How to write an effective ‘flashback’ (and bring your reader with you!)

I promised my friend Rami over at ramiungarthewriter.wordpress.com a post about writing effective flashback scenes (something I don’t think I’ve nailed), so after some research, here are my findings.

First a wikipedia definition in case not everyone uses the same term:

Flashback (narrative), in literature and dramatic media, an interjected scene that takes the narrative back in time from the current point

The Writers Digest has a great post about this issue in which they offer 3 tips:

  1. Your flashback should follow a strong scene. (so the flashback should not be your FIRST scene, though lots of TV shows start that way, with a scene from the future that makes no sense, and then a black screen that says ’72 hours earlier’ or something like that)
  2. Orient us at the start of the flashback in time and space (in other words, don’t just give a time reference for the flash back, also set the scene in terms of characters and where they are).
  3. Use verb tense conventions to guide your reader in and out of the flashback (tricky, but it depends on what tense your ‘current’ timeline is written in and from what voice)

In case ‘past perfect’ is only known to you because you studied French in school, Hallie Ephron has written a useful table to use for tenses and flashbacks:

TENSE TO USE FOR FLASHBACKS

If the main story is written in… Write the flashback in…
Present Tense Past Tense
He runs He ran
Past Tense Past Perfect Tense
He ran He had run

On Quora, where there is a question open on this subject, Mark Hughes (Screenwriter, Forbes Blogger) had an interesting suggestion:

In novel or other literary form, I personally believe the best flashback method is to alternate chapters/sections of the writing, so that (just for example) Chapter One is set in the present, and ends by leading us into a scene that links to the past. Then Chapter Two is all flashback, related to the concept/theme/actual events of the final scene in the previous chapter. And so on.

I also liked Dan Goodswen’s answer in the same Quora question where he says he writes flashbacks in a different voice, so no one is confused.
Read Quote of Dan Goodswen’s answer to Writing: What are the best ways to write flashback scenes? on Quora

For example, my main story is often written in the first person. To borrow the opening line from the novel I’m currently writing;

I’m carrying her in my arms when I feel the first blow.

But if I wanted to make this a flashback, I might use the second person, to differentiate the voice between chapters, and help the reader understand that this isn’t part of the main story.

A second person flashback might look like this;

You’re carrying her in your arms when you feel the first blow.

The same sentence, but given an immediate difference by the change from first to second person.

I’m going to apply most of this (the past-perfect stuff I still find confusing but I’m game to try) on my flashback scene in Principessa.

Let me know if you find this useful, and please, let me know if you have other ideas on this!

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5 thoughts on “How to write an effective ‘flashback’ (and bring your reader with you!)

  1. Thanks. The tips on starting flashbacks after establishing the general time, and starting flashbacks in new chapters is useful. What I struggle with most with flashbacks. (I need to use it mostly when translating) is uinge past perfect. You can’t use past perfect the entire flashback time, because that drives you nuts. I look to see how other writers do it, and how they use past perfect in general, too, and I’ve noticed that they start with past perfect, maybe do it a few more times, and then switch to past imperfect once it’s clear that you’re now in flashback. I still find it tricky deciding when to do that, though, and there doesn’t seem to be a hard and fast rule for it. I always feel a little on thin ice.

  2. Very useful overall. I think perhaps every writer would be doing themselves a great service to practice this style, even if they are not a creative writer by trade. It is always helpful to have the skills in case they come up later.

  3. Thanks for posting, you really made me think!
    Hmmm…flashbacks.
    When you’re using a flashback, it’s all about the ‘why’, the purpose behind it. Why are you as a writer and craftsman putting a flashback in the way of your readers? It involves more of an effort on their part, draws attention to itself, and interrupts the narrative flow of your story…
    So why do it?
    1. Its part of the time-ishness of your story, as in The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Where the back and forth motion created by flashbacks IS part of the story.
    2. It functions as a time halt, much the same as a soliloquy or aria in that time stops and emotions are unpacked that couldn’t actually fit into the normal time stream of the story, all based on events of the past. But as writers I think we need to be careful and not let flashbacks become a crutch for good storytelling; often the story can be more effectively told starting around the time of the earliest flashback.
    Thanks again for a great post! I feel like I’m going to be thinking about this all day!

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