The Only Reason Your Story Should Have Flashbacks

The Only Reason Your Story Should Have Flashbacks

The Only Reason Your Story Should Have FlashbacksWriters love their flashbacks. And with good reason. Flashbacks are a multi-functional technique for stepping outside your story’s timeline and sharing interesting and informative nuggets about your characters’ pasts. But just as they can be used to strengthen your story, they can even more easily cripple it.

First things first: what is a flashback?

A flashback is basically a memory. It can take several forms:

  • A character within the main story actively remembering something. (For example, amnesiac Jason Bourne regains snippets of memory and remembers his girlfriend Marie in quick flashbacks.)
Jason Bourne and Marie Franka Potenta Matt Damon

You can convey flashbacks as quick snippets of memory that do not slow the main narrative.

  • A omniscient narrator stepping back from the main conflict in order to recount something that previously happened to one of the characters. (For example, Markus Zusak’s World War II novel The Book Thief is essentially one long flashback—one long memory from its narrator Death.)
Book Thief Movie

You can convey flashbacks as dramatized scenes, told from the perspective of a distant narrator.

  • A simple interjection of a scene from a previous timeline into the main story. (For example, Brent Weeks’s The Broken Eye includes several dramatized scenes from the protagonist Gavin Guile’s childhood.)
Broken Eye Brent Weeks Lightbringer

You can tell flashbacks as dramatized scenes interjected into the main narrative.

The flashback can be shared in one of three ways:

  • Briefly, in summary (or “telling“), in which the event’s pertinent details are referred to without dramatizing them. (For example: “Christmas Eve, two years ago. That’s when Ellie had received word of her daughter’s death.”)
  • Lengthily, in a fleshed-out, dramatized scene of its own, which recounts the memory blow for blow. (“The police officer had accidentally knocked the wreath off the door when he rang the doorbell. He looked far too apologetic when he held it out. ‘I’m sorry, ma’am…'”)
  • In dialogue, in which the character verbally shares the memory with another character. (“‘I don’t drive anymore,’ Ellie told Allen. ‘Or celebrate Christmas.'”)

All of these are legitimate approaches. But just because you can use them in your story doesn’t mean you should.

2 Qualifying Factors of Necessary Flashbacks

There are only two reasons you should ever include a flashback in your story. The first one is (or should be) pretty obvious…

1. The Character Has an Interesting Backstory

If nothing interesting happened to your character before the main story, well then… please don’t go out of your way to tell readers that, much less dramatize it for them.

2. The Backstory Moves the Plot

The second qualifier for necessary flashbacks is that your character’s interesting backstory not only matters to your main plot, but moves the plot.

But even that’s not enough. For a flashback to be worthwhile, it isn’t enough for its information to simply be important. Beyond that, the very act of the character’s remembering must be a plot catalyst.

When you screech your story to a halt just so your character can reminisce, you better be getting something big in exchange for the interruption to your narrative flow. You better be getting a plot revelation that jumps your conflict and your character’s arc into higher gear that ever before.

How Failed Flashbacks Cripple Your Story

Flashbacks were another area in which Gavin O’Connor’s besieged western Jane Got a Gun struggled. Fully half the story is made up of flashbacks that dramatize the erstwhile romance between Jane and her one-time fiancé Dan Frost, who has now reluctantly come to her and her dying husband’s aid.

This backstory is crucial to the entire story. Jane and Dan’s troubled relationship—and the reasons it initially failed—are at the heart of both the story’s inner and outer conflicts. You’d think, therefore, that flashbacks would be the perfect choice for this story. But not so.

Why?

3 Ways Your Flashbacks Might Be Taking More Than They’re Giving

Jane Got a Gun shows us three excellent reasons to reconsider employing flashbacks:

1. The Flashbacks Don’t Offer Enough New Info

Flashbacks—especially dramatized flashbacks—take up an inordinate amount of time and space. This signals to readers that the information they offer is important. What that means to you as the author is that you must weigh the plot-moving information your flashbacks are providing against the amount of space they require.

For Example: In Jane Got a Gun, the flashbacks take up nearly half the running time—and yet, they convey only one single solitary bit of new information (SPOILER That, unbeknownst to Dan, he had a daughter with Jane, who was supposedly murdered by the antagonist. /SPOILER)

Jane Got a Gun Natalie Portman Daughter

Rule of thumb: don’t create flashbacks that are “bigger” than the amount of information they convey.

2. The Flashbacks Destroy Subtext

The bulk of your story’s subtext will be provided by your character’s backstories. The moment you bring that backstory into the clear light of dramatized narrative, it ceases to be subtext. It becomes obvious, blatant, even on-the-nose. It loses more than half its power. Sometimes this trade-off is acceptable (especially late in the story), but always ask yourself whether the fun of dramatizing the backstory is worth the subtlety and mystery you lose in the main story.

For Example: Jane and Dan’s relationship would have been far more powerful and intriguing had it not be outright explained to viewers through the unnecessary flashbacks. Especially when we realize this desire to explain was the only reason these flashbacks were included in the first place, it’s a shame the relationship couldn’t have been conveyed with more subtlety and drama.

Jane Got a Gun Natalie Portman Joel Edgerton

Always ask yourself if the subtextual power you’re losing is worth the exchange of blatant flashbacks.

3. The Flashbacks Shift the Emphasis From Where It Belongs

Flashbacks are, by their very nature, a little obtrusive and blatant. The more lengthy a dramatized flashback, the more it will, in essence, jump up and down and shout, “Look at me!” This means it pulls emphasis away from what really matters: the main plot.

Except for those rare instances in which your backstory actually is more important that your character’s current struggles (in which case, you might want to consider why you aren’t writing the backstory saga instead), be wary of stopping your narrative, stuffing it with flashbacks, and losing the ability to focus emphasis where it counts.

For Example: Because Jane and Dan’s flashbacks took up so much space and explained away so many past hurts, their relationship in the main story ended up having little to do and little time in which to do it anyway. The main story was sacrificed to a needless exploration of a backstory that could have been revealed with more power and precision without the flashbacks.

Jane and Dan Got a Gun

Don’t let unnecessary flashbacks take over and rob the forward momentum from your story’s main conflict.

Consider your main narrative and your backstory. Nine times out of ten, flashbacks will not be the best choice for either. But if you find yourself wondering whether a flashback or two might be just the trick for your characters’ tale, stop and objectively examine whether this blatant exploration of backstory is more likely to add or take away from what you’re trying to accomplish.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Have you used flashbacks in your work-in-progress? Why or why not? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I do indeed have flashbacks in my story, although I’m trying to keep it minimal and stay focused on the plot. There’s a long-lost love where there’s a powerful reason for the loss. Much of the backstory I’m revealing in conversation, but I’m needing a few flashbacks to get some pertinent info in.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      As long the flashbacks are pertinent, interesting, and move the plot, that’s all that matters!

