Writing Flashbacks: How To Make Them Work In Fiction

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The conventional wisdom about flashbacks goes something like this: use them sparingly, if at all. It’s good advice, because a mishandled flashback can stunt the flow of your narrative, lose a reader’s interest, harm suspension of disbeliefcreate confusion, or cause any number of other problems.

But, don’t be discouraged, flashbacks can work, and they’re worth the risk; a well-constructed scene can add texture to your story, deliver much-needed information to your reader, and provide insight into your characters’ motives.

Anatomy of a flashback

In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins uses a flashback early on to establish the scant but essential backstory between Katniss and Peeta, two of the book’s most central figures. Throughout the story, their relationship fuels both plot and character development, and this moment acts as such a memorable beginning that readers never quite forget it, despite the couple’s amazing and terrifying journey.

Creating a strong framework

Because a flashback halts the forward motion of the narrative, the reader must care about the character before you throw the car in reverse. Collins’ flashback comes in Chapter 2, which might seem early, but we’re already hooked into the action of the story and tied to the fate of the character. Because Katniss has just volunteered to take her sister’s place in the Games — a death sentence for sure. And she’s about to find out who else she’ll have to face in the arena.

Peeta Mellark! Oh, no, I think. Not him… I try to convince myself it doesn’t matter. Peeta Mellark and I are not friends. Not even neighbors. We don’t speak. Our only real interaction happened years ago. He’s probably forgotten it. But I haven’t and I know I never will…

Flashbacks slow the story's momentum, so the reader must already care about the character. Click To Tweet

The first sentences

There are two things to note about a strong first sentence of a flashback. First, it’s a transition, so it needs to be strategic. Whether it’s smooth or abrupt, seamless or jarring, it should be that way intentionally. Maybe this flashback comes to your character in a natural way when a sense of smell triggers the memory. Or maybe they’re thrust back into a tense and painful moment in time, caught completely off guard. The effect is different, so use this transition point to full advantage.

Second, signal the reader that you’re going back in time; if you fail to do this, readers may not even recognize the switch and could be confused. This signal is achieved by changing the verb tense. If your narrative is in past tense, the first sentence of the flashback should be in past perfect. This grammatical change is essential; it tells your reader that they’re going back in time to a specific moment. You only have to maintain it for one or two sentences, and then you can go back to simple past tense so that the reader experiences it in real time.

You can clearly signal a flashback using a change in verb tense. Click To Tweet

If you’re writing in present tense, the shift goes from present to simple past. That’s how it’s handled in our example from The Hunger Games. Notice that the opening line of this scene may not seem a remarkable transition sentence; but in the context (unfortunately, too long to post here) it serves as world building. For several paragraphs, Collins develops the bleary, hopeless world of District 12, in which Katniss is failing even to find food for her starving mother and sister, she’s tried selling threadbare clothes for a few coins, but to no avail. It’s the stark stage upon which Peeta is soon to appear.

On the afternoon of my encounter with Peeta Mellark, the rain was falling in relentless icy sheets… I passed the baker’s, the smell of fresh bread was so overwhelming I felt dizzy… I lifted the lid to the baker’s trash bin and found it spotlessly, heartlessly bare.

Suddenly a voice was screaming at me and I looked up to see the baker’s wife, telling me to move on and did I want her to call the Peacekeepers and how sick she was of having those brats from the Seam pawing through her trash. The words were ugly and I had no defense. As I carefully replaced the lid and backed away, I noticed him, a boy with blond hair peering out from behind his mother’s back.

The middle action

The meat of a flashback is storytelling, but as with the transition sentence, it should serve a specific purpose. Every word, every line, should be telling your reader essential information about your characters, their world, and the emotional landscape that formed who they have become. Otherwise, it’s a missed opportunity.

