Blogger: Mary Keeley
I have read a few submissions lately in which the writer used a flashback in the first several chapters of their novel, and I thought maybe it’s time for a flashback refresher. Personally, I enjoy a great flashback in a story. But that’s the key point. What makes a flashback great?
Since a flashback scene is “old news” and lacks imminent action or tension, there must be compelling reasons for its presence because it interrupts the pace of the story. Two reasons are:
- It gives insight into a character’s current motivation and emotional state.
- It shows 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.
Don’t shy away from using a flashback because you aren’t sure how to make it work. Done well, a flashback adds depth to a main character’s struggle and insight into his or her actions and emotional responses in the story. Strong reasons to include them. Here are tips for writing an effective flashback:
- Write it as a complete scene.
- It must be written in a way that keeps readers’ interest.
- Never use a flashback in the early chapters of your book, when you should be busy introducing the main characters and building the action. The resulting effect will be to confuse readers and interrupt the action before it has time to engage readers in the story.
- Insert a flashback after a powerful scene in the novel. It must directly impact the current action of the story.
- Give the time and place in which the flashback takes place in the first sentence. Readers who have to concentrate on trying to figure out where and when the flashback scene is taking place will become frustrated and may disengage from your current story and stop caring about your characters. If that happens, they might quit reading.
- Use correct verb tense for the entire flashback to clarify for readers when the flashback begins and ends.
- Wait to insert a flashback as long as possible, that is, until the critical moment when readers absolutely must have the backstory information before they can move ahead to follow the action. Leaving some mystery in the story keeps readers turning pages to get clues. They want to worry about the protagonist. The longer you hold off, the more readers will stay engaged in your novel. This explains why a flashback inserted in the first half of a book doesn’t work. If readers have all the answers too early, there is nothing to keep them interested.
Can you think of another compelling reason to use a flashback? Do you recall a book you read in which a flashback was used in a powerfully effective way? If you have used a flashback in your WIP, why might you need to rethink its construction or placement?
A flashback can add depth and intensity to your novel. The key is to do it well. Here are some tips. Click to Tweet.
Why you should never use flashback in the first half of you novel, and other tips. Click to Tweet.