Flashbacks are one of the most misunderstood literary devices in the writer’s toolbox. In fact, many writers shy away from using them, or champion a “rule” that they should never be used in serious writing, because they’ve seen them done so poorly in the past. Herein lies the conundrum: most of the time, when a flashback scene is done well, you don’t notice it at all.
If you’ve thought about using a flashback scene in your writing but haven’t been quite sure where to begin, you’re in the right place. We’ll demystify the purpose of this device in literature, show you how to write flashbacks in your writing, and give you some examples of flashback in literature to help you on your journey.
What is a flashback in writing?
A flashback is a break in the chronological events of a story. It happens when you take a step away from the current events of your plot to explore something that’s already happened in another point in time. Flashbacks occur whenever you want to show the readers something in the past, rather than telling them about it.
These are often events that happened before the book begins—something within a character’s past, or even the past of one of their ancestors. Sometimes, however, your flashback scene might be to an earlier event in your narrative—for example, if some past event that occurred early on in the narrative was later referenced by your main character, so that it takes on new meaning. You might see these types of flashback scenes being called “external analepsis” (outside of the story) and “internal analepsis” (within the present story).
In other words, an external flashback is an event that takes place before the first page of your book. An internal flashback is a throwback to something from earlier in your book that the readers have already seen once before.
Why use flashbacks in writing fiction?
So now that we understand the flashback definition, let’s look at why we write flashbacks in fiction and some of the things they bring to our writing.
1. To give depth to characters
A flashback is a great way to enhance the reader’s understanding of your character’s back story. You can use them to explain why certain flaws or insecurities came to be and why the protagonist and other characters make the choices that they do.
Some examples might be if a character is recently divorced, you could write a flashback that shows how that divorce happened and how it affected your character. Or if you’re writing a wicked villain, they can give your audience a sense of what made them this way, and even encourage them to begin to sympathize with them. This insight into the character’s life will make your story even more powerful and engaging.
This is a great way to bring complexity to inhabitants of your narrative who might otherwise be flat and uninteresting, and communicate a wider context for the events of the story.
2. To communicate exposition
Using flashbacks can be a good tool for exposition in your story. Instead of explaining that your protagonist once trusted their sibling and ended up embarrassing themselves in front of their crush, and that’s why they no longer trust them, why not show us with a memory instead? By letting the past events that underlie your plot play out in real time, you give your readers and your characters a more intimate connection that will make your reader invest in the plot.
You won’t want to use this literary device every time you need the readers to understand new information; good exposition is a mix of different techniques that communicate with the audience in different ways. Generally speaking, it’s best to use flashbacks sparingly in your writing. However, a well-placed flashback might be just what your book needs to elicit a powerful, gut-wrenching reaction and make the story that much more potent.
3. To build tension
Flashbacks are a mainstay of the suspense genre. They can be a useful tool for slowly feeding information to the readers little by little as they navigate their way through your plot. For example, if you’re writing a murder mystery, your book will likely open with someone being murdered. Now the protagonist has to figure out what happened.
You can use a series of scenes to reveal past events one piece at a time, casting suspicion on a range of different characters and bringing new motivations to light. These serve to illuminate the character’s backstory and build up suspense as the hero gets closer and closer to the truth.
4. To create dramatic irony
Dramatic irony happens when the readers understand more about what’s happening than the characters do. You can use flashbacks to create dramatic irony in any genre.
In a romance novel, for example, you might have your protagonist falling in love with his new neighbor—but a snapshot of a few weeks earlier has shown that the neighbor is still in a long-distance relationship with someone else. Now we know something the hero doesn’t. In a horror novel, your protagonist might be preparing their summer cottage for their boyfriend’s arrival once his holiday begins, but the readers know through a flashback that the boyfriend has already been killed on his way there.
By using past events to give the audience more information than the main characters, you create tension and suspense as they watch the inevitable play out before them.