Similarly, the way it’s written is just as important as what’s written. If you want your readers to indulge this stalling of the forward motion of the narrative, you need to engage them. An effective way of doing this is to write it as an active scene, put them into the moment rather than summarizing it. In short, show them, don’t tell them. You’ll give them essential information and tie them more strongly to the plight of your character. Look how much new information — about the past, present, and future of both characters — we can glean from this middle section of Collins’ flashback scene:

His mother went back into the bakery, grumbling, but he must have been watching me as… the realization that I’d have nothing to take home had finally sunk in…

There was a clatter in the bakery and I heard the woman screaming again and the sound of a blow, and I vaguely wondered what was going on. Feet sloshed toward me through the mud… It was the boy. In his arms, he carried two large loaves of bread that must have fallen into the fire because the crusts were scorched black… The boy never even glanced my way, but I was watching him. Because of the bread, because of the red weal that stood out on his cheekbone. What had she hit him with? My parents never hit us. I couldn’t even imagine it. The boy took one look back to the bakery as if checking that the coast was clear, then… he threw a loaf of bread in my direction. The second quickly followed, and he sloshed back to the bakery, closing the kitchen door tightly behind him…

It didn’t occur to me until the next morning that the boy might have burned the bread on purpose. Might have dropped the loaves into the flames, knowing it meant being punished, and then delivered them to me.

The last sentences

The last sentences of the flashback mark another important transition. As with the earlier transition, be strategic in the way you bring your reader back to the main storyline. If it’s abrupt, it should be that way for a reason — is she startled back to the present? What did she miss? If it’s gradual, easing the character and reader back to the present, what is the lingering emotion? Does she feel different in the same space she inhabited before the memory?

The form of your flashback (tense, tone, structure) should match its function. Click To Tweet

Remember your grammar shift from the first transition too; once the flashback ends, you’ll return to the verb tense of the main story.

We ate slices of bread for breakfast and headed to school. It was as if spring had come overnight. Warm sweet air. Fluffy clouds…

To this day, I can never shake the connection between this boy, Peeta Mellark, and the bread that gave me hope…


We’re not quite finished yet. Perhaps the most important consideration is how the flashback affects the reader’s understanding of the story and the character’s motivations. Did it cause the reader to reinterpret what they know of the character so far? Will it inform their view of the character going forward? Whatever the effect, be sure it’s there — whether stated or implied — and that you can identify it as the story goes on.

I feel like I owe him something, and I hate owing people. Maybe if I had thanked him at some point, I’d be feeling less conflicted now. I thought about it a couple of times, but the opportunity never seemed to present itself. And now it never will. Because we’re going to be thrown into an arena to fight to the death. Exactly how am I supposed to work in a thank-you in there? Somehow it just won’t seem sincere if I’m trying to slit his throat.

Your flashback needs to reshape reader understanding of character or plot.Click To Tweet

A flashback scene can be a great tool for setting the stage of your story, informing readers, and taking them deeper into the hearts and minds of your characters. Examine the way you’re using flashbacks in your writing; make the most of each element, and you’ll be on your way to constructing strong scenes that captivate your readers’ attention and draw them deeply into the journey of your characters.

How did this exercise help you reevaluate a flashback in your work-in-progress? What did you find surprising here that you’ll incorporate into future scenes? Let me know in the comments. Or, for more great info on flashbacks, try The 4 Decisions That Will Help You Write An Amazing FlashbackNail Your Character’s Backstory With This One Simple Tip and Passing Time Is The Secret To Improving Your Story.


28 thoughts on “Writing Flashbacks: How To Make Them Work In Fiction”

    1. Hi boostwriter,

      Glad you liked the article! I hope you do get a chance to read The Hunger Games trilogy, it’s a great read.

    2. You really should read it. I mean, not to sound cliched, but the book really is even better than the movie.

  1. Such a grand article! Now I won’t be conflicted in writing flashbacks in my writing class. Hunger games sound good, my friend told me about it but I thought it was some kind of clash of clan or chronicle of a throne but now I know well that it is what it’s name depict. Hope I get a chance to read it’s hopefully mystical words

    1. Rida Emma,

      Thanks for your kind words. I think flashbacks are such a great tool when handled skillfully. I’m a big fan of The Hunger Games series, so I hope you like it. Happy writing!

  2. Thank you for this on chapter 30 the story finally had the right setting and pace for a flash back. Well chapter 30 in wattpad probably more like chapter 5 for 10 in normal book Wattpads chapters have to be kept short no more then 2k words as 80% if the readers read on their iphones.) I’m going to ‘finish’ the chapter first and then go back to where I summarized the past events and do some showing of what happened. Writing is joyI wish I’d have started years ago. It’s hard but well worth the effort. I’m getting better at comma placement but still need some help if anyone has the time I’d appreciate if a few test sentences that I can try to fix were sent to my email: vaporlight AT aol DOT com Thank you if you do.

