Best Use of Story Flashbacks

Mary Keeley

Blogger: Mary Keeley

I was talking to a new novelist recently about where to begin her story and the best way to introduce important backstory information about her main characters. It’s been a while since I’ve blogged about anything craft related. Maybe now is a good time for a refresher on the best use of story flashbacks.

First rule: Put yourself in the reader’s shoes. Writing well is all about giving readers what they need when they need it.

Readers pick up your book because they’re interested in the current story. Since a flashback scene is “old news” and lacks imminent action or tension, there has to be a compelling reason for its interruption in the action of the current story or readers might lose interest. Here are two primary reasons to use a flashback:

  • When the flashback scene provides a depth of insight into the main character’s motivation that enriches the current story and keeps readers caring about what happens next.
  • When a flashback to an event that happened years before the story begins, which is vitally important for the reader to know in order to fully understand the tension or mysterious circumstances of the current story.

Done well, readers love a flashback because it satisfies their curiosity to Flashback_2016understand more about a main character—perhaps even more than the character knows about herself at that point in the story—because it adds depth to the character’s struggle and desire to accomplish her goal. Readers engage with her and are compelled to keep reading to find out if she eventually grasps what she’s striving for.

Second rule: Use these guidelines to write an effective flashback.

  • Write it as a complete scene. Some backstory might require several pages to give readers the full impact of its affect on the main character. Other times you might be able to get it across in a paragraph. Eliminate unnecessary details. They will be an annoyance to the reader, who wants to get back to the current story.
  • Never use a flashback in the early chapters of your book, when you’re introducing the main characters to readers and building the action. Readers will be confused before they’ve had time to engage in the story.
  • Where to insert a flashback is vitally important. Insert it after a powerful scene in your story, either a high point or a low point. It must directly impact the main character’s action in the current story.
  • Enter into the flashback in one sentence, noting for readers the time and place in which it happened so they know where they’re being taken and won’t get frustrated and lose interest. End the flashback in one sentence. This alerts readers they are returning to the current story.
  • Use past tense for the entire flashback when the current story is in present tense. Use past perfect tense for the flashback when the current story is in past tense.
  • Wait to insert a flashback as long as possible, until the critical moment when readers absolutely must have the backstory information to understand the full impact of the scene in the current story. Leaving some mystery in the story keeps readers turning pages to get clues. You hook readers when they worry about the main characters. If readers have all the answers too early, there is nothing to keep them interested.
  • Avoid using too many flashbacks. Something isn’t right if you need to use more than one or two in your full-length novel.

In what ways do you struggle with the effective use of flashbacks in your novel? Can you identify why you were annoyed by a flashback in a novel you read? Conversely, do your remember a flashback that caused your interest to soar in the current story?

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