How to Write Flashbacks

This post is coming from someone (me), who used flashbacks liberally in my debut trilogy, sometimes effectively, and sometimes… maybe not so much. What have I learned?

First of all, before writing a flashback, ask yourself why you might need to.

-Does the flashback advance the story?
-Does the flashback provide necessary depth to the character/plot?
-Is the flashback interesting or forgettable?
-What triggered the flashback, and does it fit in the current scene?
-Does the flashback ask/answer questions that couldn’t be raised in the current timeline of your story?
-Is it brief and to the point?

There may be other questions you could ask, but these are a good start. I am going to demonstrate how these questions might be useful with a flashback from my first book, Liquid Death:

  “Honey, what happened?” Mom exclaimed as I set my backpack down in the entryway. I tried to hide them, but apparently her keen motherly senses picked up on my bloody hands.

              “Nothing,” I said, moving my hands behind my back.

              “Did those kids bully you at school again?”

              “No.” I sidestepped into the kitchen to wash my hands.

              She pursed her lips and grabbed my wrists. “Kanidie, this does not look like nothing.”

              “I…” I tore my wrists from her cold fingers and gulped. “It’s my fault.” I walked to the sink and turned on the water.

              “How is this your fault? Did you cut yourself?”

              “No, Mom.” I sighed and hissed when my hands hit the scalding water. “The rocks on the playground are unusually sharp.”

              “You tripped?”

              I nodded.

              “Let me see.” She tucked a loose strand of blond hair behind her ear and lifted my hands for her inspection. “These do not look like ordinary scrapes. I don’t buy your story.”

              “It doesn’t matter. They’ll heal.”

              “I want to know who did this.”

              I shook my head. Tears brimmed in my eyes.

              “Kanidie… tell me the whole story.”

              “You would not benefit from it.”

              “Kandi!”

              She only called me by my cheesy nickname when she was upset. I turned off the water and patted my mutilated hands with a paper towel. The cuts on my palms were already sealing. “I was waiting in line for the slide when someone threw a dodgeball at my head. It knocked me forward onto a cluster of sharp rocks. The kid who threw the ball laughed and encouraged his friends to join him in throwing balls at me. I couldn’t get up for several minutes. When I lifted my hands, they were covered in blood. So I ran home.”

              “Why would there be sharp rocks on the playground by the slide? That is a serious safety hazard.”

              I shrugged.

              “I’m going to call the school.”

              “No, please! Don’t,” I said, deflating.

              “Why not?” she asked mid-dial.

              “Because it didn’t happen at school,” I admitted, tears flowing freely. “I skipped school with a group of kids so they would accept me. It turned out to be a trick. They pushed me down a hill into a barbed-wire fence.”

              “Which group of kids?”

              “Briley and… and Terrance. I never learned the names of the others.”

              Mom found gauze in one of the utility drawers and began wrapping my hands. “I’m so sorry, Kanidie.”

              “I just want to have friends,” I sobbed. “I just want to be normal.”

              “You are special, honey. You should never be ashamed of your talents. It doesn’t matter if you are the loneliest person on Earth, you be proud of who you are.”

Q#1: Does the flashback advance the story?
The flashback introduces Kandi’s mother, who is dead. I find that flashbacks can be an effective way to introduce meaningful, deceased characters as opposed to merely mentioning them. The flashback also gives the reader a glimpse into Kandi’s childhood, before she became mute, which might raise more questions, such as, “What happened between this event and current events to cause Kandi’s condition?” Since the plot is largely character-driven, I think this qualifies. It is another piece of the puzzle that is Kandi’s mind, not merely an addition to her biography.

Q#2: Does the flashback provide necessary depth to the character/plot?
It mostly provides depth to Kandi’s character, illustrating how much she desires to be normal, even while the scrapes on her palms rapidly heal. It makes her present situation, living with an abusive relative and enduring crippling anxiety around people, that much more heartbreaking.

Q#3: Is the flashback interesting or forgettable?
This depends on the reader, of course. To me, it is interesting because it introduces a concept that is continuously pounded into Kandi’s psyche throughout the series: that she is special and should never be ashamed of that fact. It is a concept many of us can apply to ourselves, and therefore almost brings her down to our level.

Q#4: What triggered the flashback, and does it fit in the current scene?
It was triggered by an incident in the hallway where glass shattered on the floor, reminding Kandi of her splintered hands. Kandi is in the middle of a therapy session with Ms. Hendricks, where the counselor clapped when Kandi uttered a single grunt. I think it fits, then, that Kandi thinks about a time when she could speak, and when she was with a woman, her mother, who helped heal her wounds instead of poured salt on them.

Q#5: Does the flashback ask/answer questions that couldn’t be raised in the current timeline of your story?
No. The questions it raises could easily have been written into the current timeline, but I think this way is more mysterious. If I had written Kandi cutting her hands in the current timeline, for example, and showed how she quickly healed, the story still would have been missing this conversation with her mother, and Kandi’s desire to be normal wouldn’t have felt as deep. In my opinion, at least.

Q#6: Is it brief and to the point?
Yes, I make sure all my flashbacks are brief so the reader doesn’t forget what is happening in the present. 😉

Flashbacks can be effective tools to advance the plot, add depth to your characters, and raise questions. They are a method of “showing” rather than “telling” in your novel. However, they should be used sparingly and briefly, the way flashbacks might occur in real life. The most important things to consider before writing flashbacks are:

1. Is it relevant to the present?
2. Does it flow seamlessly with the current scene?
3. Does it advance the story?
4. Was it triggered by a stimulus in the present? (Like the smell of baked cookies reminds the character of an afternoon at Grandma’s house.)
5. Is the flashback interesting or forgettable?

So what should you avoid? Flashbacks that are unnecessary, skip-able, long, and forgettable, right?

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Any Thoughts?

What did I miss? Don’t be afraid to comment below with your opinions or experience. What are some examples of memorable flashbacks in books or television? How about bad ones? 🙂

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