the tone of the flashback, and the pacing of the scene around it.
If you have a character who is reminiscing, then a transition can be as simple as “As he looked out over the familiar landscape, he remembered all the time they had spent together here.” The flashback can then start, revealing whatever the characters used to do together in this location.
Another way you can transition into a flashback is with scene breaks. Scene breaks divide the page, usually with asterisks ( * * * ), to indicate that the scene has changed. You should still lead up to this kind of transition to let readers know what the flashback is about, but using scene breaks can make it really clear that the scene takes place at a different point in the timeline.
A character falling asleep and dreaming of the past is one example that could lend itself well to using scene breaks to transition. Of course, there are other challenges associated with writing about dreams, so if you want to take this approach, you should also check out Writing about Dreams and Nightmares.
The most important thing to keep in mind when you’re writing a flashback is how you’re going to keep readers from getting lost. Flashbacks can be hard to follow because they disrupt the natural flow of the story, so make sure your transitions help readers to follow along.
Formatting for a flashback can be a difficult thing to figure out, and there’s a lot of disagreement about how exactly it should be done.
One option for formatting the flashback is to simply use a scene break to separate it visually on the page, while also cleanly separating the scene from the rest of the narrative. Generally, that’s all you will need to do to format a flashback, and this works particularly well for longer flashbacks.
Another option, especially if you don’t want to use scene breaks, is to italicize the entire flashback. As you can imagine, this type of formatting works best for smaller flashbacks, since reading too much italicized text can be fatiguing for a reader. In addition to that, if you use italics to emphasize something else in your story, it could be confusing if you also use it for flashbacks.
Another option for formatting flashbacks is to change up the tense. If your story is usually in present-tense, then simply switch to past-tense for the duration of the flashback. The same is true for if your story is in past-tense; simply switch to present-tense. This can help to set it apart from the rest of your story.
Finally, depending on the nature of your flashback, you can change your point of view. If your story is in first-person or close third-person perspective, then you can take up an omniscient third-person point of view for the duration of the flashback. Likewise, if the story has been omniscient so far, then writing the flashback in close third-person could be a nice touch.
The entire point of altering the formatting for a flashback is to make it as obvious as possible that this scene is not part of the linear storyline. If you can do that without drastic formatting changes, then you should stick with that and keep it simple. If, however, you aren’t sure if readers are going to catch on to it being a flashback, then you should format it differently to make it clearer.
Some Parting Thoughts on Using Flashbacks in Your Story
Some writers and editors argue that flashbacks should be avoided at all costs, but I disagree. Your story is your own, and only you know what’s best for it. Time and time again, readers have proven that many of the “rules” editors insist on don’t really matter. If you write an entertaining story with good characters and a thought-provoking plot, that’s all that matters.
As long as you don’t make your flashback confusing, you can absolutely use this technique to add depth to your plot and characters. You can even give readers the opportunity to engage more with the way the story unfolds, by drawing their own connections between the past and present. Flashbacks can achieve a lot for your story, so don’t shy away from them just because some snobby editor claims you should.