Become a Better Writer

Flashbacks: To Be or Not to Be

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–by Sondi Warner, Writer/Blogger for Wrought Iron Reads



In my career as a ghostwriter, I’ve been tasked with creating all kinds of stories and fortunate to pick up a thing or two along the way. I used to have a bad habit of throwing in random flashbacks. I’d hear the tinkle of a harp and envision the image blurring as my characters stepped back in time. D’ah, movie magic! It doesn’t really work the same off the silver screen!

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Source: Tumblr

I’ve seen a number of authors use flashbacks effectively, and I’ve seen a fair share make the same mistakes I used to make—flashing back merely to hear that mental harp playing. So, I want to help you decide if your narrative needs that italicized backtrack or if you can make better use of the word count in some other way.

As a rule, anything you put in should move your story forward, and flashbacks are no exception. If you’re just trying to provide backstory, then you could incorporate it into dialogue. An even subtler approach would be to build complex characters whose personalities and history are shown in body language and behavior, rather than expressly told.

A character who has a history of abuse or neglect, forced to take care of himself, might be written as a brash, hot-tempered alpha male. His distrustful nature and difficulty expressing love and affection would be more effective than a flashback to him as a youngster being let down by a parent. Having him confess the sordid details of his suffering would be more interesting, too.

A career-focused heroine might show she’s had one too many bad breakups by her complete disinterest in the guy everyone else considers a catch. Wouldn’t her scathing rebuttals to his most romantic overtures make for more fun reading?

Another misuse of flashbacks is the surprise plot twist. After running along smoothly for thousands of words, suddenly nothing is as it appears because *cue the harps* SURPRISE! Ten years ago some arbitrary event changes everything! Now, I can’t caution you against this move entirely. When done to proper effect, man, is it spectacular!

Source: Montages Magazine

But, sometimes it just feels heavy-handed. Why not use foreshadowing, instead? Dropping Easter eggs throughout the narrative takes your readers through plot twists without leaving them with whiplash. Think: The Sixth Sense. When the big reveal happened at the end of the movie, EVERYTHING CAME TOGETHER. The multitude of previously unnoticed hints were brought to light and made the unexpected turning point make perfect sense.

Using flashbacks to spring a reveal like that on a reader can have the opposite effect, leaving readers feeling the new information came out of nowhere and doesn’t fit the narrative.

When not to use flashbacks-

There are a number of other ways to get writing flashbacks wrong, but answering the following questions will help you decide if your flashback is to be or not to be:

  1. Does your story begin with a flashback? Why? A story should begin at the very last minute. In other words, open your book with the inciting event that sets the rest of the plot in motion. Most often, this event does not happen in your character’s distant past.
  2. Does your flashback explain your character or world? First, see if you can omit the scene entirely and the story still make sense. If not, see if you can deliver this information using dialogue or in other ways.
  3. Does your flashback feel out of place? Experiment with taking it out, moving it around or distributing the details of the flashback throughout the book in other ways.
  4. Is your flashback associated with a major turning point in the story? Simply must have a flashback? Ensure you’re not catching readers unawares. Use foreshadowing to build up to the shift in storyline.

When in doubt, I would suggest pulling the flashbacks and trying other ways to move the story forward, but don’t be afraid to experiment. The only way to get this right is to keep at it. What has been your experience with writing flashback scenes? Tell me in the comment section below or Tweet me @WIRUniverse, #Flashbacks. Happy writing!

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4 thoughts on “Flashbacks: To Be or Not to Be

    1. When done effectively, it’s a thing of beauty. When done wrong, it’s glaringly wrong. 🙂 It always helps to experiment, play around with scenes and see what works best for your particular story. I definitely don’t rule them out entirely. 😉


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