How to Write Effective Flashback Scenes
Flashbacks are some of the most difficult scenes to write.
When effective, flashback scenes relay vital backstory that cuts straight to the emotional core of a narrative. They exist because they must, because there is no better way to reveal the information on which the story hinges. But like the infamous prologue, flashback scenes are all too easy to get wrong.
An ineffective flashback will jar readers out of a story as quickly as a successful one will grip them by the heartstrings. How can you ensure your own flashbacks serve a powerful purpose within your stories? Let’s discuss…
Why are effective flashbacks so difficult to write?
A flashback is not a moment in which your point-of-view character considers the past. It is a scene set in the past that disrupts the chronological flow of a story. That disruption is what makes effective flashbacks so difficult to write.
Effective stories immerse readers, encouraging them to fly through the pages to discover what will happen next. Flashback scenes disrupt that suspense to reveal a past event. If that event isn’t vital to readers’ understanding of the present story, it will spoil the immersive narrative you’ve worked so hard to craft.
Several years ago, I tackled the subject of prologues here on the blog, explaining how they disrupt the opening pages of a book by forcing the reader to start the story twice. In comparison, flashbacks force readers to leave — and then re-enter — a story. If not handled with extreme care and consideration, that flashback can encourage readers to leave and never return.
How can you write an effective flashback scene?
When crafting a flashback, the most important factor to consider is purpose. Flashbacks exist to reveal vital context that strikes at the emotional core of a story. What really happened on that fateful day? What caused the rift between the former lovers? Why did that character’s personality change so drastically?
An effective flashback is a pivotal moment revealed most powerfully as its own scene. If you’re considering a flashback that would hold the same weight if worked into your story via dialogue, inner narrative, or some other means, choose the latter option. The possibility of jarring readers out of your story with an ineffective flashback is simply too great a risk.
If, however, you’re certain that your flashback serves a powerful purpose within the context of your story, here are six tips to help you craft the most effective flashback possible:
#1: Give it power.
#2: Make it immersive.
Effective flashbacks are as immersive as their present narratives.
Despite taking place in the past, flashbacks should feel immediate. You can accomplish this through the use of triggers — an event or circumstance in the present story that forces your point-of-view character to recall the past event. The resulting flashback shows that the memory still haunts your character.
You can maintain the flow of your narrative by using a secondary trigger to draw your point-of-view character out of the flashback. For example:
- Your character may dream about the death of a loved one only to be woken by their alarm clock.
- The smell of peppermint tea may remind your character of the day they were married, only for the sound of the doorbell to draw them back to the reality of their new widowhood.
- An old song may trigger memories of childhood abuse, while a friend’s touch draws your character back to the present.
Try to avoid language that feels too on-the-nose. Phrases like I flashed back to, I thought about the day that, and I remembered when can feel contrived. Instead, practice using triggers to transition seamlessly between the present and the past. For example:
“I drummed my fingers against the steering wheel and waited for the commercial on the radio the end. When it did, a familiar melody drifted from the speakers.
‘Don’t you dare walk away from me, Anna.’
I was sixteen, and my father had just learned that I hadn’t spent the night at Cara’s house as he’d believed. His footsteps pounded on the floor behind me. I hastened up the stairs and slammed my bedroom door in his face, turning the lock before he could force his way in.
His words turned vile as he beat the door with his fists. When I could stand it no longer, I turned up the volume on my record player until the music drowned out his swearing, wiping tears from my eyes as surely as I did now, seventeen years later.”
#3: Make it clear.
Readers should understand that a scene is a flashback within the first few lines, if not before. A lack of clarity can lead to confusion, while purposefully concealing the reality of a flashback for shock factor can leave readers feeling cheated and patronized. Both are not a boon to an immersive reading experience.
#4: Keep it brief.
Effective flashbacks aren’t indulgent. They exist solely to serve the present story, and the sooner you can return readers to that story, the better.
#5: Make it distinct.
If working in a different writing style would better suit brevity, don’t be afraid to use that style in your flashback. Doing so can help distinguish the scene from the present while keeping it brief.
Writing your flashback in a different point-of-view or verb tense can also help distinguish it from your main narrative, helping to avoid reader confusion.
#6: Give it consequences.
Effective flashbacks are powerful moments, not just in the events they reveal but in the emotional effect they have on your characters. One does not recall trauma or dwell upon grief without that experience affecting their actions and emotions in the present.
The more a flashback creates consequences in the present story, the more immersive and purposeful the scene will prove.
Effective flashbacks can be difficult to craft. But when written well, they can prove a powerful storytelling element. If you’d like to utilize flashbacks in your own stories, don’t hesitate to consider each of these tips as you write and revise. Let them guide you in crafting immersive flashback scenes with an emotional pull your readers won’t soon forget.