  2. I’ve only ever used one flashback in my novels (so far). It was to introduce a character (who’d only been mentioned in passing, in the previous novel in the series… with no details other than that she was someone’s old mother.).
    The scene where I introduce her uses a flashback that:
    A) Tells us why she’s where she is, and doing what she’s doing.
    And: B) Along with the ‘here and now’ scene, the flashback tells us all we need to know about what kind of woman she is.

    The drama of the situation she found herself in, all those years before, is both easier, and more entertaining, to be shown to the reader this way.

    This is the scene in question, with its flashback buried within.
    I hope you enjoy it as much as I did when writing it.

    From: ‘COINCIDENCES’ : “I don’t know what it is, but something isn’t quite right about this”

    Normandy.

    The old woman knelt in front of the small memorial to one side of La Place de l’Église. She muttered quietly to herself, appearing to be oblivious to the passing traffic in this busy Normandy village square. She seemed to be unaffected by the petrol and diesel fumes and oily smoke from the morning’s rush of cars, vans, and mopeds, as they went about their business or madly careered off to either employment or education.

    She took a single lily from her bag. It looked no different to any others that might be seen growing locally, but it was a Welsh lily. She’d carefully wrapped the bloom to protect it, during its journey with her from her garden in Cardiff. Taking a small brass vase, appropriately made out of a second world war shell case, she filled it with Welsh spring water from a bottle before placing the flower into it. She stood the vase and lily carefully on the ledge above the memorial’s plate that bore the name of ‘Thiérry le Vaillant’. Bending forward, she tenderly kissed the bronze plaque, then spoke very quietly as if nobody else was meant to hear,

    “Peace to you, my dearest Thiérry… never was a man’s name more fitting… You saved my life, I’m only sorry that I couldn’t have returned the favour, I loved you so much… Au reviour Thiérry… Je t’aime, mon cœur, je t’aime.”

    French resistance fighter, Thierry Le Vaillant, had been executed by the Germans in nineteen forty four after being unsuccessfully interrogated. He’d been captured after a resistance operation to mine the tracks to destroy a military train. It was said that his last words had been,

    “Au reviour Lilliane, ma chérie… Je t’aime… Vive La France!” They’d been shouted out loudly just a split second before the firing squad’s shots rang out and were heard clearly from outside the walled yard of the Gestapo headquarters. This may be nothing more than local legend, but the village had erected a monument to their wartime resistance hero for his courage before his capture, and his silence during it.
    * * *
    It had been one of the few fine moonlit nights before the weather had turned nasty prior to D day. A young Welsh woman, really little more than a girl, who had been living as a local French villager was hiding behind a tree holding a gun. A voice behind her broke the silence.

    “Jetez l’arme!” It was spoken in poorly pronounced French with a heavy, gutteral, German accent, and was followed by, “And turn around… slowly.” Again, it was with a German accent, but this time it was spoken in English.

    The girl dropped her gun and almost started to turn, before realising that the English was being used to try to trap any unwary British agent. She stood motionless, her heart beating like a steam hammer.

    “Tournez!… Maintenant!… Immédiatement!” His French pronunciation was still appalling but she turned around to face a soldier, wearing feldwebel tabs on his field grey uniform, and pointing a machine gun at her.

    She sensed, rather than actually saw, a movement in the darkness behind the man and to this day will swear that, in the seemingly instant moment in time between the sound of a shot and her being splattered with blood as the man’s face appeared to explode outwards, she saw a look of surprise in his expression.

    His gun loosed off a short burst of fire as he crumpled. Fortunately for her, the recoil caused it to fire upwards so the worst that she received was a torn sleeve to her jacket, and a very small graze to her upper arm that nonetheless hurt like hell. Thiérry shouted at her,

    “Allez!… Vite!…” She needed no more encouragement than that. They both ran blindly through the woods, away from the village, but in different directions as they tried to make good their escape.

    They could hear the sound of shots and confused shouting in French and German behind them, as their comrades fled as best they could from the German patrol that had stumbled upon them. It was every man for himself.

    The following day, after laying low in a farm building overnight and through a good part of the day, the girl stole some clean clothes from a washing line, then buried her own blood stained clothing and made her way carefully back to her home.

    Thiérry Le Vaillant wasn’t so lucky. He was picked up by a patrol the following morning after being wounded during an exchange of fire as he tried to get away.
    * * *
    The old woman stood up. She saluted the memorial, then crossed the traffic to the café. Her taxi driver was waiting there, seated at an outside table watching her as he drank his coffee.

    They returned to his cab for the journey back to the railway station where she would catch the local train to take her back to rendezvous with the rest of her coach party. The taxi driver asked her, in poor English, if the man had been family. She answered him in perfect, if dated, French that they’d been comrades in arms.

    Upon arrival at the station the driver refused to take her money, insisting that he owed her a debt of gratitude as his grandfather had been with Cavaillès and the Libération-Nord during the occupation. He’d been assisted by agents from Britain and had himself survived the war.

    She thanked the man, then air kissed his cheeks in the French manner before running, surprisingly nimbly for someone of her age, into the station to catch the approaching train. It would be carrying her over the same section of track that she and her French comrades from La Résistance had been attempting to blow up all those long years ago when this part of France had been very different.

    * * *

    (The right of Chris Graham to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988.)

    Published by Ex-L-Ence Publishing a division of Winghigh Limited, England.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s actually a good trick, I find, to think of flashbacks rather as characterizing moments. If they’re *not*, then that’s another reason to question them. Love the old woman character!

      • I recently read “People’s Republic” by Kurt Schlichter, which I believe was his first novel (he is a columnist).

        There was more telling (3rd person) than I would have done, but most of it was parceled out well, usually when a character would have been reflecting on their past and recollecting the things the narrator was telling. However, when we finally meet the main bad guy in person, there’s an extended (3000 word) backstory. On it’s own, it’s an intriguing tale, but it’s quite a bit to conceive that the character would have flashing through his mind in those few seconds. When it was over, I was jolted back to the action in progress. I think it would have read better to portion out the info, but on the other hand the antagonist wasn’t the POV character as often. Also the backstory might not be presented in a linear fashion, but I’m trusting my readers to put the puzzles together regardless of the order I give them the pieces.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          One of my pet peeves is “stories” that are interjected into the main narrative. Flashbacks are an obvious, and comparatively minor, example. The worst one I ever saw was when a recovering protagonist was subjected to a historical parable that went on for chapters… If I were him, I think I would have just given up and died. :p

  3. Brian Duffield’s script for Jane Got A Gun was much better than the final product.

    • I’ve never seen the movie, but I’ve read a couple of Brian’s other scripts and based on some of what I’ve heard from the movie, it does seem like things are out of order here. It appears, per IMdb, that his accomplices were one, Anthony Tambakis and the actor, Joel Edgerton. Hmm, sounds to me like its possible the original version shifted via the input of these folks.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Production on this film was troubled. They lost directors and actors like crazy in pre-production. I wonder how much of the script’s devolution was a result of this.

