Image: Matthew Loffhagen
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 disbelief, create 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.
Flashbacks slow the story's momentum, so the reader must already care about the character. Click To Tweet
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…
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.
Your flashback needs to reshape reader understanding of character or plot.Click To Tweet
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.
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 Flashback, Nail Your Character’s Backstory With This One Simple Tip and Passing Time Is The Secret To Improving Your Story.