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Flashback

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Flashback

Postby glorybee » Sat Jun 04, 2016 6:59 am

Some stories are told absolutely chronologically—this happened, then this, and then this. It’s a really good structure, especially for a very short story such as those entered into the Writing Challenge. But there are times when you want to have a flashback interrupting that narrative, to fill the reader in on something that happened before the events of the main story. I’ll get into some reasons why you might do that in a bit; first, here’s an example of a story that uses flashback.

Take a minute and read God Unties My Shoe, then come back here for the rest of the lesson.

(Of course, it bears repeating that I don’t link to my own stories because they’re in any way wonderful, but I know where to find what I’m looking for in my own list of writings. Definitely not fishing for compliments.)

Did you catch the paragraph of flashback in that story? It’s near the end, the 9th paragraph, the one that begins “Tom and I had only just…”

I could have written this story chronologically, beginning with the narrator moving into the new neighborhood and sending Christmas cards to everyone on the homeowners’ list. But putting it where I did served one of the purposes of flashbacks:

Contrast—the little paragraph describing the happy newcomers to the neighborhood, reaching out to all their new neighbors, contrasts sharply with the Jill that the readers have met—she’s selfish, even a little bit mean, not at all neighborly. If I’d started out with the Jill who sends Christmas cards to relative strangers, the reader would have to revise her opinion of Jill too many times. She’s nice. No, she’s shallow and selfish. Wait, now she’s being nice again. I wanted the “two Jills” to butt up against each other more suddenly than that.

So flashbacks can show an event, or a person, or a circumstance that is considerably different from the ones the readers have already encountered. It’s an effective little bump in the road for the readers, purposefully interrupting the flow of the narrative.

Closely related…

Character development—a flashback can fill in an episode from a character’s past that you don’t want to cover in complete detail, but that fleshes out the character’s personality. And hand-in-hand with character development is…

Motivation—a bit of flashback can help your readers to understand why your character is doing whatever he or she is doing. I’ll come back and edit this post in a few days, but I’ve got an example of this kind of flashback in my entry for this week’s Writing Challenge. If you’re curious, you can probably find it (in level 4); if you don’t have time to look for it, come back after “Bricks” are thrown and read what I’ve got to add about motivation.

Finally, flashbacks can fill out the

Conflict—by reading the flashback of the character’s life, you can more fully understand what the nature of the conflict is. In fact, a flashback might even introduce the conflict to the reader.

So…those are some of the reasons why you might choose to include a flashback. You may be wondering, then, how to write it into your story.

If you’re writing a very short story (like the Writing Challenge), then you don’t need a very long flashback; both of the examples I’ve given are only one paragraph, just a few sentences. If you’re going to do that, be sure you signal to your reader that the scene is changing. You can do this in any of several ways (or in a combination of these ways):

• Setting the flashback off with ellipses, as I did in the first example
• Or italicizing it
• Or setting it off with three asterisks before and after (you don’t need a whole line of them)
• Or setting it off with a blank space before and after

• Consider switching tenses: if the rest of the piece is in present tense, put the flashback in past tense (or vice versa)
• Or change POV—if the rest of the piece is in 3rd person, switch to 1st person (or vice versa)
The point is that you should do something to make the flashback different from the rest of the piece.

If you need a longer flashback, the above signals will work as well. But in a piece of writing that’s as short as the Writing Challenge, be careful of having a flashback that takes up several paragraphs. If it’s that important, then perhaps it deserves a story of its own.

In a novel, it would be most common for a flashback to occupy its own chapter. Again, you want to let your reader know what’s going on. I’ve seen writers give chapter headings that name the time of the new setting (and sometimes the character, too). This is actually helpful in any book that skips the reader around in time and place.

Do you have any comments or questions about flashbacks? If you’ve written a story that includes a flashback, please link to it in the comments below and give us your writerly thoughts about why you used it and if you think it’s effective.
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Re: Flashback

Postby hwnj » Sat Jun 04, 2016 1:45 pm

Hi, Jan,


It doesn't seem that I use flashback much. Does Nicole telling her dog about the accident count?

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Re: Flashback

Postby glorybee » Sat Jun 04, 2016 5:00 pm

hwnj wrote:Hi, Jan,


It doesn't seem that I use flashback much. Does Nicole telling her dog about the accident count?