        • Wynn Guthrie says:

          Interesting point about the script – I’ve never seen this film. I am a huge fan of O’Connor’s movie “Warrior,” written by O’Connor and Tambakis (and also starring Edgerton). Every piece of action, every single one, whether it is plot-moving or character-developing, has clear and enormous backstory, as the events and emotions of the past shape the events in real-time… but we never get to *see* any of this backstory. It’s all hints and brief mentions, like the 90% of the iceberg underwater, but it is so crucial to the drama being played out on-screen that you never lose the shape of the past, however vaguely it was revealed. It’s beautifully done, and while I would love to know the details, I think the fact that we don’t get them gives the story so much more impact.

          The Warrior film script was a revelation to me about how beautifully possible it is to sketch the past without falling into it – and it’s a lesson I really needed, since I’m just naturally drawn to overexplaining. I’m not ready to cut out all flashbacks, but these days I want to do more hinting and less play-by-play analysis, as it were. Thanks for this post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Going to have to read it. I felt the movie had so much wasted potential.

  4. Jeffrey Barlow says:

    I imagine the criteria for including dreams are nearly identical?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, indeed. Same goes for any other device (includes prologues) that are separated from the main narrative in any way.

  5. This post immediately had me thinking of the 1970s TV programme “Kung Fu” starring the late David Carradine. In every episode Carradine’s character, Caine, has flashbacks to his time in the Shalolin Temple. These weren’t too frequent and usually relevant in the first two seasons but in the later ones, they got more and more to the point that entire episodes were flashbacks. That’s what killed the show for me.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is kinda the same reason the current show Arrow lost me. The flashback scenes with Oliver Queen on the island added some pertinent mystery, but not nearly enough for the time they robbed from the main narrative.

      • Two days ago I watched “Batman Begins” for the first time and realized it’s plot is exactly the same as the first two seasons of “Arrow”, and used the same flashback techniques.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Except, for my money, Batman Begins does it way better than Arrow.

          • It was my first time viewing “Batman Begins” and I thought it was well done. I was on a trans-Atlantic flight and had a menu of TV shows and movies to choose from

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Good choice. 🙂 It’s still my favorite of the trilogy.

  6. This might be the best practical guide ever for when to flash and not to.

    I think the key might be how in real life, our own backstory is already merged into our memories and our goals– or if we’re learning someone else’s past, we can’t “relive” it, we only hear what we hear (like a regular scene) plus in our heads we often cut to the chase of how it changes our relationship with them.

    Presenting backstory through subtext would keep the spotlight on its real purpose, what it means for characters now. Often, how a character’s dealt with their past in the meantime is more interesting than what happened back then, and in any case what we really want to know is what it’ll lead to. But actually “going into” memory beaks that flow, and it replaces that “what’s it mean” focus with illusory suspense of “*exactly* what happened” that isn’t the story’s center. Like you said, it works best when the act of remembering has a direct effect on what comes next, to bring it back to what matters.

    Or there’s the other option, of rearranging things so the best part of that scene happens in the present, and everything flows into and out of it normally. Or even start the story sooner so that “past” *can* be the present and the center of it all.

    Sure, some memories actually are dramatic. and might be important too– and yes, “showing beats telling.” But just by cherry-picking them and making them flashbacks, we’re putting more emphasis on the events (and on the very fact that we’re twisting time to show them) than their real place in the story’s meaning. Risky.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes! This is brilliantly put. Reverie, in real life, is rarely “plot-moving.” The memories that are intrinsic to our personalities and actions are so deeply entrenched we rarely even think of them. This doesn’t mean a character’s memories can’t be referenced to bring readers up to speed. But you’ve presented a great rule of thumb for determining how deeply to delve into a flashback: would the character reasonably spend time remembering every detail of this former event in his life? If not, it *probably* doesn’t need to be dramatized in the book.

  7. Thanks so much for this article! Perfect timing for what I’m writing. 😀
    I was a bit hesitant to use the flashbacks because of all the taboo about never using them, but the remembering is a huge part of the story and it fits the other criteria, so I’m a bit more secure in my decision. 😉

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There are many wonderful stories that use flashbacks to great effect (Margaret Atwood’s books come to mind). It’s always tricky, but in the right story can pay huge dividends.

      • My MS has a character who had a stutter as a child and mucked around in class to try to cover it up. The school principal told his parents to get him some speech pathology to make adjusting to his new school easier.

        I put this scene in to
        a) explain his slight stutter when he gets nervous or excited in the main story ;
        b) show how he learned resilience as a child despite being a bit of a loner ; and
        c) why his parents stuck him into an acting troupe as it was cheaper than speech pathology.

        The story’s written mainly from first person, and he’s too vain to talk about his problems as a kid and it seemed too tacked-on to have another character ask him about it, so I went for a couple of hundred word flashback.

  8. In my story I’m thinking about adding a scene where the protagonist dreams of a memory with his father. I want this scene to introduce his father in the beginning of the story since he’ll be absent until the 3rd act. Is this a good approach?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Never say never, but since both flashbacks and dreams can be areas of major trippage in themselves, combining them can sometimes just compound the problems. Honestly, without knowing anything further about the story or the context, I’d advise against it. The exception would be if the dream is brief and raises more subtext than it explains away.

  9. I was interested to read this posting as it made me question my motives for using flashbacks. I think part of it is that a lot of my main characters are in some sense misfits, they don’t quite belong in the society they inhabit in the story.

    For example in the Jane novels the human race is sharply divided between the Arcturian Confederation who have the technology for interstellar travel, and everyone else, known as “the locals.” Locals have to buy tickets on a Confederate ship to get to another planet. Jane starts off as a local, gets kidnapped, escapes, talks her way onto a Confederate warship and finally becomes both a naturalised Confederate citizen and a Space Fleet officer. She is always slightly out of place, although she moves in Confederate society, and is accepted because of her natural charm, when crisis strikes she is the one who knows how to drive a combine harvester or milk a cow.

    Jojo is the same. Despite growing up in a world where promiscuity is common and women are often victims, she is very fussy about who shares her bed, and anyone trying to make her a victim is in line for an immediate trip to the crematorium.

    The point is that I have been using flashbacks to highlight the ways in which my protagonists don’t quite fit.

    And now I’m wondering if there is a better way.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      My chosen approach would always be to present the dichotomies of these characters in their current situations and use the juxtaposition to create subtext. Make readers wonder *why* the characters are different. Then use the most important answers as revelations within their character arcs and plots.

      That said, there’s nothing wrong with flashbacks as long as they fulfill the requirements I talk about in the post.

  10. Thank you, thank you, thank you… for posting about flashbacks!
    Oh my word, do people use them way too often and so flippantly!
    I’m guessing that another people use them in the novel world is because there is so much space to work with in a novel that it seems like it would be okay to explore the flashback a little more? Just guessing here.
    I wish more people who write for the movies would take these things to heart. It sounds like “Jane Got a Gun” really misfired in its approach of the flashback.
    Great point regarding subtext. Having come to the realization of how important subtext is to a story, I’m always making sure that it’s treated with the upmost care and respect!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      My theory on flashback-overuse is that flashbacks are just too much fun for writers. We tend to love any excuse we can get to ramble around in our story worlds and our character backstories. But flashbacks end up in “darling” territory far too easily.

