As a writer, I love flashbacks. They help strengthen the emotional connection between reader and protagonist. Flashbacks give us a peek into our point-of-view character’s backstory — one that often adds complexity and makes us reconsider previous snap judgements. Flashbacks let us pull from outside our story’s timeline for character development.
Basically, flashbacks take us from small talk to serious getting-to-know-you mode. And like any conversation moving to the next level, this leaves plenty of opportunities for missteps. We’ve all known someone who chronically interrupts with inappropriate or irrelevant anecdotes, sometimes to a degree that makes us lose the original conversation thread. In writing as in real life, we need to make those little flashback stories count.
Ask yourself these questions as you revise flashbacks in your novel.
Will the reader benefit from this information right now?
While you may want to share a flashback for your own reasons, it has to feel relevant to the scene. A non sequitur will pull readers out of the story and make it unclear where they should direct their focus.
An effective flashback guides the reader’s thoughts in the necessary direction. It serves the scene and contributes valuable information to either your plot or character development. If beta readers flag a flashback because they don’t understand its purpose, that may indicate it’s wrong for that scene.
Should I tell this in the story’s normal timeline?
Flashbacks can help us begin a story in the right place. My writing group recently critiqued a novel where the author ended up cutting the first few chapters and peppering their salient bits into flashbacks elsewhere in the story. This kind of move can do wonders for your pacing — if you use it wisely.
However, be cautious about using flashbacks as a stylistic element. The simplest solution often works best. Excessive flashbacks can get confusing. Unless you have a specific reason to show something as a flashback, default to writing it as part of the main narrative instead.
Have I made it clear this is a flashback?
Again, watch out for those stylistic flashbacks. As a young writer I remember thinking it made me more literary or sophisticated to make choices that disoriented the reader. In reality, this flair for drama doesn’t make the work more literary, nor does it make it enjoyable to read.
The more energy readers spend figuring out what the heck is going on, the less they have available to immerse themselves in your story. Flashbacks are no place to get tricky. Use helpful anchoring phrases to ease readers into a flashback. For example:
- “The summer after our senior year…”
- “Just before Katie was born…”
- “One winter when I was in maybe third grade…”
These phrases let readers know you’ve paused the timeline’s forward motion to give them a window into the past.
Does this flashback pull the reader out of the story?
Because they hit the pause button, flashbacks risk jarring the reader out of the story and losing their interest. Sometimes this pause button is a great pacing or character development tool. Other times it wakes readers from that so-called fictive dream — not what we want.
Flashbacks should read like any other scene (that’s why we need an anchoring phrase to ease us in!). They should feel rich and immersive and, perhaps most of all, relevant. Readers should feel more connected to your character and story after a flashback, not less.
Consider how your flashback contributes to your scene’s pacing. Does it add emotional depth, or does it feel like a tangent? Does it draw out a scene and give readers time to process what’s happening, or does it kill the tension? Be honest with yourself. If the flashback isn’t working, you might need to cut it.