Jump to content





Depending on where you place them and how they are used in your writing...I’ve found that adding a flashback, or even multiple flashbacks, to your fiction can be really effective when it comes to expanding upon the story beyond the story. It’s like...putting two mirrors facing each other and creating that illusion where it looks like it just reflects itself and goes on and on forever in both directions..when it really doesn’t. But it gives your story that kind of vibe when used correctly to expose it’s full potential. And that’s what we’re going to dive in to today.

Flashbacks...the short histories that aren’t always given the credit that they deserve when it comes to really bringing your characters to life and providing them with a sense of depth, all while giving your readers a better understanding of who they are, and why they do what they do. You may have used this technique to perfection before in your own writing without even knowing why it works so well. Well...let’s see if we can figure it out together.

A flashback can happen at any time in your story, and it’s simply a bit of extra information that is given to your readers in an entertaining and visceral way. It’s like this wonderful weaving of ‘show’ and ‘tell’ that gives everyone insight that they wouldn’t have without the flashback being a part of the narrative. It goes back to a past time that happens before your plot takes a hold of the protagonist. It works to explore and explain their existence without actually telling the whole story in full. Just in small doses. Because if you treat your main character as if they’re really interesting and important to the rest of the story, their history should have been a major part of their creation. It’s the foundation that your main character is built on. That might just be the ‘actor’ in me talking...but it’s true. If you want to get a real handle on who they are and why they have the motivations they do to be a part of your story, you should at least have given a little bit of thought as to why. It builds a closer connection between you and your creation, and that will create a closer bond with your creation and your readers. Think about it for a second.

Now, where does a written flashback come into play here? First of all, this can be done in a variety of different ways. It can be triggered by seeing someone again for the first time in forever, where the inner thoughts of your protagonist can reminisce over how this person came into their lives and what they might have experienced together...either as friends or enemies. This can also be triggered by having your main character go to a familiar place or finding a familiar object that shares some kind of meaning for both your main character and the person they’re thinking about. Again, told through narration, or a stream of consciousness running through your protagonist’s mind. But you can always feel around and find what method works best for you and for that particular story that you’re trying to tell in that moment. This can be done through random conversations, from PTSD reactions to certain stimuli, through dream sequences, etc...but the whole point is to build up your character and let your audience that they have an entire life and a legacy that exists outside of the boundaries that you set for them in this particular story.

This is a short dream sequence from the original “Terminator” movie. Now, this character is from the future and he’s come back in time to watch over the Terminator’s target in (what was then) the modern day. So this is technically a flashback, it just happens to be a flashback to the future.


Now, what did you notice about this use of flashback? First of all...it’s brief. It doesn’t really show the whole story...it merely shows that there is a story. You don’t have to do an entire recap on how the war began between man and machine, you don’t have to show a nuclear war, you don’t need to show the leader of the resistance or how the resistance came to be. All you needed to show was the fact that this character has an entire backstory that you, as a part of the viewing audience, isn’t aware of. It nod only adds some depth and intrigue to his character...but it encourages everyone to want to have more of their questions answered. This can be followed up with some exposition laced dialogue to fully flesh out a more complete story as to what happened there, but with the flashback being handy, that exposition has been cut in half. Maybe even more so, depending on how much mystery you want to remain when you’re finished. It’s a short peek into the world that he comes from, it displays that he’s a soldier, that he’s experienced hard times and loss, and it sets him up to be a worthy protector of what matters most. In less than five minutes, you’ve given your audience an entire prequel movie that sets up one of your main characters, identifies their motivations, and displays their expertise in situations like the one he’s trapped in right now. Again...all in less than five minutes. This is what an effective use of a story flashback looks like. And they didn’t need any narration or a single word of dialogue spoken to pull it off. Brilliant.

On top of everything else...you now have a deeper glimpse into the character himself by seeing him in action. This is a history that exists outside of the rest of the story plot. Can you still manage to write a complete story without the few flashbacks that are in this movie? Sure. I suppose you can. But isn’t it much cooler to actually see it with your own eyes then just having the woman he’s protecting ask him a bunch of random questions out of nowhere and having him explain it to her in detail over a period of five to ten minutes? Where’s the fun in that? Sometimes a story has to be more than ‘functional’, you know? Show your readers who this person is and let them see why it’s important that they should trust him, root for him, or even care.

That little bit of backstory makes a difference in the minds of your readers. Always keep that in mind when writing.

If you read my ebook, “Shelter” (https://imagine-magazine.org/store/comicality/), you can get a full story about a group of teenagers who have all been barricaded in their local high school and guarded by the military during a zombie apocalypse. All of the characters are described, and talk and interact with one another in ways that lets everyone know who they are as characters in this makeshift, last minute, fortress of theirs. But...I knew that I couldn’t result on brief little flashbacks for each character to truly introduce them with the kind of thorough backstory that I had in mind...so I went a different route instead. I could interrupt the “Shelter” story every few paragraphs for a full flashback, because that would come off as haphazard and sloppy. And I couldn’t deliver everything in a long, drawn out, info dump of exposition either, because that would have been long winded and boring. So I passed up on the short flashback idea, and decided to write a series of prequel stories that I thought would work much better. Even though the whole story is technically a ‘flashback’ in itself...it can be much longer and much more detailed, getting everyone attached to each individual character on their own...and then bringing them all together in the main “Shelter” story, so it can stand on its own and not have to stop and stumble in order to have (yet another) flashback to fill readers in on what’s going on with them. That can get really messy, really fast. I didn’t want that.