  11. I use two flashbacks in my story, in order to do a couple of things:

    1) The first flashback explained how a long-lost heroine, newly reunited with her BFF, had come to be “lost” in the first place. I used the flashback partly for worldbuilding, and it made my beta readers love her and relate to her. The events were interesting enough that I wanted to show them, not have her tell about it — coming under attack by mythical creatures seemed worthy of a “show.”

    2) The second flashback showed how the character handled the aftermath of the extraordinary events of the first flashback, but *more importantly* her struggle revealed the insidiousness of the enemy’s tentacles in that world (and continued the worldbuilding).

    The consequences of the events in the second flashback provided an important clue, and it underscored that the heroine is clever and resourceful enough to handle the current crisis the story revolves around. Revelation of the Lie’s tentacles helps her BFF see that their world as they know it is under attack, and even the most innocent of people can be caught up.

    Even though I do the blow-by-blow type of flashbacks, I don’t drag them out. And they occur early in the story, when the BFF (and the reader) are asking the questions the flashbacks answer, when showing the answers would have the greatest impact. They also served as a larger Talking Head Avoidance Device, as Elizabeth George calls it. Instead of people sitting around talking about something interesting that happened, I’d show you the interesting event they were talking about.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Consequences are huge. Any scene that creates consequences–and therefore, cause and effect–automatically ups its importance to the plot.

  12. Megan Brummer says:

    Ack. The major downside of NaNo for me is I tend to splash backstory on the page just to get the wordcount up. I have a feeling I’m going to do a LOT of cutting and rewriting next month. I LOVE the tip that the flashback needs to be not only relevant to the story but crucial at the moment to actually further the plot by its very revelation. I can work with that!

    My problem is finding the balance. I’m a pretty detailed planner and tend to have elaborate, fascinating backstories. But I know that backstory can be horribly abused, so in my attempt to reduce it and rely on subtext, I think I leave out too much. My critique partners always want more explanation. Any tips or archived posts about finding that balance between too much and not enough? I could go crazy with the tweaking…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Finding balance is hard in large part because that balance is always going to be very unique to the individual story. Following the rule of thumb about including backstory when it moves the plot is a good start. But so is listening to your beta readers. You never know for certain of you’ve found the right balance until you’ve tested it in front of an objective audience.

  13. Hannah Killian says:

    I started my story with a sort-of flashback. It’s a memory and a dream mixed together. Like the beginning of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

    There’s also a moment where the protagonist’s father has a flashback. Though I think that one could be taken out.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sometimes we just have to write things like this to get them out of our system. Sometimes you can’t tell if something is going to fit in the story until you’ve actually written it and seen it on the page.

  14. My WIP has one flashback, told through the narrator with some dialogue, at the moment of truth while she’s processing the fact that the guy she likes has had a girlfriend for two years and never told her. For 250 words, after she accuses him of not telling her everything the way they promised they would when he moved away, she realizes she’s misremembered their relationship–his letters had never told her everything, or even much of anything important, although she’d convinced herself they had.

    It seems like a small revelation to the MC at the time, but it’s the first instance that shows her memory of him and their relationship is flawed, and that Lucas isn’t who she’s pretended he is, which is very important to the second half of the book.

  15. I used flashbacks in my novel, Operation Mermaid: The Project Kraken Incident. I was doing that to not do a backstory dump. One time I had my main character watch a video of what happened. It can be tricky. It can turn into a TV clip show, which is 90% flashbacks.

  16. I actually have quite a few flashbacks in my current WIP, though they might be closer to flashsides, since the memories in the flashbacks aren’t actually the MC’s, they’re memories that the MC has “picked up”.

  17. I’ve got a novel that jumps between timelines: a present-day short time-frame, and a sequence of vignettes from one of the character’s lives, leading up to where the timelines meet, and there is a resolution to the conflict in the longer story. The present-day time-line serves as a framework, and advances one character to the point of being able to resolve her longer story. The challenge has been providing good transition points between the two (e.g. a moment in the current story that relates or resonates to that important moment in the past). If I didn’t have the vignettes, one of the key characters would just be showing up near the end with no introduction, and it’s important that we know him just as well, and care about him just as much, as the people currently in the room.

    Thoughts?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      A good way to handle transitions is to look for similar beats or motifs at the beginning and end of the respective plotlines. Sometimes just a light touch can be a good way to ease from one to the other in a seamless manner.

  18. I’m just finally getting a handle on backstory in my current WIP, which makes me very happy. (I tend toward the `too much backstory’ end of the spectrum.) In this story though, my flashbacks actually fit into the story instead of ending up in a separate file while I stared sadly at my poor, discarded darlings, wondering where I’d gone wrong. This time the flashbacks actually moves the story forward. (I’m so proud of me!)

  19. I found your article to be very interesting. Thank you for sharing it. I use flashbacks sometimes but only if they move my story along.

  20. Colleen Akin says:

    The novel opens with my MC driving a high mountain road. She is absolutely is terrified. The omni narrator takes the reader to the source of the character’s acrophobia, a childhood spiritual experience atop another mountain. The time shift explain her adult fear, and also to draw out the suspence of the opening chapters. It’s a tough call whether it works. I hope it does.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      When in doubt, call in the betas. If they enjoy it and it keeps their interest, then it works!

  21. I’ve been struggling with whether or not to use flashbacks in my current WIP. Currently, my main character is insecure, ostracized by his peers, and has a strained relationship with his sister, and I’ve considered using flashbacks to show how he came to be this way and how events from his past inform his present-day behavior, while also showing him struggling to overcome these issues in the present.

    However, I’m wondering if using flashbacks is the best way to show this. As you mentioned earlier, the TV show “Arrow” is often clogged with unnecessary, uninteresting, and slow-moving flashbacks that take away from the present-day storyline, and I often find myself tuning out when the show is in flashback mode. On the other hand, I also think about a show like “Lost,” which I feel did a really good job at handling the flashbacks of a dozen-or-so main characters, and managed to keep the present-day and past storylines interesting and connected thematically.

    Not sure what to do. What do you think?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Flashbacks in serial fiction–such as TV shows like Arrow–can often bear the burden of becoming unnecessary by sheer dint of the fact that they’re *expected* in every single show. The very format of the show ends up violating the primary flashback rule about the flashbacks needing to be necessary to move the plot. So it’s a little different in books. Whether flashbacks are the right choice for your story really depends on whether what they bring to the table is adding to the overall experience rather than taking away from it.

  22. In my current WIP, my protagonist’s father says something which causes my protagonist to have a brief flashback to select parts in a tragic event when he was seven. The flashback he has causes him to blurt out something he normally wouldn’t say, and his father blows up and hits him. Also, it (hopefully) serves to half show and half hint at how close to the breaking point the tragic event pushed him.

