Flashbacks, Part 2

As mentioned last time, writing flashbacks well can be a difficult task. But they can be highly effective if you do them right.

In addition to last week’s suggestions, here are a few more. 

  1. When you’re ready to transition into the flashback, use phrases that let the reader know you’re going back in time. Something like, “He remembered that day like it was yesterday.” Or, ”Joe stared at the wrought-iron mailbox at the end of her driveway. The last time he’d seen a mailbox like that was …”
  2. Start the flashback scene with the proper verb tenses. “Steve had been a normal, healthy teenager back then. He’d been working his grandfather’s farm since he was twelve. But that morning, as he stood in the barn with a pitchfork in his hand, he realized he’d had enough. He threw the pitchfork into the hay, stormed out, and never looked back.” The beginning transition verbs set the scene in the past. Details tell the reader how far back in the past. Start out with verb tenses including “had” and “had been” for a sentence or two. Then move into simple past tense.
  3. There must be conflict within a flashback scene. The tension in the flashback should increase the building tension in the current scene.
  4. When you’re ready to move back into current events, use another transition. Make it as smooth and subtle as your opening transition, gently bringing your reader back to the time and place and actions of the current scene. Use words that will remind the reader of what was happening right before the flashback started. For example: “If he’d known then what he knew now, he wouldn’t be sitting here in this musty old attic, staring at faded pictures.” Or: “She stared at the dessert plate in front of her and realized she’d eaten the entire slice of lemon meringue pie while reminiscing about her old boyfriend.”

You may prefer to use a sudden interruption of the character’s thoughts. For example:

[Following a few paragraphs of flashback about Melinda . . .] As Melinda lay dying in his arms, she’d whispered the words he had been longing to hear, the ones that would change his life forever—

The sound of a slamming door jarred Bill from his memories.

Flashbacks can be an effective fiction tool when used properly and judiciously. When they’re not written well, or if they’re overused, they can stall the pace, interrupt the flow, or even bore the reader. So analyze every flashback to make sure it is truly needed. And if it is, make sure it is written in such a way that it will enhance, not detract from, your story.