How to Write a Flashback (And When You Shouldn’t)
Before asking how to write a flashback, you must ask yourself why you want to write a flashback in the first place.
This storytelling device can be a great way to draw the reader deeper into your character’s inner world or heighten the tension. A well-crafted flashback can reveal riveting information or raise new, compelling questions.
It can also be a gimmick, a bore, or a complete waste of page space.
That’s why understanding how to write a flashback starts with simply understanding how a flashback functions.
And that’s exactly what you’re about to learn.
We’ll discuss the pros and cons to writing a flashback, how to determine if this device is the best way to deliver backstory, and, of course, how to write a flashback like a pro… should you decide to go for it.
Let’s start with the most important question.
Does Your Story Really Need a Flashback?
Allow me to start by clarifying: a flashback is a scene that transports the reader to a moment in the backstory. It’s not just a reference to something that happened in the past but a recreation of that experience.
So, this is not a flashback:
Harold cracked an egg the way his father had taught him back when they made Mother’s Day breakfast together. Then he reached for the bacon.
This is a flashback:
Harold cracked an egg the way his father had taught him the first time they made Mother’s Day breakfast. His dad had gently shaken him awake while his mother still slept, and the two of them tip-toed down the stairs to the kitchen. (Plus a bunch of other stuff that probably includes egg breaking, dialogue, and a strong sense of relationship.)
Now, if you’re familiar with the popular writing advice “Show, don’t tell,” you may be thinking a flashback is always the way to go for revealing backstory. Here’s why it’s not.
The Trouble With Flashbacks
For one thing, flashbacks pull your reader out of the timeline they’re engaged in. This means you want to make sure your flashbacks:
- Are relevant to the story the reader already cares about
- Don’t happen too frequently
- Don’t squash the pace or tension you’re building in the current timeline
Also, flashbacks can be confusing if you don’t nail your transitions. If it’s not clear that your character is looking back in time, your reader will be lost when a character shows up out of nowhere asking for a divorce.
Most importantly, flashbacks aren’t always necessary. A flashback is not the only interesting way to unload exposition. (In fact, here are several others.) If anything, a flashback is the most disruptive, cumbersome way to get your reader up to speed.
That doesn’t mean it’s bad. It just means you need a good reason to use it.
Excellent Reasons for Including a Flashback
So what are the benefits of writing a flashback?
Well, for one, a flashback can be an effective tool for building suspense or presenting the reader with a mystery. The Bullet That Missed opens with a scene where some woman with Bethany has a gun, knows she might die today, and sends a cryptic text.
Then suddenly we’re in the current timeline where Bethany has been dead for a decade and the Thursday Murder Club is trying to figure out what happen. Because we experienced the flashback for ourselves, it feels like we’re coming into the story already equipped with clues. We’re part of the investigation, which is exactly how a mystery writer wants us to feel.
On the flip side, a flashback can offer meaningful clarity. A Man Called Ove repeatedly flashes back to scenes from Ove’s courtship and marriage. The more the reader understands the bond he shared with his wife, the easier it is to forgive him for raging at the world after her death.
And I’ll let that same example illustrate this next flashback benefit: showing readers who a character used to be. Who was the protagonist before their life-changing trauma—before “The Ghost”?
You can even use a flashback to dig into the backstory of a side character who wouldn’t otherwise get the protagonist treatment. In fact, this can be a strategy for helping readers sympathize with the antagonist.
Now that we’ve established the good and the not-so-good of this storytelling device, let’s delve into how to write a flashback.
Because whether or not you still plan to do it in your current novel, it pays to be informed.
How to Write a Flashback
1. Time It Carefully
Now that you know why you’re writing a flashback, ask yourself where to place it in your story to best accomplish your goal.
- Tension - If you’re interrupting a scene designed to build suspense, make sure the flashback adds to the tension. Hold off or put the flashback in a less suspenseful scene if it doesn’t.
- Pacing - Flashbacks often slow the pace of a story. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s definitely something to keep in mind.
- Insight - When will the information the flashback reveals be most impactful for the reader? How does the flashback enhance what’s going on in the current timeline?
When you know where you want to put your flashback, then you can move on to step two.
2. Transition Gracefully
The transition is everything. Everything. If your transitions into and out of the flashback aren't good, your readers won’t realize they’re in a flashback. Confusion and chaos will follow.
Here are some classic strategies for how to write a flashback transition.
Create a “Door”
This is when you create some kind of magical door that allows a character to see into the past.
Now, the line between flashback and time travel gets a little blurry here. For our purposes, we’re talking about scenes where a character can observe the past but not participate in it.
Well-known examples of the magical door include Harry Potter looking into the Pensieve or the Ghost of Christmas Past showing Ebenezer Scrooge his regrettable choices.
The transition strategy is pretty straightforward. Your character sticks their head in a bowl or follows the ghost or looks in a mirror or whatever. They see what they need to see and leave the same way they came in.