Flashback vs. flash-forward
Flashbacks aren’t the only time disruption you might come across in literature. Sometimes writers use a flash-forward, or a “prolepsis,” to communicate with their readers too. Flash-forwards happen when you take the readers out of the timeline of your central plot and move them forward to a point in time, instead of back.
Often, a flash-forward will open a story, and the events of the plot will take us on a journey towards the predestined conclusion. Sometimes you’ll see flashbacks and flash-forwards being used together effectively to create a broader context. For example, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol uses flashbacks to show Ebeneezer Scrooge’s past, and then a flash-forward to show him his future if he remains on the same path. Both flashbacks and flash-forwards can be used to convey background information and create suspense in your writing, and it’s up to you to decide which one is right for the tale you’re telling.
Flashback vs. dual timelines
Sometimes past events become so big that they take on a life of their own. In this case, you might consider writing other stories that interconnect, rather than one primary storyline and one flashback. This is a good thing to keep in mind if you begin writing a flashback and find you have more to say than you expected.
In a book with dual time periods, you’ll have two completely separate narratives with their own character and story arcs. However, a common thread will link them together. For example, one of your storylines might follow a character as a teenager, while the other follows him as an old man. Or, your stories might both take place in the same house, but fifty years apart.
Dual storylines work best if one narrative influences the events of the other. If your stories are set within the same house, for example, the readers will be able to see how the events of the later story were affected and influenced by the events of the earlier one.
The Paris Library, by Janet Skeslien Charles, is an example of a novel that uses dual timelines. One storyline takes place during World War II, while the other takes place in modern times. Eventually, we get to see how the characters from these two narratives come together.
How to start a story with a flashback scene
Flashbacks are popular ways to open a piece of writing; unfortunately, they’re difficult to pull off. When done clumsily, beginning a narrative with a memory can set the readers up for a different story than the one you’ve really chosen to tell, leaving them feeling disoriented and cheated.
However, a writer can use these scenes effectively to start a story or chapter as long as they’re short and seamless, and they set up questions for the reader about the road that lies ahead of them. Here’s an example of an effective opening flashback:
When I was a kid, my father taught me how to walk along the wire-thin fence that ran around his farm. Back straight, hips square; keep your eyes on the destination, not on your feet. I never thought I would need that skill again, until today.
This flashback example works well because the boundaries of time are clearly defined: “When I was a kid” puts us in the protagonist’s childhood, and “until today” brings us promptly back to the present. It’s contained enough that it doesn’t fully immerse the readers in a story separate from the one ahead of them, and it immediately raises questions about what’s going to happen next.
Beginning with a longer flashback, say, several paragraphs or more, can be disorienting, because they’re necessarily whisked away from the flashback just as they’re starting to feel comfortable in it. For that reason, if your flashback begins your narrative, it shouldn’t take up a significant amount of space in your first chapter; you’ll find it more effective to use just a few lines rather than a full scene.
In general, however, try to limit your flashbacks to later in the plot after you’ve fully established your characters, plot, and world.
Flashback examples in literature
There are near-limitless ways to incorporate flashbacks into your scenes. Here are a few effective examples of flashback in storytelling.
1. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
Paula Hawkins uses several flashbacks in her novel The Girl on the Train. The protagonist, a well-meaning narrator but an unreliable one due to her alcoholism, tries to piece together what she knows about the disappearance of a missing woman. In one example, the protagonist sees the damage done to a wall after she drunkenly swung a golf club at it. Later, she revisits the same scene in another flashback, and the mists begin to clear—the flashback reveals the damage was actually done when her husband swung a golf club at her head and lied about it after, knowing she wouldn’t remember.
Here, flashback serves to slowly feed information to both the character and the reader. Even though we’re jumping around in time, the reader stays right beside the protagonist as she digs through the rubble of her own memories in search of the truth.
2. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by J. K. Rowling
In her Harry Potter universe, J. K. Rowling invented the “pensieve,” a clever device that allows people to live within other people’s memories. Its first appearance is in the fourth book of the series, where the protagonist stumbles upon it and realizes he’s watching a series of memories from before his time.