  3. Hi. Interesting article. If one’s story is written in the past tense, what do you think of flashbacks written in the present tense? My protagonist suffers from PTSD and I am using flashbacks to expose the trauma he suffered. Thanks. Wanjoo

    1. Hi Wanjoo,

      I think the technique of switching from past tense to present tense for a flashback can work very well. A flashback should pull readers in and make them feel some sense of urgency and immediacy, and using present tense is a great way to do that. You just want to be sure you keep a sense of consistency with the narrator, but I think it can work beautiful if done right. Thanks for your excellent question, and best of luck to you!


  4. Hey,

    This was really helpful. Thanks a bunch. Just wondering about a few things. What do you think about doing a flashback chapter/chapters and how would you go about doing a flashback if your story is set in the present and the flashback is several thousand years in the past (for example, the main character is an ancient vampire reminiscing about how they met an old friend/lover for the first time)?

    1. Hi Shaun,

      I’m so glad you found this article helpful. I think the idea of using a flashback chapter can work well if used intentionally. The biggest concern is that you don’t want to slow down the forward momentum of the story. For example, a situation in which the flashback chapter or chapters serve to fill in essential backstory or to impart missing information withheld from the main sections of the story can be very successful. The example you describe sounds like it could work well in this regard, as it would be relaying backstory necessary to developing a relationship that’s central to the main story thread. My one caution is to keep to the essentials. An extended flashback scene that strays too far from the necessary details really can slow the pace of the story. Best of luck to you with your book!


  5. Hi Paige
    Excellent article, thank you (I’ve devoured most of standoutbooks and it is truly brilliant).
    What are your thoughts on having a ‘flashback’ (to an extent) as an opener, such as a prologue or opening chapter, where the rest of the story is a continuous present tense timeline.

    For example, I am writing a story in first person present, but want to have an accident in childhood affect the character in a number of ways which pan out over the story. Could an account of the accident in past tense work as a prologue? Or would it prevent the reader from forming an attachment to the character in the present day?

    Thank you

    1. Hi Thom,

      Excellent question. I think a flashback as a prologue could work really well. I would just say, though, unless you’re trying to keep something hidden from the reader, you want as much continuity as possible between the prologue and first chapters, so just be sure to maintain a strong narrative voice from your protagonist so readers can make the jump from past to present. Also, time stamps can be helpful in that instance too if it still feels a bit unclear. Good luck, Thom! This sounds really interesting.


    1. Hi Carol,

      You’re right that the linked article doesn’t have additional information about flashbacks. The link was included because the other article expounds on the idea of verb tense and the way it can change the meaning and impact of a passage. If you’d still like to know more about changing verb tense to introduce a flashback, that’s something we could explore in more detail in a future blog article.


  6. Thank you for your advice! I would like to ask you something, if that’s okay with you. So I am currently writing a book about a killer with supernatural powers. I have reached chapter 19, which happens in the present and we follow the Main Character and his life. So, the chapters 21-25, I have planned on using them as chapters for flashbacks, so we can learn (or get hints) on how the supernatural powers of the characters appeared, and the backstory of the MC, his past that shaped him on who he is today. Those flashbacks that will probably extend up to 15,000 words, are vital for the readers to get a full perspective of what the MC is harboring and why he is like that, the reason he chose to become a killer. The book is part of a duology, but I want to clear some things up on the first book. My question to you is, will that kind of approach work, or should I try something else in order to expose his past?
    Thank you very much, Agapi

    1. Hi Agapi,

      Great question. I like the idea of using flashbacks to impart backstory. My advice to authors about how to develop backstory is usually to use a combination of flashback, exposition, and dialogue and to dole out bits of the backstory over time so that it feels like a well-rounded and natural progression of the story instead of an info dump. I’d be curious to know why this information is coming so late in your story, since it seems like it’s central to your MC’s development. But I do think your idea of using flashback to impart this information could work nicely.