Connecting the Dots


Not really--just telling about a past event isn't really flashback, since the reader is still in the present with Nicole and the dog. A flashback is a total change of scene back to the past, however short.
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Re: Flashback

Postby CatLin » Sat Jun 04, 2016 7:13 pm

I didn't realize how many times I used a flashback to help tell the story. But I used them to tell a lot of the story. I don't think I've ever kept it short. Something new to work on.

I found two examples to share. The first one only flashes back to earlier that day. The second flashes back a year.

(I also see that I need to update my 10-year old bio on the free reprints section. My daughter is now 32. :roll: )

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Re: Flashback

Postby glorybee » Sat Jun 04, 2016 7:21 pm

Cat, can you talk a bit about why you used flashback there--what its purpose was, as opposed to just telling a chronological narrative?
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Re: Flashback

Postby hwnj » Sat Jun 04, 2016 10:33 pm

I'm still not quite sure if this contains actual flashback or not... And yes, I realize upon rereading it, that I should have used present tense for the last paragraph...

Does it matter how long ago something took place in order to be a flashback, as long as it is not happening in the present time of the story?

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Re: Flashback

Postby glorybee » Sun Jun 05, 2016 8:52 am

Nope, still not flashback. The POV character can think about, talk about, narrate about, or remember the past--it's still not a flashback. I suppose the definitive characteristic of a flashback is that it's an actual change of setting. In retelling or remembering the past, we still stay in a character's present POV. A few examples:

NOT flashback: We were walking down Main Street USA in Disney World, the happiest place on earth. Piper gripped my hand, her eyes wide with excitement, and I remembered my first visit here, when Piper's mother had been just five years old. She'd been wide-eyed, too, but with fear. Always an anxious child, Linda had squealed with alarm at the crowds, and hid behind my back when she saw a cast member dressed as Mickey Mouse. But Piper was nothing like her mother, and she ran up to the first Mickey she saw, almost knocking him over.

Flashback: We were walking down Main Street USA in Disney World, the happiest place on earth. Piper gripped my hand, her eyes wide with excitement, and I remembered my first visit here, when Piper's mother had been just five years old...

"Don't let go of my hand, Mommy!" Linda flinched as someone brushed by her, and pressed closer to my side. "I'm scared!"

"Oh, sweetheart. Don't be so worried--we're going to have a great time!" But her grip on my hand tightened. "What's THAT?"

It was Mickey Mouse, coming right up to us. Linda was too big to carry, but she tried to climb into my arms it was going to be a long day...

And now Piper was running ahead of me.
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Re: Flashback

Postby hwnj » Sun Jun 05, 2016 4:33 pm

I'm really struggling with memory versus flashback, but I think I finally found one... As long as the relevant piece of the puzzle is included, does it make all that much difference which way it is provided?

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Re: Flashback

Postby glorybee » Sun Jun 05, 2016 9:44 pm

Yes, this one feels more like a flashback to me. I think it would feel even more so if something had been done to set it apart from the 'present' narrative--one of those bulleted ideas from the initial post, perhaps. Sometimes that's all it takes.

To your question about whether it makes a difference if a bit of narrative is memory or flashback--I think it does, but I'm hard-pressed to define the difference precisely. Flashback is just one literary device in a writer's toolbox, and as I indicated in the lesson, it's got several uses. Having your character just remember an event, or tell about an event from the past, can serve the same purposes--perhaps at a different pace, or less abruptly, or less startlingly. It all depends on the writer's skill and intention, I think.

Sorry that I can't be more black-and-white for you on this. Using flashback (unlike, say, using semicolons) is part of the art of writing rather than the science, and comes somewhat by instinct and somewhat by practice.
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Re: Flashback

Postby hwnj » Sun Jun 05, 2016 10:04 pm

What's a simicolon?... :D (Another tool of which I make little use.)

Thanks, Jan, for your patience. I think the lines are beginning to crisp for me. I was looking at another story with memories interwoven, and could see how flashbacks might have served the same purpose.
It might have even made a more profound emotional connection for the reader to have been transported to the scene as it originally transpired.
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'It is better to be liked for the true you, than to be loved for who people think you are.'

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