Flashbacks: What They are, and Why I’m Obsessed with Them

Have you ever read a book where you’re suddenly taken back in time to see something that happened to the character in the past? That’s called a flashback. We’re going back in time in a flash to see something that happened to the character, also in a flash. It usually only lasts a single moment in real-time, as the character is just having a memory flash through their mind. But, as the reader, we get to see the whole scene play out.

Flashbacks are a great way to insert backstory, or a character’s ghost. There are other ways to do that, of course, but sometimes the best way is to completely immerse the reader into the scene to get the full impact of the emotion of the character.

Flashbacks are generally reserved for important scenes; no reader wants to leave the storyline just for some random thing that happened in the past. Those are the sort of things conveyed in passing, as a line of dialogue or a mention in the story. They don’t need a full-on scene of their own.

Most people know at least that much about flashbacks. Today, I’m diving in a little deeper than that general description to see the meat and bones of a flashback: what they are, when they should be used, and if there’s even such a thing as over-using them.

It’s hard for me to remember a time when I wasn’t obsessed with flashbacks, but in reality, it only was about 1 year ago that I truly began to see their full potential.

How Much Can Flashbacks be Used?

An excellent question.

Source

Once

There’s the option of using a flashback only once in a story. (We’re ignoring the none option, because we’re talking about actually using them right now. But anyway.) Usually, it’s to reveal something that’s very important to the story: a ghost, most likely.

When I talk about a character’s ghost, I mean something that happened in the past that has haunted them ever since. It’s something that changed them, and because of that, it’s been affecting every single choice and action the character makes.

Sometimes, flashbacks are just used to cover something that isn’t as important. For instance, some writes like to begin their story en medias res – in the middle of things. They jump straight into the action, and later, they have to backtrack – or else use a flashback – to explain to readers how the character ended up in that position.

I have seen TV shows do this before. They’ll begin the episode with something super dramatic – then have the words 5 hours earlier flash across the screen or something. 😆 It is actually a pretty effective way to draw readers in. I’ve even started a story myself where I did that, going back 30 minutes in time to show how the characters got there and then picked up the story from where I left it off. Fun.

Several Times

I would not recommend just stopping with an even number of flashback scenes if you’re going to have a few – like two, for instance. It feels rather incomplete.

Usually, if you need more than one, you have a couple others up your sleeve as well. This means that flashbacks are either:

  1. a part of your storytelling
  2. or a part of the story itself.

This can mean that:

  1. you’re revealing the important backstory of the character/their past throughout the story.
  2. or the character possibly forgot memories that are important to the story, and during the course of the story, must remember them.

Those are the general types of stories I’ve seen that use flashbacks, but don’t take those as the be all, end all.

A Story Itself

Up till a year ago, I never really considered exactly how much flashbacks could potentially be used for. I’d always thought of them as up to just a couple at most during a story. They’re a tool to be utilized, and nothing more.

But then, I read a book that changed that.

100 Days of Sunlight, by Abbie Emmons.

If you’ve been around for a while, you’ll remember that I did a (pretty epic, if I do say so myself) post on the story when it came out, as I was part of the launch team. I did a bit of an unusual style of review, and then got to interview Abbie herself. (If you want to check that post out, you can do so here!) But that aside, I actually never discussed the flashbacks used in the story in that post.

I remember when I first read this story, the first flashback struck me as a little off. I guess I was sensing that there was more to it than I was being shown in just the first one. I took note of it, and moved on. But then, I stumbled upon another flashback. And then another.

I slowly realized that an entire story was being told. One that happened in the past, where one of the side characters had to conquer their own personal demons so that they could help the character in the present.

And it just completely blew my mind.

I had never seen flashbacks used in such a way before. It was like discovering the 3-Act Story Structure for the first time. It was suddenly a new, radical way to tell a story. In fact, I actually went on to use that format in my own NaNoWriMo story last year. The flashbacks were my favourite part to write, and were necessary to the story, as the character had forgotten those memories. They would influence her choices and actions as time went on.

So, How do You Write Good Flashbacks, then?

Another excellent question. I’ll spare you the GIF this time.

We’ve already covered quite a bit today, and knowing how to write a good flashback is an extensive subject in and of itself. I’ll cover that in my next post 2 weeks from now as a Part 2 to this post. 😉

Don’t forget to save this post for later!

To answer the question I put forth at the beginning of the post: I don’t believe that there’s such a thing as overusing flashbacks, as long as your present-time story has more (or, at the very least, equal) ‘screen time’.


If you enjoyed this post, you might also like:

Foreshadowing: The Art of being A Ninja

Finding the Time to Write {Case Study}

How to (and not to) Write Foreshadowing


If you want more awesome writing tips, make sure to subscribe! You’ll get a free 7-day course on how to defeat writer’s block butt, emails with exclusive insider info, and the monthly password to my Resources page! 😃 Can’t wait to see you on the inside!

Do you like flashbacks?

Have you ever written any?

Are you excited for the next post?

-Julia

Photo by Shelby Milleron Unsplash

8 thoughts on “Flashbacks: What They are, and Why I’m Obsessed with Them

  1. Yes! I love this post! I’ve never understood why flashbacks get so much hate. They definitely can be written badly, but I think that they can play such an important part in a story when they’re done well. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. For sure! They’re rather annoying when written badly, but if pulled off right, they can seriously take your story’s epic-ness levels up a notch 👌

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you!! I love flashbacks!!! I love them an unhealthy amount and other people can pry them from my /cold dead hands/. I love using a character’s past to reveal why they are the way they are today or to reveal history between two characters. Flashbacks have fascinated ever since I wrote a story in which the past was very important, and ever since I read a novel where there were basically two separate timelines and the story switched back and forth between the past and the present. Stories that have an unusual structure are amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 100% agree with literally EVERYTHING you just said! Hand me a book that includes flashbacks in a way that makes them necessary to the storyline, and you’ve pretty much captured my heart forever. I can’t help myself from considering stories from different angles now of whether some of it should be told in flashbacks instead, because I just love them so much 😂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting post, Julia. I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts on incorporating flashbacks into your story. 🙂

    I also have another book that you may want to check out (flashback figure strongly in the narrative style): Love and Other Words by Christina Lauren. It’s a star-crossed romance novel, but really well-done.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you 😃 I’m definitely looking forward to posting part 2 (I really love flashbacks 😝)

      Thanks for the book recommendation! I read the description of it, and love the sound of all the flashbacks.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.