The 5 Rules of Writing Effective Flashbacks

by Diane O’Connell

In my work critiquing manuscripts, one of the biggest mistakes I see first-time authors make is in the use of 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.


13 Responses to “The 5 Rules of Writing Effective Flashbacks”

  1. Laurie August 17, 2012 9:08 am #

    I’m a first-time author and I have so many problems just thinking of ideas. This actually helps a lot. Thank you!

  2. Claudia February 8, 2013 12:06 am #

    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

  3. Candi October 31, 2013 12:20 am #

    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.

  4. Crissy March 31, 2014 11:36 pm #

    This a great help to my writing skills thank you..:)

    • Diane April 29, 2014 11:28 am #

      Thanks for letting me know Crissy.

      Happy writing,


  5. re December 20, 2014 11:41 am #

    How do you ‘incorporate the timeline of your flashback into the greater timeline of your story’

    • Diane December 20, 2014 12:31 pm #

      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!

  6. darkocean April 3, 2015 9:32 pm #

    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.

  7. Mushir July 1, 2015 7:13 pm #

    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

    • Diane July 2, 2015 9:36 am #

      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.

  8. darkocean August 22, 2015 2:29 am #

    Diane, thank you I didn’t know it had a term.

  9. Rowan October 1, 2015 3:00 pm #

    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?

    • Diane October 1, 2015 4:58 pm #

      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.

Leave a Reply