    I have a nightmare I dramatize later that I may cut out in editing, but the fact that he HAS a nightmare at that time is important, because his father’s comfort after the nightmare builds my protagonist’s trust with his father to the point where my protagonist feels comfortable sharing a confidence with him that leads to the inciting incident.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Dreams and memories both are absolutely *fine* within a story. It’s just that they’re often (although certainly not always) better served by being shared in quick, half-formed, foreboding hints, rather than full-on dramatization.

  23. Quite early on in my story, I have two characters (briefly) remember some aspects of their earlier lives and earlier relationship to one another. (This is two separate scenes, broken up by other aspects of the plot.)

    I did it to add dramatic irony, because the reader then knows things about each character and how they think that neither knows about the other. So it adds a new dimension to their interactions with one another.

    And there’s still a ton of their respective back stories left in subtext, although a few vital aspects are revealed explicitly near the end of the book.

    …Does that sound ok?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Brief is (in general) the key to successful flashbacks. Without knowing more, I’d say you’re just fine.

  24. Howdy there Captain

    Haven’t been here in a while and need to catch on several posts.

    Good info here. I think being able to pull off a flashback is somewhat intimidating. Not to mention a good one that moves the plot and adds to the story.

    Benjamim

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s a good technique to play with. It’s just one we need to have the wisdom to use with restraint.

  25. MK Brotherton says:

    In the story I’m working on, there have been several flashbacks already, and I have to wonder why I don’t just write things in the order they happened. But like, for example, in chapter one my MC is waking up after passing out — she has a weird dream while unconscious, which is actually the prologue — and then upon awakening, she thinks back on previous events of the day that led her to pass out (although I don’t know if that’s considered a flashback, because I more or less just cut to earlier in the scene). I don’t know — I’ve always had trouble with this topic. I always thought having a character think back – or merely cutting back to previous events during a scene, gave things an interesting twist. But now I worry some that it’s jut going to be annoying. This is a good article though, it’s making me think 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “Flashforwards,” in which you begin with the character in a future state or a later point in the story, and then move back in time for the main story, can definitely be an effective hook. They can also be useful, on a much smaller scale, for opening hooks for chapters. However, as always, they need to be used with restraint. If the story could be told just as compellingly in chronological order, that’s usually going to be the safer bet.

  26. Andrewiswriting says:

    I have six flashbacks in The Cup of Jamshid, each of which happens as a dream/memory Abe experiences, reliving a specific time in his father’s life, as he takes on the mantle of Jack’s abilities.

    They fill in crucial why-are-we-doing-this information, which Abe otherwise wouldn’t have access to as a twelve-year old. This knowledge grants him a degree of agency that most pre-teens don’t have.

    The flashbacks also explain some oddities among several of the cast members, drop clues as to how some things in this world work, and hooks that I’ll payoff in later books. One of them even provides a little misdirection, as someone tampers with his dream and scams him.

    There are (if I’ve executed correctly) subliminal cues in some of the language and settings that set up tropes like Xerox Generation, to cement the feeling of the protagonist-generation wheel turning.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It sounds to me as if you’re using the flashbacks in a very controlled, rhythmic way–which is awesome. Potentially intrusive plot devices such as flashbacks become far *less* intrusive and wobbly when readers can rely on the steadiness of their presentation. They come to understand, if only subconsciously, that the author is in full control of the narrative and is using the flashbacks for a very specific artistic reason.

  27. My MC in my NaNo is amnesiac, so naturally he has flashbacks. But most of them are very short- generally something that happens brings to mind a buried memory of a similar situation in his past, usually just something someone said to him. Honestly, what is left out is more important than what he recalls, because his not knowing the whole story of his past leads him to make some *terrible* decisions later in the story. Ah, the joy of putting your character through a disillusionment arc…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Love it! This is one reason I heart amnesia stories so hard: the backstory subtext is everything.

  28. Shadeburst says:

    In real life, we have conversations where something the other person says triggers a flashback. In a novel, just as in real life, that can make the conversation take off in a whole new direction, revealing new information that builds the characters and develops the plot.

    Ideally every scene should be so dramatic it can stand on its own as flash fiction. Beware of using the flashback to explain something that reduces the tension. It should raise more questions than it answers.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      But I’d argue that, in real life, we are rarely triggered into an instantaneous full-fledged reliving of the memory. Of course, sometimes these relivings are necessary in fiction, for the shape of the narrative, but we have to be careful not to stray from realism in indicating a character stops smack in the middle of a conversation, for example, to relive a lengthy experience blow by blow.

      • Anne Cartwright says:

        Two examples: firstly, a short story of about 2000 words was, in fact, three flashbacks to describe the three cities which, in fact, were two. Intrigued? I think I may turn this into something longer but I feel that if I do the whole story will flounder around like a shark in a garden pond.

        Secondly, I discovered what I consider to be the main use of flashbacks by accident. I was writing a story aimed at children aged about 5-7. It ended up as half a thesis of 44,000 words because I got carried away with a flashback but what I had written was the whole history of the main character, who is made of plastic and lives in a wooden house, along with a full description of his world. The flashback gave me understanding and knowledge of who and what I was writing about. Then I understood much better, on a complete rewrite, that part of the story was suitable for 1-3 year olds, part was suitable for 8-13 year olds, and part of it was just waffle. It was an editing education and it ended up as a story for 7-9 year olds.

        I now write two novels for each story … one containing the indulgent back story for my benefit, and the crisper version for my readers.

        Perhaps one day I might publish them. So far, the joy of writing has been enoughappening, but you’ve all got me well fired up now. Maybe mine aren’t so bad after all.

  29. Dan Lovell says:

    There are a few flashbacks in my story. Without giving too much away, they are memories the main character shouldn’t have.

    It’s more of a second story, chopped up and presented as random flashes that eventually add up for my main character, who uses them to his advantage at a critical point in the story.

  30. I was watching Forrest Gump the other night. That movie is almost all flashback. He’s telling his story on the bench to various people, then the story plays out. That’s one time when flashbacks work.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, it’s a “frame” story that deliberately uses an older, “wiser” narrator to look back on life events.

  31. As a writers, I’ve certainly been guilty of using flashbacks in the wrong way at times. Most people probably have. I think the most important thing to see in this post was: “2: The Backstory Moves the Plot”. I need to get that tattooed to my arm so that every time I try to use a flashback I remember to ask myself “Does this move the plot?”.

    As a reader, I almost always get bored when a flashback comes on. It’s like “Oh, God, not another one.” In fact, I still haven’t forgiven Stephen King for Wizard and Glass, but maybe that’s just me.

    Great post, either way, and thanks for giving us lots to think about.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Honestly, I think the Golden Rule is the Golden Writing Rule too: do unto readers as you have other writers do unto you.

  32. Rainheart says:

    In my story. the MC, Nathaly, has suffered a traumatic experience in her childhood she is trying desperately hard to forget, and has even gone as far as forcing her family and friends to promise never to mention the memory too, so nobody casually mentions it by accident and triggers her.