      1. Thank you for your answer and suggestions! To answer your question, I must say that I have tried to use your suggestion in a previous book of mine and it actually worked pretty well, but with this one I am trying to make it all in once so it will have an larger impact. So I will ramble a bit if that’s okay with you in order to make you understand. So as I mentioned beforehand, the MC is a killer with supernatural powers. We follow his life and what he does every day until a gifted girl( a girl with powers) escapes the underground labs that the scientists use in order to experiment on them so they can gain control on them. Probably something like making their own army of indestructible beings and being able to control them anytime, in case they rebel. The MC was the first one to be a success, or the scientists think so, so he is in charge of finding new gifted and killing any person that tries to oppose them. Back to the girl that escaped. She has connections to a group that has recently started to oppose the group the MC is head of and generally the scientists. While the MC tries to kill everyone in that group his interest is also sparked by the girl. Now, the MC does not show his feelings but he loses control of himself when he uses his powers(goes on a killing spree etc) and by the end of ch. 18, he is a depressed, paranoid person, a bit bipolar that tries to kill himself by slicing his own skin. So, the reader is in a constant curiousness as of why he is like that. At ch. 19 the girl and the MC meet again, the girl actually helping him and saving him from certain death, I will not say the reasons as it will take one huge paragraph to do it).She demands explainations and something sparks his memories. Then ch. 20-24 follow. Ch. 20 is when he was young and hints at how he got his powers. Ch. 21 is the dark past that made him like that, and how he was abused by his uncle. Ch. 22 is when he ran away from home and lived on the streets almost dying. Ch. 23 is when the scientists found him and experimented on him. And ch. 24 is how he became the leader of the group and his first mission that began that endless chain of murders. Then from ch.25 the story continues on from the present when the MC is talking with the girl. I don’t know whether or not this will make sense, but I feel that if these chapters were scattered around the book, or if they were just a small paragraph in another chapter they would lose the meaning they hold. Maybe that is just my opinion, but I don’t know whether this will work or not. As of why it comes so late, the MC is in a constant state of numbness and when even the smallest memory resurfaces he keeps it locked in the back of his mind. Now, that the girl has saved him from killing himself he is in a vulnerable state, in a state of mind that he cannot reject his feelings and memories so they all come back in the form of large chunks of information, while the reader is aware that he is telling everything to the girl from the way ch.19 ends. Even though it is in the form of huge flashbacks, taking up almost the 1/4 of the story, I believe that they are in the right place and at the right length.

        Now that I have explained it a little better (I hope), what is your opinion on it? Will it work, or should I scatter the chapters all over the book?
        Thank you, Agapi

        1. Hi Agapi,

          Thanks for explaining further. This sounds like such an interesting story concept! Now that I have a fuller picture of what you’re trying to accomplish, I think this approach makes sense and could be very successful. I wish you all the best with your book!


          1. Thank you very much! I was a bit anxious of using that concept, but your words have reassured me!

            I wish you all the best, Agapi

  7. Wow! Your explanation of flashbacks was excellent, with clear examples. One of the best. I haven’t read the Hunger Games trilogy, but will look into getting a copy ASAP. Sounds like great storytelling. Thanks again for a wonderful article.

  8. I have struggled with backstory and flashbacks on my current project. I have read in numerous places that dreams are a no-no. I had started my novel with my main character trying to go to sleep, wary of a repeating dream which explains how she has ended up being immortal and her backstory, i.e. when she was born etc… Through reliving the dream I attempt to dive into her story. Not sure if I should continue in this way or jump into the story, which is a crime novel, and she is the lead investigator, then work it in backstory later.

    1. Hi Nia,

      Your book sounds interesting! Most crime novels start with a strong hook related to the plot then work in backstory later. I recommend this approach, as it gets the reader invested in the story immediately, and they’ll be even more intrigued as they uncover information about your protagonist. There are exceptions, of course, but they require very skillful, well-paced writing. If you try out several different approaches, consider getting feedback from a writing group or beta readers. Wishing you all the best with your book!


  9. Hi loved the article! I was wondering what your thoughts are on using a present tense flashback while writing the whole story in present tense as well. For example, saying something like ‘he remembers that day. He takes himself back there. He’s driving his ‘76 Blazer up the highway. It’s late and he can barely keep his eyes open…. etc.

    Do you think something like that can work? Staying in present tense for the flashback?

    1. Hi Eddie,

      Great question! I think what you’re proposing could work. The most important thing with flashbacks is to make it flow seamlessly. You want readers to know where the character is at each moment. You don’t want them to have to stop and read the text again to figure out what’s going on.

      Best of luck to you!

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