How does someone have a flashback

Writing flashbacks: this is how you take your readers back in time

When you write a novel or a short story, you naturally want to get your readers involved in the important and exciting scenes as quickly as possible. This always leads to the fact that you have to submit information that has taken place beforehand. But no problem, after all, you can write flashbacks! But how do you write a flashback that doesn't disturb the flow of your reading? You will find out that - and a lot more - in this article.

What is a flashback anyway?

The typical narrative structure of stories is linear, that is, the further you read, the more time has passed in the story. Every point that is earlier in the story is also earlier. This makes it easy for readers to follow the story and find their way around - after all, they have to follow characters, places and plot content.

But it happens again and again that linear narratives are interrupted by insertions in which the characters remember earlier times - and thus provide information relevant to the story. Such inserts are called flashbacks. They can be a whole chapter or just a paragraph. Sometimes even a few words are enough for a flashback - for example “Mario still looked like ten years ago when the four of them spent the last summer together in Sweden”.

When do flashbacks make sense?

As mentioned above, flashbacks can help you add information that you don't want to start your story with.

Imagine you're writing a story about a young woman who works as a midwife in a house full of women. She has lived there all her life and has already given birth to seven children. But she knows that she will soon be leaving the house to start a better and completely different life - because her service is then done. You know why that is and what she's hoping for, of course, but you don't want to reveal it right at the beginning because that would be very boring. At some point, however, you have to take past events into account to explain the background. And that goes with a flashback. (Incidentally, the situation described is the beginning of my current novel project.)

It happens again and again that linear narratives are interrupted by insertions in which the characters remember earlier times - and thus provide information relevant to the story.

Sometimes you just want to write how two characters know each other and why they relate to each other in a certain way. Flashbacks can be helpful here as well.

However, I myself have already experienced more than once that flashbacks are used as an effect to increase tension. In the novel A Little Life, roughly every second chapter tells a flashback. Both the narrative thread in the present and the narrative in the past each end with a cliffhanger, so that of course you really want to read on. The first two times it worked for me, after that I just found it annoying. Because if a story needs such tricks to be exciting, it is actually not exciting. And every single flashback tears you out of the actual story - which you shouldn't impose on your readers unnecessarily.

So flashbacks are not a panacea, and not something that you absolutely have to incorporate into a story if you can get by without it. But if you want to write flashbacks, here are some tips to keep in mind.

Writing flashbacks: what to look out for

Tip 1: anchor your flashback in the story.

It's best not to start telling your flashback out of the blue, but to provide a reason why you're doing it right now. The reason should always be with your characters and your story.

Example: Your main character Maria is talking to her ex-husband, who has just brought their daughter back from the weekend. The two tried for a long time to have a child, but they separated shortly after giving birth. You could write:

It rang. Stefan brought Lena back from the weekend together. Lena was a desired child and yet the trigger for their separation. They had tried in vain for a long time to have a child, and when Lena was there, there was nothing left to hold them together.

That does the job. However, it looks more fluid if you anchor the flashback, for example to an object:

Maria opened the door. Lena squeezed into the apartment and ran into her children's room singing loudly, while Stefan hesitantly entered the hallway. As always, his gaze fell on the picture that the three of them showed shortly after Lena's birth - overjoyed because after eight often desperate years they were finally able to embrace their dream child. What the photo didn't show was what came after: the emptiness, the quarrels, the fears and the inability to keep the small, longed-for family together. Maria understood that this photo hurt him. But she wouldn't depend on him for it.

The memory has a concrete trigger here - the image - and the information appears much more natural at this point. When writing flashbacks, always keep an eye out for situations and objects that can trigger this memory in your characters.

Flashbacks aren't a panacea, and they're not something you absolutely need to include in a story if you can get by without them.

Tip 2: Make the end of the flashback clear.

Especially with longer flashbacks, your readers will be happy to follow the new narrative thread. The flashback then looks less pushed in, but like an independent strand. This is good because while reading you don't wait all the time for the main narrative to finally continue. At the same time, however, it means that the return from the flashback represents another break in the narrative. Accordingly, you have to offer orientation aids that make it very clear that the flashback is now over.

For example, if you tell a scene from your protagonist's childhood, it must be clear from the first word after the flashback that you have now returned to the present of the story. This may seem obvious to you, but your readers are never as deeply involved in the story as you are. For example, you can initiate with

"Today on the other hand ..."
"When she thought back now, ..."
"She broke away from her memories and focused again on the task that lay before her."

If the flashback is only a few paragraphs long, you can end it by using the shutter button (see tip 1), for example:

"Stefan broke his eyes from the photo and entered."