    It is for this reason that I can’t have her flashback to this incident until the very last moments of the story, during the Resolution, after she has learned her lesson about repressing negative thoughts and bad memories.

    Would that be okay? Saving a flashback until the very end for the sake of a theme/moral lesson?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Actually, I think this sounds brilliant. A backstory you *can’t* talk about for expressed plot reasons is usually a backstory readers are crazy to find out about. My only precaution would be that if you do choose to use a full-on dramatized flashback in the end, make sure the shift in narrative doesn’t bring your main conflict screeching to a halt.

  33. I’ve always been partial to flashbacks… maybe a little too partial! Back when I was writing my first novel (which will never see the light of day, for reasons I will make clear!), I had something like six POV characters and ALL, yes, ALL of them were going to have a ton of flashback scenes. Needless to say, it didn’t work out. That novel is resting peacefully on my hard drive. I do hope to use the protagonist in a better-constructed work someday because I really like him. But the rest of it? It’s better off unpublished. 😉

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Honestly, you were a braver writer than I would have been. :p My eyes are crossing just thinking about the complexity involved in something like that.

  34. I’m back, after an extended vacation!

    My prologue of 400 some words is a flash forward to give a brief introduction to the main characters and their future relationships, to get the readers guessing.

    I have one plot thread that involves flash backs, as it’s the MC recalling a past traumatic event at a couple points in the story. The first time it’s left unexplained to again get the readers wondering.

    I froze in a silent panic.

    ‘What if she opens her eyes?‘

    My heart was pounding as if it might explode out of my chest. I looked down again and saw Kathy’s face, covered in blood. I retched and instantly felt faint.

    ‘What kind of sick *** are you?’

    I had to get out of there…I planted myself face first on my bed and just started to bawl my eyes out into the pillow.

    I needed to have his uneasiness linger, so the next day he mentions having a dream during an afternoon nap. He returns to normal a few days later, and the subject isn’t mentioned for another 40 or 50 thousand words – but then the girlfriend questions their relationship, and I use around 600 words for him to break down again and explain what happened to Kathy, which is a vehicle for discussing attitudes towards sex and relationships.

    (edited for brevity)
    “So this is just about sx?”

    “No!” My chest tightened as pains flashed down my arms. “I mean – I never did that before.”

    “You realize that sounds pretty creepy.”

    I muttered, “It’s not just sx!” then fell back onto the bench, buried my face in my hands and started to bawl.

    Hannah ran over and dropped to her knees in front of me. She grabbed at my hands and begged, “Joe, Joe – what’s the matter? I’m sorry!”

    As she tried to hug me, I sat up and wiped tears from my face as I cried, “I don’t want to do that to you – I’m not…”

    “Do what?”

    I continued to wipe my face as I tried to collect myself. She was still kneeling, her face a foot in front of mine. “Do you know about my cousin Kathy?”

    I saw her puzzled look as she tried to remember. “No, what about her?”

    “She was murdered.”

    Hannah stumbled back as her hands went to her face. “Oh my God…what…what happened?”

    I took a deep breath as I collected my thoughts. “It was the middle of summer, she had just turned fifteen.” I wiped my face. “One night this guy knocks on their door, comes to the *** house – and says her brother had been in an accident and he’d take her there. So she got in the car with this dude and left. ”

    I fought back more tears before I continued, “The next day they found her, a couple hundred yards down the road. She had been raped…and *** shot in the head.” I had to pause as I trembled. “It’s been three years and they still have no gd idea who did it…she would have just graduated.”

    I looked back up to see the tears streaming down Hannah’s face. “Oh Joe, I’m so sorry…”

    “I can’t let myself be like that, to think that sx is about getting, about taking – instead of giving. Giving to someone you love, making them happy. That’s the only thing that matters…”

    With her hair in my face, I didn’t need to speak above a whisper. “…and it scares the hell out of me. It’s so hard.”

    She squeezed my hand. “I didn’t know…I’m so sorry.”

    An image of what she still didn’t know flashed through my mind. “You didn’t do anything.”

    Finally, a few weeks of story time after that the family is in the area and he asks to go to the cemetery and while there visits Kathy’s grave. However, being in the cemetery is a vehicle for him to talk to his dad about various ancestors also buried there, and dad utters a statement which sets up another thread later on.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great example of how to do it well. This was gripping, and that’s the key to good flashbacks.

      • Thanks, I appreciate that. The part about Kathy wasn’t in the original draft.

        I was reminded of her story last year when the guy who’d been in prison was released based on DNA evidence, and created a thread that wove the facts of the case into several scenes, making the emotion much more raw and intense. I cry nearly every time I read my own words about it.

  35. I have one, that starts to give a hint as to why Merryn is doing the awful job of moving the crippled (evil?) god back to her homeland. It started when she was tossed in prison when she spotted a white rat. The flash back started with the rat too, I don’t explain much of but hinted at things, and then got out, again with the rat. Also it’s less then six paragraphs short and sweet and back to the story. so I hope I did well with it.

    Her, her mom, her people and the god are all intertwined in the plot and need to be told some of it. The rest if it’s turns out to be needed can be in a little bit of dialogue or a quick inner though It needs to be revised, but I’m still on chapter 25 during this round of revisions so I’ll be a while before it’s tweaked. I’m not a fan of long flash back that like you pointed out in your article amount to not much. Blea.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Using a visual symbol like the rat to lead in and out of a flashback is a nice technique. Just make sure (and I’m saying this for the benefit of others reading the comment) that the symbol is pertinent to both scenes, instead of an arbitrary add-on.

  36. I just got a post in my Facebook feed that this year marks the 75th anniversary of Citizen Kane. That was the first movie that used flashbacks. The first scene is Charles Foster Kane dying. The rest of the film is told from the perspective of a reporter trying to find out what Rosebud is. ( Spoiler alert: it’s the sled.) The reporter interviews people, and their memories are played out on the screen. It is considered a classic. Flashbacks can work if thet’re done right.

