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The Written Word January 2009

Consider A Flashback



The flashback is a daydream, an accurate recounting of a past occurrence as though it were happening in the present. It's an effective and dramatic way to provide backstory; to give the reader pertinent information about an event that happened before the start of the present troubles.


Flashbacks can reveal something of a character's personality that the author cannot fit into the current story. I'll come back to this with examples, but first there's more to know:


1.      Warn the reader a flashback is coming

2.      Create a logical transition from present to past

3.      Finish the flashback by returning the reader to the present

To avoid confusing the reader, don't start a story with a flashback, or use one early in the tale.  You can, however, use a prologue. Prologue and flashback are both backstory, but a prologue starts at a place before the main story, while a flashback is a memory--a character's dramatized daydream that occurs within the story.


Daydreams don't come out of nowhere, something has to trigger a character's memory and put him or her in a reflective mood. Suggested triggers include: music, holiday celebrations, a scent of cologne, a funeral. The possibilities are almost endless.


A flashback works best when seamlessly integrated and placed at a point in the story where the reader has bonded with the character and wants to learn more.


A lonely woman stands at her kitchen sink, washing dishes. Her husband (or lover) is gone. Perhaps he's dead, or away at war, but she isn't thinking of him--not yet. She's looking at the blossoming pear tree outside her kitchen window.


Here are her thoughts: The tree's blooming.  It had been blooming last year, when John left her. He had been packing his things in the old brown suitcase, as he always did. At this point, the writer switches from past-perfect (had been) to past tense (was) because she's reliving the event.


            "Honey, where's my tie?" John called from the bedroom. 


            "It's probably in your suit jacket."


            "I've looked there."


The scene goes on for however many paragraphs are needed to introduce the backstory about a quarrel that broke her heart, or to show something good or bad about either character. Don't make the flashback any longer than necessary to paint the scene and provide the information. If it gets too long, break it up and present it throughout the story in shorter sequences.  


To return from flashback, the woman continues her dream, but with a brief change to past-perfect: He had kissed her quickly, and she'd heard the door slam a few minutes later. These two sentences warn the reader the flashback is ending and we're going back to the present story. Then she snaps back. Maybe the phone rings, or the doorbell.  Maybe she drops a dish, or John comes back.  Now she's back in the current story and so is the reader.


Suppose a character is terrified of dogs. The writer could explain why in narrative by saying "A dog bit Steven when he was six, and…" or flash back briefly to the event and dramatize the child's terror, leading in with something like: The red collar caught his attention. Another dog had a collar like that--a big, mean dog. It had jumped his uncle's fence, coming straight for him.  At this point, switch to past tense to show the events as they occurred and then back out of the flashback.  This might work as well: His uncle had shot the brute, and afterward he had taken Steven to the hospital for agonizing rabies shots. What brings him out of the daydream to the present? Maybe he notices his hands shaking or the dog across the street begins to bark.



Flashbacks seldom move a story forward; they can slow the action of the main story, bringing it to a dead halt, from which it may never recover.  Sometimes past events are best expressed through a brief exchange of dialogue.