However, this only works if your readers still remember the trigger. If you've written a flashback that's a whole chapter long and has developed its own pull, that's probably no longer the case, and resorting to the trigger can even be confusing.

Tip 3: Use the flashback to continue your story.

Perhaps you are really keen to finally tell the dramatic story of how your protagonist stole a motorcycle at the age of 17 and barely survived an accident - after all, this shows a completely different side of him. However, I can assure you that your readers are almost always more interested in how your main story continues than in what happened before. Therefore, the flashback must have a recognizable use for the progress of the story in the main strand, so that your readers get involved in it at all and don't ask themselves after the flashback what it was all about.

Especially with flashbacks, you have to remember that you are not writing for yourself, but for an audience. Some authors like to turn to past events when they are stuck in the actual story and don't really know how to proceed. These are of course extremely bad conditions.

It's better if you start your flashback at a point where it helps the actual story progress. You could include the motorcycle theft story, for example, to show how your protagonist, full of nostalgia, wants to break out of his now rather boring life - and therefore commit another great stupid thing.

Your readers are almost always more interested in how your main story continues than in what happened before.

Tip 4: Use the correct tenses.

In school we learned that we should use the past perfect for things that take place in the pre-past. Example: After I woke up, I was thinking about Sofia again. Most likely you are writing your novel or short story in the past tense / imperfect tense - he left, she laughed, we met... There is a flashback before that - past perfect, right?

That would be grammatically correct. But to be honest: it sounds terrible. If you write more than one sentence in the past perfect, your text will get bumpy. While reading, one stumbles over and over again this grammatical construction, as in the following example:

Luisa thought about the first time she heard of Melanie fifteen years ago. They had both gone to university, studied the same thing, but taken different courses and been friends with other people.

That doesn't sound fluid. And even worse: Every time you use the past perfect, you bump into your readers with the fact that this is not happening now, that you are telling this part as an insert and thus preventing them from following the progress of the actual story.

It is therefore better if you only use the past perfect at the beginning as a signal for the pre-past and then switch to the past tense. This is a small fraction, but it can be made very fluid. It becomes particularly easy if you use a time (which does not have to be exact) to introduce the past tense. The example above could look like this:

Luisa thought about the first time she heard of Melanie fifteen years ago. At that time they were both still going to university, studying the same thing, but taking different courses and being friends with other people.

As you can see, it sounds a lot smoother and you don't trip over every single verb while reading.

Tip 5: less is more.

Writing flashbacks can be fun. When characters are very complex, it can also be enriching for readers to learn an exciting story. For this reason, there are prequels for many series and series in which you can learn more about the characters.

In a story that stands on its own, however, flashbacks are always an interruption in what is happening. They keep you from doing what you actually want while reading: knowing what to do next. Therefore, you should only send in a few flashbacks. Or to put it another way: Nobody will notice it negatively if your novel has no flashbacks at all. But if you put in a few memories after every other scene, your narrative becomes a set piece. That can work, but it doesn't always do it.

If you think the background of your characters is more interesting than your actual story, you can also consider whether you are really working on the right project. Maybe you can shift the focus a bit again and get by with fewer flashbacks.

Alternatives to flashbacks

Flashbacks are mostly used to provide information and explain characteristics of characters. If there really is no other way and you follow my five tips - then get started! Often, however, you also have the option of providing information in other ways. The easiest is to just sprinkle them in without writing a full flashback.

Let's take the example with Stefan and Maria. You can write a long or short flashback of their futile attempts to have a child. But that's not the theme of the story at all, so you don't have to focus on that either. Instead, you could write:

Stefan brought Lena back from the weekend together - their common dream child, for whom they had waited so long, but which had only made everything more difficult.

In this case, you are just briefly summarizing the information that is needed to understand the relationship between Maria and Stefan. This is often the most elegant way to go.

Alternatively, you can incorporate memories into dialogues. Screenwriters in particular do this when they don't want to show a flashback. If you are good at writing dialogue, this is a good option too. It is important, however, that you make sure that the dialogues sound natural. The information has to flow in on the side and not just rattled off.

When Stefan says: “Well, we tried everything for eight years, and when she was there, nothing worked”, you immediately know that he is not saying that to Maria, but to the readers. Instead, he might ask, “If you had known how it turned out, would you take the whole journey over again? The doctor visits? The wait? Despair? " and Maria could answer: “Yes. The whole eight years. Every single day." It looks more natural - and you've avoided flashbacks.

Summary: write flashbacks

  1. Anchor your flashback to history.
  2. Make the end of the flashback clear.
  3. Make sure your flashback has an impact on how the story unfolds.
  4. Use grammatical tenses that you won't trip over while reading.
  5. Only use flashbacks if they really add to your story.