  37. K.M. , Flash back -Cara is telling the story to Zane about Ruben.
    Zane sat up straight and his eyes narrowed. “Ruben?” he asked louder than he intended.“Yes, Ruben,” she acknowledged sadly, “Once he was a good man. His family was good people and ruled their kingdom with kindness and fairness. All was good and happy in the kingdom. Ruben was an only child and was pampered and spoiled by his doting parents. Then one day the king fell and injured his leg, he had to stay in bed to heal. He was very depressed and so his loyal subjects brought him all kinds of gifts to cheer him. Alas, none really worked. Until oneday a peasant from Hope Island brought the king a beautiful yellow bird. The bird would sing to the grumpy king, making him laugh and cheerful.”
    “Once again the kingdom was happy. Ruben was off on an adventure as he was a young healthy man. All was well until the king became ill, the royal healers could not understand what was wrong.” Cara paused for a moment, remembering. Zane leaned closer to hear more. Then she continued, “the queen also became very ill, the palace was in an up roar. Nothing the healers or priestess’ did had any effect of the very ill couple. The only thing the king wanted was his yellow bird she was placed beside his bed where she sang to the king. Then one day she stopped signing, the king got weaker as did the queen. the king was upset but nothing could induce the little bird and then she died. The king died soon after as did the queen, but before they died something strange happened to their bodies.”
    Zane’s eyes darkened as he started to realize what had happened. “Their bodies had turned yellow didn’t they?” interrupted Cara. “Yes,” she answered. “They turned bright yellow and before long everyone in the palace became ill and soon too died from,” “The Yellow Death,” Zane finished for her. “Yes the Yellow death,” Cara agreed. “Yes, I know we had thought it had been eradicated many years before. And it had been except for one island was missed. The people there were immune to the disease so they didn’t so know thy carried the disease in their blood.
    Zane shook his head in disbelief. “so how did the disease get to the king?” he asked. Cara looked far away then slowly answered. “The yellow bird had the disease. The man who brought it to the king didn’t know the bird was sick nor did he know the disease still existed as he was from the island that had been forgotten,” “So what happened after that?” Zane asked.
    Cara continued. “Well as you remember Ruben had been far away and knew nothing about what had happened. When he arrived home a few months later, there wasn’t a soul alive. He parents were dead as was everyone else with the exception of an old woman. She had hidden away in a small cave nearby when people started dying. She told Ruben everything that happened. Ruben saw his parents graves, his kingdom in shambles, no peasants no servants all was lost. He flew into a rage and went to the island when the man had lived and he destroyed every living thing!” Cara looked sad. “Then he — ” Cara stopped, unable to speak for a moment. Zane gave her the flask; she smiled weakly and took a deep drink before continuing on.
    “After Ruben destroyed that island and not finding the man who had given his father the bird, went to nearby islands and killed the inhabitants there, but not before he found the man he sought. He took the blood from this man to use to make his own yellow fever to use as he would. He killed the man, but before the man died Ruben promised him he would destroy all of his descendants.
    So now you know why we must hurry and why she is so important to this cause. Ruben is very powerful, and he has had plenty of time to learn the dark arts of his crafts. His hatred has grown, as has his anger. He will not stop until he has destroyed all the realms. He cares for no one and his heart is black as the night.”
    Ruben is creating his own army no one knows how many or who they are.

    Is this a good flashback or cut some of it to a few sentences?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Shorter is almost always better when it comes to flashbacks.

      • I’d agree with that.

        Just after Jane has done some rather spectacular aerobatics with a re-entering spaceship I said this:

        The ship began to sing with the vibration of a clean re-entry.
        Jane flicked the display from sub-orbital to re-entry mode. Then, holding the stick lightly, she settled into the new trajectory. The yellow cross on the display wandered around inside the green box—the eighty-footer was running true and stable, finding its own way down into the atmosphere with little help from Jane.
        Back home at Hallsfield Farm on Mercia, there was a lake. One winter it had frozen over. She’d tried to scramble down the bank for a closer look at this rare thing called ice, tumbled and ended up skidding yards out onto the frozen surface, flat on her back, kicking helplessly. Her brother Tom, white with fear at her screams, had started to climb down to her but she’d already made her way back on hands and knees.
        She’d asked him if she could do it again, please. Only, this time, could she do it the other way up, so that she could see where she was going?
        He’d lifted her, blank incomprehension on his face—not understanding how, in that moment, his little sister had begun to tread the path that would take her to the pilot’s seat.

  38. I use flashbacks as a way to kickstart my story. That way I can start where it is interesting, and have the slow build-up in a compressed form where it doesn’t hurt the flow of the story.

  39. In order to get my ‘bookends’ to be a mirror image and not start off too slow, I started my novel later in the story. This brings about a good hook to entice further reading. But it also meant I had to ‘flashback’ in chapter two. The narrative continues as normal from there. I have been told to drop the first chapter by a rather aggressive editor but still feel it needs to be there as it has a job to do. Now I feel a little lost.

    • Rod Lawless says:

      I’m very grateful for this post. I’ve been thinking about my plot a lot more and realise there is no flashback, only a flash forward. The main story runs from chapter two. Since the whole book is written first person, present tense I think I may have sidestepped a mine field.

  40. I’ve used a few, usually shorter than a paragraph (and the main supporting character gives my POV character odd looks, and sometimes comments on them. She’s a mind reader.) I’m hoping that the character’s discussion, which is mostly submerged and left to guesswork, will make the flashback a part of the action.

    He also ‘flashes back’ to his nemesis, to when they were working together. Hhe can’t attempt to remember the nemesis without getting a migraine. But these are always just pithy statements that fit as if the nemesis is actually in his head, commenting on the action. I never make it clear if this is a memory or something more sinister, though, and until now I would not have really thought of it as a flashback.

    Curious also if his occasional references to his favorite, historical emperor (Emperor Sinead, a martyr he admires) or to the current, Juliana (a tyrant he despises) are actually flashbacks.

    I’m going to have to really look at all that, it’s definitely in there thick. Isn’t that normal when you have a first person narrator who is all up in his head?

    • Exerpt

      (Italics)”Everybody works for the Emperor—rebels most of all.”(/Italics)
      I glared at the memory of my beautiful stranger, and returned to my work, muttering, “Not me. She’s no Sinead.”

      ***
      This is a flashback, yes? An effective one? Certainly pithy, which works for it. Just an example of how he pulls his memory and it becomes a character, talking to him, rather than a memory. A sort of sci-fi ghost or ensorcelment.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Yes and no. It’s a memory, so it counts as a flashback in the strictest sense. But it’s not dramatized as a full-on scene of its own. In essence, it’s more of a foreshadowing hint for a reveal later on. So it doesn’t fall under quite the same strictures as the more blatant flashbacks I’m talking about in the post.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Ultimately, the same “rules” of good flashbacks apply regardless the narrator. It’s just that sometimes it’s easier to “ease” into a flashback in a first-person narration. But the flashback still has to be pertinent, engaging, and well-timed, just as it would be in any other type of narration.

      • As would any element (Such as the ‘historical document’ I have as a prologue that should probably be an appendix but it’s still an early draft). Thank you, these are enlightening.

        Of course, it’s sometimes hard to tell what is called for and what is simply there because I have an attachment to it.

        One rule of thumb I would suggest is that any detail that can be seen to affect the POV character’s actions (or explain another character’s actions) would be essential. Also to keep anything that sticks in because it fits with the narrator’s stream of consciousness.

  41. I am usually so encouraged when I read your articles. (Thank you for that.) This one however, has me concerned. My wip is my first attempt at writing a novel, and I plan on using flashbacks for more than half of the story. My character is turning 99 years old and insists on telling her life’s story. It definitely moves the plot forward. In fact it kind of is the plot. I’m just suddenly wondering if I should consider writing her story first “as it happens” then tell the grandson’s story. The two stories just tie together so well going back and forth. He learns exactly what he needs (except when he doesn’t) at exactly the right time.

  42. Anne Cartwright says:

    Two examples: firstly, a short story of about 2000 words was, in fact, three flashbacks to describe the three cities which, in fact, were two. Intrigued? I think I may turn this into something longer but I feel that if I do the whole story will flounder around like a shark in a garden pond.

