#A-Z Challenge: F is for Flashbacks

For the A-Z challenge, I am posting writing and editing tips to help you improve and enhance your writing.

F is for Flashbacks

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A flashback is a scene interjected in the narrative that takes the story back to a previous time from the current point in the story. The use of flashbacks can be fraught with problems, but if done properly they can be very useful and effective for providing background information and bringing your reader closer to your characters.

So how do you get them right?

  • Make sure a flashback follows a strong scene. Flashbacks can be problematic in that they remove your character and therefore your reader from the action in your narrative. A strong preceding scene can ensure that the narrative is sustained.
  • Ensure your reader knows exactly where and when they are. Make the transition into the past clear.
  • Use the correct verb tense. If your main narrative is written in past tense, then the first few sentences of the flashback should be in past perfect. You can then continue in simple past.
  • When the flashback is over, make sure the transition to the ‘present’ of the narrative is smooth and clear, so that your reader isn’t confused or disorientated.
  • Acknowledge the flashback. It should have an effect on the character who experienced it and on the narrative.

If you are going to use flashbacks in your novel, then do your research. Read lots of novels that use the device and use it well. For example, J.K. Rowling uses a ‘Penseive’ in the Harry Potter novels – a stone basin in which a viewer can be immersed in memories. In Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’, the plot is largely told through flashbacks, mostly using storytelling. In Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Blind Assassin’, the primary narrator is eighty-three when we meet her, but we hear about her younger self through flashbacks.

How do you feel about flashbacks in novels? Do you love them or hate them? Do let me know by leaving a comment below.

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15 comments

    1. Good point Rosie. I’ve edited couple of books in the past where almost everything was told through long, drawn out flashbacks. it became very confusing and difficult to remember where you originally were in the story. They can work – but the shorter the better!

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  1. I’m very curious to get your input on my post for today’s “F” topic. I love flashbacks. So much so that I have two narratives, two story lines in one of the novels I’m currently working on. When the flashbacks are frequent enough to formulate a second story line or narrative, is there a term for this? Is it a flashback or more so another story being told? The closest I could come up with is a “frame story/narrative,” a story within a story.

    I absolutely loved the book “Wild.” In this memoir, she bounces back and forth between her present day hike and events throughout her life; flashing back to scenes and experiences from her childhood and teen/young adult years. When my husband and I watched the movie together, he was not a fan. As I had read the book, I understood the significance of the flashbacks, but he said it was too much, and the frequent flashbacks to such a large number of experiences was too confusing and unnecessary.

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    1. Hi Christina
      Great post on your blog. Funnily enough, the novel I’m working on now is similar in structure – it tells the story of a 19th Century artist’s model, and the story of the woman in the painting for who she is the model – a concubine of the last king of Assyria, so two very different times. I have to say I’m not a great fan of flashbacks, (unless it’s Toni Morrison or Margaret Atwood, but they could probably write anything beautifully) but when you have these two different narrative strands then they’re not really flashbacks, but two interwoven stories almost, so you don’t have that sense of moving backwards and forwards within a character’s story. Sorry, I don’t have a name for it though! Have ‘Wild’ on my kindle to read, so am avoiding the film. It might change my opinion 🙂

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      1. Well, at least another writer who is writing in a similar manner is as stumped as I am! I was uncertain if this type of structure would be called “flashbacks” as it doesn’t seem to quite fit this narrative style.

        With regards to Wild, DEFINITELY read the book prior to the movie. I’m a Cheryl Strayed groupie (met her twice!!) so I am in love with the book and movie regardless. But, you have been warned! 😉

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  2. I am perfectly happy with flashbacks, if they follow your suggestions above, though I get annoyed if they go on too long as some part of my mental process is left hanging waiting for the join. The novel I am about to try and assemble is a nightmare of time periods and I am quite unable to decide between flashbacks, diary sections or other devices… I’ll get back to you about this in a couple of years time.

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    1. I think that’s so true – I always feel that I’m waiting to get back to the ‘main’ story. That’s why they have to be done so well I suppose. Glad to hear you’re writing another novel – hope it doesn’t really take a couple f years!

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