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How to use Flashback in writing
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- Sometimes, especially when a story takes place over a period of years or has its origins in a long-ago event, flashback is a useful tool in story-showing.
- Flashback is not simply a character recalling what happened. A true flashback takes the characters and the reader back in time to the event, so we see the scene as it really was and hear the actual words (not the characters’ memories of what was said)--just as we do when describing present-day action.
- Before using flashback at all, consider whether it’s really necessary. Flashback seldom moves a story forward. In fact, it slows the action of the main story and can bring it to a dead halt from which it will never recover. Flashback does not develop character; while it can illustrate character by showing past actions, that’s important in only a limited number of stories.
- A flashback is not appropriate if the author’s intent is simply to insert the character’s history. In that case, a one-sentence reference to the past may be more effective in accomplishing the purpose than is a lengthy flashback.
- Flashback should be used only if the past action illustrates motivation for the main story and if it is necessary for the reader to see that action occurring in order to understand the present-day story.
- Because we’re using narrative within the flashback, it’s sometimes confusing to keep time straight and make it clear to the reader just what time period of the story we’re in at the moment. But there are techniques to make this easier for the reader.
The rules of using flashback
- Warn the reader of what’s coming; make sure she knows she’s about to enter a flashback. You can do this by using past perfect tense during the shift from the current story to the flashback, then changing to past tense for the body of the recollection, and returning briefly to past perfect to finish the flashback and return to the current story. In many cases, a sentence or two of summary at the beginning and end of the flashback are necessary to set the scene and establish place and time.
- Make sure the transition from present to past is logical. Memories don’t come out of nowhere, so just sitting still with time on her hands probably isn’t enough to send the heroine into a torrent of recall, particularly if the memories are unpleasant. What brought the past event to mind? What’s making her think about it right now?
- Be certain the placement of the flashback makes sense. Does the character have time for the luxury of memory? While the heroine’s being chased down the street by the bad guys, she’s not likely to be reconsidering her life. If she’s holed up in a closet, holding her breath and hoping they’ll overlook her, she might.
- Don’t use flashback too early, and never start a story with a flashback. Get the present-day story well-established first. By focusing on the main story, you’ll build sympathy for your characters and reader interest about what happened in their past. There’s plenty of time to fill in the background. If you’ve done a good job of making your characters sympathetic, by the time you take your reader on that journey she’ll be happy to accompany you.
About this Document
These pages help explain what flashback is and how it can be used effectively in creative writing.