This isn’t technically a flashback because the reader is seeing the backstory unfold through Harry’s eyes, staying by his side in his present time. However, looking through the pensieve does everything a good flashback should: it reveals new information from the past that affects our understanding of the present and broadens what we know about the characters. The pensieve makes an appearance several more times throughout the series, each time offering new insight and depth into the plot.
3. An Irish Country Girl, by Patrick Taylor
This novel makes use of one of literature’s greatest and oldest expository devices: storytelling. The protagonist, an elderly housekeeper, tells a group of children a story from her childhood. As she begins, the plot is rooted firmly in the present moment. The storyteller interacts with her setting and with the children around her, engaging in a dialogue on the page and enjoying the reactions of her audience. However, the narrative gradually slips away from the present and becomes immersed in the story she’s telling; the memory from the past comes to the forefront for the reader.
This works a little like dual timelines, but instead of clearly distinguishing them through different sections of chapters, Taylor gives the past and present a dreamlike fluidity as the reader slips in and out of each one.
How to write a flashback in your story
Ready to use flashbacks in your own writing? Let’s look at a few tips to keep in mind during your first draft.
Ensure your flashback moves the story forward
The golden rule of writing flashbacks is that they must contribute in some way to your primary narrative. They should reveal important information about your characters, settings, or conflicts that you can’t get across as effectively any other way.
Even though your flashback is taking your reader backwards in time, that doesn’t mean the story’s trajectory should start moving backwards, too. By using flashbacks to bring new context to your plot and your characters, your reader should feel the momentum surging forward as the plot rumbles towards its inevitable climax. Often, this will feel like a piece of the grand puzzle slotting into place.
Use a triggering device
Think about the way we experience memories in real life. Usually they’re triggered by one of our senses. We might see someone that reminds us of a person we once knew, hear a piece of music that brings back a painful or pleasure full memory, smell a loved one’s signature perfume, reminisce over the taste of a beloved family recipe, or experience textures or temperature changes that trigger tactile memories.
You can use moments like these ones to give you an entry and move into a flashback. This creates a smoother transition so you’re not just dropping a new scene onto the page.
Use alternating tenses
One good way to show your reader that they’ve crossed over into a different time is by varying the tense in which you write your flashback. If your primary storyline is written in past tense—he said, she said, and so forth—you can try writing your flashback in present tense—he says, she says. If you’re writing your main storyline in present tense, you can do the opposite and switch to past tense to write your flashback.
When tense shifts in a flashback scene, it triggers a subconscious shift in the reader so they understand a transition has taken place. When you switch back to the central plot, the shift in narrative tense will signal to the reader that they’ve crossed back into the present.
Consider dual timelines
If you find yourself adding more and more flashbacks to your writing, it might be that the time period you’re alluding to needs a narrative of its own. This gives you the freedom to stretch your story’s legs within the flashback, getting to know the characters that populate it better than you would in just one scene.
When writing a book with dual timelines, think about the way your two stories will interact. Do you bring two characters together at the end of the book? Does one stumble upon a secret the other fought to keep hidden? Does a choice made by one character create unexpected problems for another? Your present-day tale and your flashback will function as two sides of a larger, thematically linked whole.
Should flashbacks be written in italics?
Generally, you shouldn’t need to write your flashbacks in different font styles because there will already be enough clues in the text. However, you might consider using italics for any in-flashback dialogue, instead of quotation marks. Quotation marks in a story ground your dialogue in the present moment, so italicizing speech in a flashback shows the reader that the dialogue isn’t actually happening right there in front of them—it’s happening in a time that’s already passed.
Use flashbacks to broaden the world of your story
Flashbacks get a bad rap in the literary world, but used effectively, they can be an amazing tool for creating depth, tension, and resonance in your work. Try out some of these flashback tips and tricks to discover surprising new things about your central characters and more ways to explore your story world.