In my post two weeks ago, I covered different types of flashbacks (using only one, several, or telling a whole story through them – a revolutionary way of telling a story, in my opinion). Today, we’re taking a look at actually writing the things.
If you haven’t read Part 1 in the series, I’d highly recommend checking that out here first.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s dive right in!
For every super tall building, there’s a huge foundation hidden below the surface. It sometimes stretches even further than the building is tall. And yet, no one sees it.
That’s the same with character backstory – and, inadvertently, flashbacks.
Flashbacks, as we covered in the last post, are literally us flashing back in time to see something in the past.
aka all that fun tragic backstory.
Before you really get into the writing of a flashback, however, there are 3 basic questions you need to ask:
Is this Important?
The first – and probably the most important – thing to remember when you even begin to so much as consider writing a flashback is: is it important?
The tried and true method I have is to simply ask myself if the story would be any different if I pulled that scene out. This goes for all scenes in a story, but applying it to your flashback idea will reveal whether or not you really need to insert one.
Flashbacks are even more finicky when it comes to this rule than just general scenes. Sometimes, people can get away with a useless scene or two, (though I wouldn’t recommend trying to do that on purpose if you want your story to be the best it can be) but you cannot do that with flashbacks. It simply doesn’t work.
Flashbacks literally drag your reader out of the main storyline. It pretty much rips away all the changes the character has undergone and trials they’ve conquered (or, you know, at least survived 😂) thus far in the story. This is big, because the reader has gone through all of that with them. They’ve cheered for this character at every twist and turn, and now, it’s so far back in time, literally none of that has happened to the character. You need to have a very good reason to take the reader there.
If the flashback doesn’t reveal something important to the story and the character, or it doesn’t move the plot forward in some way, you don’t need it.
Is this A Good Spot for it?
You can’t just throw a flashback in anywhere. A big thing in stories is cause-and-effect. Don’t have a cause? No effect. When it comes to flashbacks, the flashback is the effect part. So, ask yourself: what caused it?
The flashback needs a prompt. A reason why the character remembers it, is reflecting on it, or is revealing it.
A flashback needs a cause, because, without it, they’ll feel random and out of place in your story – something you don’t want.
Does it Make Sense?
This question is a bit of a combination of the last two. But seriously, consider it: does it make sense to reveal this thing that happened in the past? And, if it does, to go back to the last question, does it make sense to do it now in the story?
If you’re going to have a flashback, you want it to be in the spot primed with the optimal amount of punch-in-the-gut feels for the reader.
Don’t waste this opportunity by just randomly throwing out your flashback scene in the middle of the story.
A big thing when it comes to writing flashbacks is transitioning right. You have to take the reader from the now in the storyline to the then, making it clear that we’re going back in time while keeping it from being jolting. Then, after the flashback is over, we have to take the reader from then back to now, once again making it clear, and, again, keeping it from being jolting.
More simply put: you need to make your transitions as you jump back and forward in time clear. There are a couple ways you can do this:
- Chapter breaks! Chapter breaks are pretty much a flashback’s best friend. A reader will unconsciously associate a new chapter with a new section of the story. It’s a lot easier to do a seamless transition by starting it with a new chapter. It innately tells the reader This is a new part! New stuff is happening! New places! and they’ll easily slip into the mind of your character from the past.
- Go to the opposite end of the spectrum, and make it as jolting as possible. Sometimes, that’s a great way to make it clear to the reader that something new is going on here and they’re no longer in Kansas – so to speak. 😛 The way you do this is simply through the character. Usually, something happens to the character, and they’ll have their flashback. This usually is done by the memory being triggered by something in the story.
- Utilize your format! If you want a smooth transition, a good way is to switch up the format of your book to show that you’re not in the same place in the story. Italics are a great way to indicate this change.
- Another way is to simply have the character themselves begin telling the story. I wouldn’t consider this a flashback, exactly, unless it changes from the character’s dialogue to a scene in itself.
- Prime the reader to expect it.
How to Prime the Reader for Flashbacks
If you have a flashback that’s important, and is part of your character’s backstory, an utterly fantastic thing to do is to actually your reader to want the flashback. They’re desperate to know what happened in the past.
How can you do this?
I’ve written some posts on foreshadowing – which you can check out here, here, and here – so I won’t talk too much about it. But if you start hinting at the fact that the character had something happen to them in the past that is affecting their choices now, then the reader will start to want to know what that is. Especially because it’s usually something traumatic. 😆
When you finally reveal the thing of the past, the readers already know this thing matters. It matters to the character, and therefore, to the reader. They’ve been waiting to see what this thing is, and they are dying to find out.
Using a flashback fully immerses the reader in the scene, which can be a great way to reveal a traumatic memory. Plus, they’ve been expecting it for a while now, so it will make sense to them to have it in the story, and it’ll make it even easier to transition to it.
Find the Mood
Another component of flashbacks is the type of flashback it is. If it’s a sad and traumatic backstory flashback, you’re going to have to nail that mood. Flashbacks will stand out in the reader’s mind after they finish your story, simply due to the fact that they were out of place linearly in the storyline. It’s like a scene that’s outside looking in. You want to make it as memorable as possible for more than just that fact, though.
If you’ve gotten everything else right so far – it’s important, it’s in a place that makes sense for it to be revealed, the readers are dying to know what this is – then you already have some expectations in place that you need to live up to.
The big 3 groups of flashbacks in stories are:
The exception to this is if you’re using flashbacks to tell a story in and of itself – like I discussed here in the last post. But, in general, I’ve noticed that most flashbacks tend to fall into one of those 3 groups.
Lucky for you, I’m actually doing a post on nailing the mood of your scene in 2 weeks! It’s not exactly a part 3 to this series, but it definitely will tie in. Make sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss that! 😉
Flashbacks can honestly bring so much depth to a piece of writing; it gives the reader a front-row seat in watching the scene that made the character who they are today. This insight into the character makes all their actions seem believable, and, even more importantly, it makes the character seem real.
If you liked this post, you might also like:
Did you like this part 2 of my posts on flashbacks? (personally speaking, I think it was pretty epic 😉)
What’s your favourite story you’ve read that has flashbacks in it?
Are you excited for the next post?