Trigger a Memory
Signal to your reader the narrative is shifting into the past by showing that your character is remembering something.
Now, if you only need one to three sentences to tell the reader everything they need to know about this memory, it’s not really a flashback. Just say what you need to say and move on.
But if this is going to take a few paragraphs, clarity is key. Phrases like “she thought about” or “he remembered” can help. So can using past perfect tense when you’re easing into the flashback. “It had been a hot summer” rather than “It was a hot summer.” (Side note: if you’re writing in present tense, simple past tense will suffice for flashback transitions.)
Then make your return to the present moment super clear.
“Now he was stranded on the side of the road feeling miles away from who’d been back then.”
“But none of that was worth thinking about now.”
Something like that.
Use Physical Breaks
A simple line break can signal a shift in time. But be aware that most readers will assume the timeline is moving forward.
So use the final line of the previous paragraph to reference the backstory your reader is about to see. Then give the reader an immediate sense of time and place after the break. For example:
“...This wasn’t who she used to be. She used to be the brightest star in Greenfield.
The day Misty was crowned Corn Queen, cameras seemed to follow her everywhere…”
You can also use a flashback as a prologue. Or, if you want to go big, you can turn flashbacks in entire chapters all their own.
That’s not the same thing as alternating timelines. If your novel has alternating timelines, you’re telling two stories that carry equal weight. They probably complement one another in some way, but neither story exists purely to explain the other.
A series of chapter-long flashbacks, however, functions to shed light on the conflict of the central story. It can (and probably does) contain its own conflict and character arcs. But as readers, we devour those flashback chapters in search of answers that affect the main storyline.
This is why flashback chapters:
- Tend to be fewer and far between than chapters that focus on the central conflict
- Typically don’t show up until several chapters into the main story, when the reader has had a chance to become invested enough to care about the backstory
There is one time when you can blur the transition between the current timeline and the flashback.
That’s when the line is blurry for your character, too.
Maybe they have dementia or PTSD or they’ve suffered a blow to the head. Whatever it is, something in the present moment has triggered an old memory, and now they’re living it again.
Now, in order to make this work, your reader needs to understand that the character is not experiencing things exactly as they are.
You can provide that clarity by establishing your character’s memory challenges ahead of time. Another reliable tactic is to put something there that obviously does not belong, like a phonograph in a public restroom or a lover who died twenty years before.
3. Keep It Brief (Probably)
Once you’ve artfully transitioned into your flashback, don’t get too comfortable there.
Give your reader the information they need. No more, no less. Then get them back to the story they came for.
Now, as I give you this advice, I do want to admit that sometimes a long flashback is satisfying. Little Fires Everywhere is the perfect example of a book that features a backstory so juicy (and relevant!) readers don’t mind spending full chapters in the past.
Most of the gasping I did while reading that book was flashback gasping.
But if you plan to pull a Celeste Ng and go long with your flashbacks, you need to follow the golden rule of how to write a flashback:
Know why you’re doing it. And make sure your reason is air-tight.
On that note:
4. Make It Relevant and Revelatory
For us writers, a deep dive into our character’s past makes for a thrilling Saturday night.
But most readers only want to know about your protagonist’s spelling bee humiliation if it helps them experience your novel on a deeper level.
So what new insight does your flashback provide for your reader?
This could be something straightforward, like the revelation that the butler couldn’t possibly be the murderer since he was at the horse track the whole time.
Or it could be deeper insight into your character—something that stirs empathy, clarifies context, or raises the stakes.
Suzanne Collins does this in The Hunger Games when Katniss remembers the time Peeta tossed her the loaf of bread he’d been commanded to give to the pigs. This person had once saved her family from starvation.
And now she has to kill him in order to keep providing for her family.
6. Use Concrete Details
Finally, let’s end this guide to how to write a flashback the same way we began it: by acknowledging that flashbacks are a “show, don’t tell” storytelling device.
The entire point of recreating your character’s near-death experience instead of just mentioning it is to help your reader experience it. You want them to feel what your character felt and invest more deeply in the story’s central conflict.
To do that, you have to provide specific, concrete details. What did the air feel like that day? What were the physical sensations that told your protagonist they were feeling a sense of dread?
If you could use a quick primer on your “show, don’t tell” skills, we’ve got some worksheets to help you out.
How to Write a Flashback With Dabble
If this guide was a little more involved than you expected, don’t lose heart. It’s true that a lot of things can go wrong with flashbacks. But when you get your timing, purpose, and prose just right, so much more can go very, very right.
Need a little help thinking it through? Dabble’s got you covered. This writing tool has an adaptable Plot Grid that makes it easy to see how your flashbacks function within the main storyline.
Plus, comments, stickies, and labels provide an easy way for you to keep track of new ideas or problem areas as you go.
Best of all, you can try every premium feature Dabble offers absolutely free for fourteen days. No credit card required. Click here and start exploring.
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