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 both 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 than ever before.

How Failed Flashbacks Cripple Your Story

Flashbacks were one of many areas 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 is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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!

  20. 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.

  21. 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. 🙂

      • 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…

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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