The 5 Rules of Writing Effective Flashbacks

In my work critiquing manuscripts, one of the biggest mistakes I see first-time authors make is in the use of writing effective flashbacks. Either they’re misplaced, go on too long, or they serve more as a diversion than as a device to advance the storytelling. But used wisely, flashbacks can add richness, emotional resonance, and depth to your novel.

5 Tips in Writing Effective Flashbacks:

1. Find a trigger to ignite a flashback.

Think about when you are suddenly pulled into a memory. Memories don’t arise out of nowhere; they need to be triggered by something in the present. A chance encounter on a snowy day with an ex-significant other could prompt a memory of a ski trip taken together; the smell of lilacs could remind a character of the bouquet she presented to her mother on a long-ago Mother’s Day.

Be sure there is some sort of external stimulus that pushes your character’s consciousness into the past. The fact that the flashback can be so easily triggered also lets the reader know that its content is important. It can be a great way to add depth to your novel.

2. Find a trigger to propel a return to the present.

Just like there needs to be a reason for your character to enter a flashback, he should be pulled back to the present for a reason as well. For instance, say your character is reliving a childhood memory in which his parents are fighting. You can have the sound of a slamming door in the present mirror a slamming door at the end of the flashback scene.

The reader will understand why the character is jarred back into the present. This also helps reorient the reader to where you are in the story. Think of these triggers as bookends for your flashback that will make it come across as more organic.

3. Keep it brief.

Chances are, there is only one really important point that you want to get across with your flashback, so cut it down to its key moments. If readers have to go through pages and pages of backstory, they will wonder why you didn’t just incorporate the flashback into the greater time frame of the novel.

4. Make sure the flashback advances the story.

Think of it this way: a reader gets to know a character much like you would get to know someone you’ve just met. You wouldn’t expect to hear about your new friend’s 10th birthday unless it was somehow relevant to the present. You would, however, expect to hear about problems your friend had with an ex-girlfriend if these issues are resurfacing in their current relationship.

Creating scenes like the protagonist’s 10th birthday can be very helpful for a writer in building a character’s biography, but you have to be ready to let these go when it comes time to assemble your story. While character is crucial in developing the story, more than anything a novel is driven by plot. A flashback should always serve as a tool to advance what is happening in the present.

5. Use flashbacks sparingly.

A flashback should be used only when there is no other effective way to get an important piece of information across. If you use too many, it begins to feel like a cop-out storytelling device. Again, your readers will wonder why you didn’t just incorporate the timeline of your flashback into the greater timeline of your story, or will be confused about which timeline they should be more invested in.

Do you have trouble writing flashbacks, or fear you have bigger problems in your story? That may be something I can help you with. Get more info here.

NovelMakersHandbook_3These tips are derived from my book, The Novel-Maker’s Handbook. Read more tips like these along with other great writing advice, by purchasing your copy today.

19 comments on “The 5 Rules of Writing Effective Flashbacks

  • Great advice I’ve always had a problem with adding so many I’ve toned down
    I’m just wondering whether its something publishersike to see
    My editor always seemed to have a problem with but only because I didn’t too many n too long
    I know better now

  • This was so helpful because I have two of the tips correct and three wrong. I have the trigger and the shortness. Everything else was great.

    • What I mean by that statement is that if you find yourself relying on too many flashbacks, perhaps they shouldn’t be flashbacks at all, but be part of the story. In other words, say your main character is in her 20’s, but keeps flashing back to things that happened in her teens. Then perhaps you need to look at those years and start your story when you’re character is in her teens. It could be that that’s where your story really starts.

      It’s a fine line in knowing what to do. It comes down to seeing how much time you’re spending in flashbacks. If it’s a significant amount, then the story may actually start there.

      Hope this helps!

  • This helped me a lot thank you for your wonderful advice. I read this site and a couple of others and ended up putting the flash back into past perfect, then near the end of it switched back to third person past tense once I found it’s exit. The rat started it and the rat ended it. lol. Now I’m going to let it sit for a bit and look at again later to make sure nothing is fluff/filler.

