SCENE 18: Special Scenes: Flashback Scenes: Dos and Don’ts

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Flashbacks Effective in Deepening Novel

When you are writing or revising a novel, you want to be sure your story is believable and the characters motivated. Often, this means you must tell something that happened before the novel began. In other words, a flashback is a bit of back story that is presented out of chronological order. The flashback relates to the current scene, deepens character motivations or otherwise illuminates the current action of the novel.

First, write the scene with the current action and make it as fully developed as possible. If you’re going to interrupt the on-going action of the novel to insert this back story then at least give the reader a full scene that will keep their interest.

Then, write the flashback as a fully developed scene. Again, if you are messing with the time line or chronology of the novel, it should be done in such a way to keep the reader’s interest. This doesn’t mean it has to take up pages; a paragraph of a mini-scene might be perfectly reasonable. On the other hand, the flashback might need to be several pages long in this particular novel. Do what works.

Now, integrate the two scenes. Figure out where exactly in the novel the reader needs this bit of back story in order to understand what is really going on. Put the flashback as close to that as you can. Then smooth out the transitions.

The trickiest part of a flashback is getting into in and out of it. Try to do it with a single sentence both times. One sentence signaling a time shift, and then go straight into past tense like you would in any scene of a novel.

I remember that cloudy evening, the night before the tornado. Dogs whined restlessly, cattle kicked over buckets of full milk, and chickens scratched endlessly at the dust, all warnings that something bad was coming.

Coming out of it, use a single sentence again.

I walked away without a scratch on the outside, but felt like a stray splinter of wood had stabbed my heart. Now, looking at Jeremiah, the coward of that night of horror, I couldn’t believe he was asking me to be brave.

(Wow! Where did THAT story come from? I was just trying to think of something exciting, to demonstrate that the flashback needs to be a high point or a low point in a character’s life, something worthy of a dedicated flashback. There also needed to be some emotional hook, so you can sense that the Jeremiah’s behavior during the tornado was cowardly and that affects the current scene.)

Ways that Flashbacks can go Wrong

  • Too early. Too often, I see a flashback in the second paragraph of a draft! No! Or, on the second page. No! Or the entire second chapter is a flashback. No! Only use a flashback at the point where it will directly impact the ongoing action.
  • Too much exposition. Flashbacks should give the reader a scene, not pages of compressed exposition. Work the facts they need to know into the flashback portion of the scene just like you would into any scene.
  • Watch verb tenses. The conditional tense that uses the “would” construction is awkward and should be avoided in flashbacks. Sometimes, you want to indicate that, for example, watching fireflies in the evening was a habit of your family. You write something like this:

    Every evening we would gather on the lawn and wait for dusk. We would slap at a few mosquitoes, would murmur quietly in the heat, and would sip ice tea. We would wait until the fireflies would start winking, and then the chase would begin.

    That’s too awkward. Instead, use the one “would” construction and go straight into the past tense. Use a single “would” to come out of it.

    “Every evening we would gather on the lawn and wait for dusk. We slapped at a few mosquitoes, murmured quietly in the heat and sipped ice tea. We waited until the fireflies started winking and the chase would begin.”

  • The flashback has no connection to the current time in the novel. Why include this flashback? It must up the stakes, provide motivation, increase the emotional tension; it must relate to the current novel in a vital way.

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1 Comment
  • Lisa D.
    October 31, 2012

    Best exposition of the flashback in fiction I’ve seen so far (and I’ve researched many). I especially appreciate the advice of using only one sentence to enter & exit. Cheers —