Thayer Literary Services ~ Book Editing

Writing a flashback

Sometimes you may need to insert a flashback. By using this device you can develop a character; provide important background information; offer reasons for present conditions and circumstances; and clarify motivations and relationships, among other things. You must know why your story needs a flashback; if you don’t, you shouldn’t use one.


A flashback may be either long or short. The extended kind could be a fully dramatized scene or even a short chapter. In a long flashback you must reveal one or more things that are important to the story and its people. Everything you include in a novel must have a good reason for being there. Don’t take your reader tiptoeing through the tulips just for fun.


The short flashback is called a recollection or a fragmentary flashback. It’s a small brush stroke that adds something significant to characterization or story (or both). For example, it could be as brief as this:


The drone of the lawnmower startled her from sleep. For a moment she was a nine-year-old girl in wartime    London again, terrified by the howl of the German buzz bombs.


A flashback of any length must be triggered by a sensory event that is emotionally loaded for your viewpoint character, something that connects logically to another meaningful contact point in that person’s past such as the sound of the lawnmower in the example above. This could be any number of things, including a visual image, a sound, an odor, an old song, or something a person says. Whatever it is, it gives you a way to transition into flashback mode smoothly and naturally.


When you segue into a lengthy flashback in a third-person narrative, you alert the reader by shifting to the past perfect tense of verbs. This tense is formed by using the auxiliary word had, like this: She had flown into Chicago earlier that morning, and then she had taken a cab downtown and checked in to the Palmer House. You need to use only a few hads to signal a flashback. Then you switch back to the simple past tense. Later, as you approach the end of the flashback, insert a couple of verbs in the past perfect tense again. This is another signal for the reader. Then use simple past-tense verbs to return to the present of story time.


One way to tell the reader that the narrative has returned to the present is to use the word now. Examples:


But now things were different. He wasn’t making that kind of money anymore, and he might not even have a job for long.


The blinding hangover that paralyzed him now blotted out everything from the previous day.


All those things could be true, he thought, but he’d have to think about them more later. Now he had to get back to his office as soon as possible.


One word of caution. The flashback can be a useful device, but it has its drawbacks. A story must keep moving forward. When you insert a flashback, that brings the story to an abrupt halt. This is a good argument for keeping flashbacks short. Furthermore, don’t insert a flashback into your story too soon, perhaps not within the first 50 pages or so. You need to get your story up and running and build momentum early in the narrative. A long flashback should also follow a strong, fully developed scene.



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