  • Don’t you think it’s possible to write the whole novel using flashback technique ? I mean if the protagonist is the narrator I can use strong end moment an use it to tell the story

    • What you’re referring to is a literary technique often referred to as “framing.” Essentially, you are framing a story that happened in the past with where the main character is in the present. Usually this is done with a chapter in front and a chapter at the end.

  • I have a character in my book who begins the story in her room and then flashes back to something incredibly significant to the plot within the first chapter, the thing is that this “flashback” is long and uses the majority of the chapter to play out (If I leave any out then parts are missed.) So here’s what I’m wondering, should I make the first chapter of my book start ten years in the past (when this flashback takes place) and then skip forward to ten years in the future (when the majority of the storyline is set to begin) in the second chapter, or keep the flashback as it is?

    • Hi Rowan, That’s a very interesting conundrum. Based on what you’ve told me, I would recommend starting off the novel with the Flashback and make it a Prologue, then your Chapter One becomes the present day of your story.

  • I was planning on writing an entire chapter that takes place in my protagonist’s past. After reading this I’m now wondering that if what I planned to do is considered to be “framing” as opposed to being a flashback. Instead of my protagonist having a flashback in the actual story herself, the chapter’s purpose is to show my audience what they need to know before I unravel the story any further in the present. This past event also needs to last through the entire chapter as opposed to being brief because I want my audience to get to know a character (as well as their relationship with my protagonist) who won’t show up in the actual storyline for a while. In other words, the chapter is important for both advancing the story as well as establishing character development. I’m unsure if your description of “framing” (“this is done with a chapter in front and a chapter at the end”) applies to what I’m doing. The plan for my story: Chapter 1 ends with a cliffhanger that causes my audience to want to find out about what happened in the past, Chapter 2 continues the present story (ignoring the past) and ends with a cliffhanger that causes my audience to want to find out what happens next in the present, Chapter 3 reveals what happened in the past (ignoring the present), then Chapter 4 continues off of where Chapter 2 left off from (from this point onward the entire story would progress linearly). Would this approach be appropriate for framing?

  • I’ve read a lot of reasons to use flashbacks, reasons not to use flashbacks, how to structures flashbacks, but what about physical format. Do I use a different font? Italic? Do I indent it a few spaces? Do I give it a subheading stating it’s a flashback?

    Or do I start out by simply saying “It was the summer I turned six years old…” when the reader clearly knows the person talking is ten? In the context of my story the child is telling an adult about a dream she had “last night” in which she recalled something terrible that happened to her when she was six years old. The flashback is about 730 words. I have three of these types of short flashbacks and there will be at least three more. Most of them are less than a page in length.

  • I’m trying to put a flash back into my story but i want the flash back to be a back story about one of the character’s that’s in it also so can i still use these steps to do that or so i take a different approach about it

  • Thank you for your advice! I would like to ask you something, if that’s okay with you. So I am currently writing a book about a killer with supernatural powers. I have reached chapter 19, which happens in the present and we follow the Main Character and his life. So, the chapters 21-25, I have planned on using them as chapters for flashbacks, so we can learn (or get hints) on how the supernatural powers of the characters appeared, and the backstory of the MC, his past that shaped him on who he is today. Those flashbacks that will probably extend up to 15,000 words, are vital for the readers to get a full perspective of what the MC is harboring and why he is like that, the reason he chose to become a killer. The book is part of a duology, but I want to clear some things up on the first book. My question to you is, will that kind of approach work, or should I try something else in order to expose his past?
    Thank you very much, Agapi

    • Hi Agapi,

      Thank you for your question. It does seem that spending 15,000 words on flashbacks and backstory might be too much in one chunk. Ask yourself if you can break this up into multiple flashbacks sprinkled throughout the story? Also ask yourself whether you need to have a full-on flashback for every piece of information, or if you could simply reference it in a couple of lines? Without having read your manuscript, it’s difficult for me to give advice, but I hope this will get you thinking about different ways of approaching your character’s past. Good luck!

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