In this episode, Kristina Stanley from Fictionary joins JoEllen Nordstrom to talk about flashbacks in fiction writing.
Learn how to use flashbacks in a story and enhance your writing right now.
Flashbacks are very important to stories. Not all stories have them, and you don’t have to use them, but if you do, there are some things you want to keep in mind. Let’s describe what a flashback is and how it differs from backstory.
A flashback is a scene that happens and is active. It’s told in the moment, even though it’s happening before the main action of the story. If you’re in scene 10, the flashback depicts events that happened sometime earlier, and you tell it to the reader in an active fashion: “Joellen ran to the store, and she picked up her groceries.” It’s not like backstory, where the character remembers something. That’s the key difference between the two.
So, how can you separate a flashback from the rest of the story so readers know that’s what it is? The
best way to do this is with a transition point. In other words, use tense as a trigger in the existing scene.
Let’s continue with the example of “JoEllen running to the store,” which, let’s say, is a really important flashback
because something bad happens at that store and it’s part of her character motivation. So, we have JoEllen in the scene, and maybe when she went to the store, she picked up something really strange, a certain type of pasta.
Now she’s in a restaurant, and she sees that pasta.
That triggers her memory to go into a flashback. When her dinner is served, she looks down and thinks, Oh, I remember. I had run to the store, or if it’s in the third person, “JoEllen remembered she had run to the store.”
The tense shift to “had run” triggers the reader to think, Oh, that’s passed.
You only need to use “had” once, not all the way through the flashback. Then use another trigger to bring the reader out of the scene.
In this example, it could be the server saying, “Excuse me, ma’am, would you like to order?”
And then JoEllen says, “Oh, yeah. Yep. Sorry. Yes, I would like to order,” and the words and setting bring the reader right back to the present, letting them know they’ve gone into and come out of a flashback.
How to use flashbacks effectively
There are a couple of things to keep in mind when using flashbacks. One never, never use a flashback in the first scene, because it asks the reader to start a new story before becoming anchored in the first one. This can be too much too soon, making it hard for the reader to get their bearings.
You also want to avoid having too many flashbacks in a row. What you’re doing then is jumping from one time frame to another, and you might as well structure your book that way.
Flashbacks should be related directly to the plot and character motivation. They need to add something significant to the scene, helping the reader understand a character or the story.
Look through your manuscript and make sure that your flashbacks are presented effectively. You’ve already reviewed tension, conflict, backstory, revelations, and
flashbacks have to fit in with those elements. You can record your flashbacks using just enough words to you remember what they are. Write one line, such as “JoEllen round to the store,” and that’s it. You can then easily see where they fall in your overall story.
How many do you have? When do they occur? That’s the high-level thing, and when you’re re-reading your scenes, make sure that you got in and got out of your flashbacks in a way that the reader can recognize them. It’s a lot of work, but again, you’re going to be a better writer and a much better storyteller because of it.
Now, get busy and make your story the best it can be.
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