    Secondly, I discovered what I consider to be the main use of flashbacks by accident. I was writing a story aimed at children aged about 5-7. It ended up as half a thesis of 44,000 words because I got carried away with a flashback but what I had written was the whole history of the main character, who is made of plastic and lives in a wooden house, along with a full description of his world. The flashback gave me understanding and knowledge of who and what I was writing about. Then I understood much better, on a complete rewrite, that part of the story was suitable for 1-3 year olds, part was suitable for 8-13 year olds, and part of it was just waffle. It was an editing education and it ended up as a story for 7-9 year olds.

    I now write two novels for each story … one containing the indulgent back story for my benefit, and the crisper version for my readers.

    Perhaps one day I might publish them. So far, the joy of writing has been enough.

    • Annec Cartwright says:

      Apologies … seems I posted twice and it wasn’t finished either time.

      “A Tale of Three Cities” was my entry for a competition that required a factual piece (and it won!). It could be developed, thinking about it, so I’ll do a rewrite. More to the point, my description has given me the title for my next work: The Shark in the Garden Pond. Watch this space.

  43. This has been so helpful! I, too, have been mentally crippled, thinking flashback is totally taboo. And yet, knowing it is GREAT when used right. And wondering who would not penalize me for even asking.

    TADA! Enter someone who not only knows flashbacks can be great, but also knows how to know when and when not to use them. Finally!

    The best part is that my story does need flashback, just as I suspected and hoped.

    My MC is deranged and at a point of extreme shock, he remembers something huge he had blocked from his memory. Something crucial to the plot. Something that is revealed near the end and solves the whole mystery. Something heart-wrenching that needs to be there, in the first place, and needs to stay in the background until HE realizes it.

    I love knowing I was right and the work can proceed! Thanks so much for making me a better writer!

  44. Here’s a question I have been dying to ask someone:

    I am writing a sword and sorcery book. My character was waylaid on the way to meet someone so that th
    e sorcerers could implant a false memory (delaying her getting the actual intel.)

    I have the false memory as a dramatized flashback. It begins as a straight narrative, then she throws in a few comments about odd things and toward the end she eases into reality, mulling over the oddness and basically acting weird as she comes to reality. Finally, she essentially lies, saying there was “nothing to worry about,” reporting the false conclusion that she was supposed to draw.

    When the POV has a false recollection is there a better way to portray it? I’m using 1st person, possibly with multiple viewpoints. Don’t want it to be too obvious that it was false.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The tricky part about sharing false recollections or impressions the protagonist is experiencing is that you want to foreshadow something is wrong–but you also don’t want to tip your hand and separate the reader’s awareness of the situation from the protagonist’s. What you’ve described sounds to me like the most sensible way of doing it. Beyond that, it’s really just a matter of finessing the tone and shape of the narrative to give readers exactly the right impression.

    • Have you watched the movie “Men in Black”? Ideas there.

  45. Hello and thank you for your tireless and generous work here.

    As an antidote to flashbacks, would a longer chronology (of MC’s story) be appropriate?

    I like reading the long-road sort of novels of say John Irving or Dickens–the ones that cover twenty to thirty years without too much time travel (aka flashes). I feel the character maturing before your eyes (slowly) is a delight, and a deeper dive into who they are. Coming of age is universal, isn’t it? Readers can all relate to being a teen. So why hold back on a long-road story showing and telling method if the authors have such compulsion to draft backstory? Maybe this (long chronology topic) is a different subject–not meant for the flashback topic

    That long road doesn’t work well for movies, fine with me. That’s why reading is so pleasurable. But I still wonder, when sitting with my pen and paper: are there others that like these long, plodding stories?

    Best wishes to all here!

    And thanks again. I’m grateful for the helping!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Oh, definitely! There’s a reason Dickens and Irving are beloved authors. 🙂

      • Melissa says:

        Hello, I just found this site. It looks fascinating and very helpful.

        I’ve always been of the mind that flashbacks should be used sparingly, if at all. So you can imagine my consternation when flashbacks started taking over my WIP! But all that juicy backstory was so fun to write and seemed so necessary to get my protagonist – as well as several other characters including the antagonist – where they needed to be when the story began. Eventually I just threw up my hands and accepted that the backstory wanted to be THE story and went with that. Though I do have the idea that my original story idea could be re-purposed as a sequel…

  46. My book uses flashbacks to avoid overwhelming readers with too much information. I start in the middle of the story, then use flashbacks to fill in the gaps. It’s the technique I’ve seen on TV crime shows.

  47. You mentioned that if the backstory is more important than the main story, you should be telling the backstory. That’s what Harper Lee found out. In the 1950s, she submitted her novel Go Set a Watchman to publishers. They rejected it, but one told her that flashbacks to the 1930s would be a great story on its own. She pulled those segments out and rewrote them into To Kill a Mockingbird, which is now considered a classic. She published Go Set a Watchman 2 years ago, mainly because she needed money for medical bills. Critics said it wasn’t as good as Mockingbird.

  48. Michael Stephensen says:

    I have three reasons for my flashback. 1) The information I currently have in a flashback is information that the protagonist needs to learn. 2) The person telling him the information will ruin their relationship by telling it (that needs to happen to help drive the protagonist to leave Iran for America.) 3) The flashback explains the protagonist’s problems with loving relationships. This needs to be established so he can evolve through his character arc. I feel like they move the story forward. I wonder if I am fooling myself. Arrrggg

  49. Louisa Bauman says:

    I use flashbacks because my mc is a peasant who is joining a rebellion against the nobility. When he gets sick of the fighting he reminds himself of what the peasants have had to endure because of the nobility and it gives him the strength to go on.

  50. I am currently writing a novel told in alternating chapters, starting in the present, then every other in the past but as a way of explaining the character’s childhood and how certain events have framed her adult life. For instance one chapter shows her not leaving her relationship with a guy everyone tells her is bad for her, and you feel frustrated but the next chapter you see her as a 10 year old with her father and all the ways he made her feel worthless so you are able to see how and why she is the way she is and does the things she does.

  51. Anyone looked at Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World as an example of seamless flashbacks?

    Same with The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood: there flashbacks are triggered by artifacts and recounted through letters.

    I’m also in awe of how Chang-Rae Lee goes from past to present in Native Speaker.

    Oh and can’t forget The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson. There flashbacks are used à la Forest Gump to tell the 100 year old man’s zany life story.

Trackbacks

  1. […] fictional writing capabilities (perhaps as a part of National Novel Writing Month)? I refer you to The Only Reason Your Story Should Have Flashbacks. K.M. Weiland tells the world “Flashbacks are a multi-functional technique for stepping […]

  2. […] Craft break down building a chapter for emotional impact, K.M. Weiland shares the only reason your story should have flashbacks, and Alex Limberg reveals how to write endings that […]

  3. […] The Only Reason Your Story Should Have Flashbacks […]

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