So anybody who reads “Shelter” by itself can enjoy it as its own story...but...if they read all of the stories that come before it, there are a ton of bonuses that they can see and hopefully appreciate on a whole other level than they can just reading the main series by itself. I definitely appreciate both, but I love flashbacks and backstories and making them a part of my characters’ growth. People have reasons for doing what they do and for being who they are. Exploring that in greater detail, I feel, makes for a much better story. It just makes the characters more like personal friends of yours, doesn’t it?

The key is altering the context of what your audience can see and read and experience through your writing skills. Even a subtle shift in context can make a big difference in how a story reads. Even if it’s being read for the second time. Context is an incredible factor to play around with, once you learn how to bend it to your will. ::Evil Laugh:: I could name a bunch of movies, but they have some of the best surprise endings ever...and I don’t want to spoil them for anyone who hasn’t seen them. But, I think this short horror film is a great example.

Watch it all the way through, and pay attention to what’s happening, what’s being said, and how it makes you feel. And then...when it reaches its conclusion, there’s a flashback that actually exists inside of the story that’s being told here. But the flashback is what gives the rest of the story context, and creates an entirely different narrative from what you might have thought it was originally. Check it out, and examine how one flashback can make all the difference in a short story like this one.


Hopefully, you can understand what I mean after seeing that, right? It’s the same camera shots, same dialogue, etc...but now you have a different context added into the mix to show you what you might have missed the first time around. Again, this short film could have been told without it if they wanted to do it that way...but isn’t it more fun with the flashback to earlier parts of the story? I thought it was.

So practice and develop dependable instincts when it comes to using flashbacks in your work. They’re all like an army of fireflies, buzzing around your story while not really being a major part of it. And yet, they can add so much extra feeling and magic to your story when used in the right way. Pick your moments, keep them short, and don’t over do it...or you’ll scramble things up into an unreadable mess, and it’ll be nearly impossible to get things back on track after that.

Put yourself in the place of your main character. For anyone in your life who ever doubted you...what would they say if they knew about your fans online that you gathered from writing stories? What would they say if they knew that you used to be the star athlete on your high school football team? Or if you were valedictorian of your graduating class? How would people see you if they could gather a glimpse at some of your past achievements, or failures, or vast knowledge, or your experienced travels around the globe? Having that context might change their attitudes about you completely. Well, adding short bursts of flashbacks and memories, whether good or bad, to further display the truest parts of your fictional character is no different. Keep it brief and to the point...and then make sure that your character’s personality traits, actions, and motivations, are in line with the historical illusion that you painted for them. Line those two things up...and you can’t go wrong. It’ll be fun! You’ll see! Hehehe!

As always, I hope I’ve given you guys some food for thought today! What are your opinions on flashbacks in fiction? Some people never use them, others find them helpful every now and then. What about you? Let us know! And I’ll seezya soon! Love you lots! MWAH!!!


  • Love 7


Recommended Comments

I have used flashbacks, some done well, some done not so well.  But always necessary for the story.  I've always found them hard to write, because it can disrupt the flow of a story, but I don't think I could have written Insomnia or Keraunaphobia without them.

  • Like 4
  • Love 1
Link to comment

I've only used a flashback once, I'm guessing it was done well as it was received well by the readers and proved a popular part of the story for many. That was in The Boot Three Years On to give some background to The Boot and two of the story characters. I can only hope that if I have a need to use a flashback a gain I can repeat how well I managed it on that occasion and it is received as well by the readers.

Flashbacks can be a useful story writing tool that I think should be used sparingly and only when they serve a useful purpose, they shouldn't be over used as a 'story filler', then it can make a story confusing.

  • Like 3
  • Love 1
Link to comment

I haven't done flashbacks, but the story I'm working on has them and I've been stressing. This was helpful and great timing.

  • Like 4
  • Love 1
Link to comment

It wasn't my plan to write flashbacks in my first book, but it really filled out the characters and gave me a chance to get to know them while also letting the readers see them as teenagers and adults simultaneously.  To see the changes in appearance and personality while keeping the narrative moving.  I didn't intend to do it like this, but when I read it over again, I realized I had unwittingly put a kind of mental link between present day and the flashbacks.  Like when Kyle is having dinner with his friend and his son and she brought spaghetti (for a three year old!?) and it ends up getting spilled halfway through dinner.  But the meal itself triggers the flashback of Kyle having a spaghetti dinner with his friend Andy when they were teenagers.  

I'm a big believer in that if you're going to have flashbacks, you should make a clean break in the narrative before getting into it.  Flowing from the present to the past without a pause of some sort can confuse a reader without some kind of prompt.  

  • Like 2
  • Love 2
Link to comment

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
  • Create New...

Important Information

Our Privacy Policy can be found here: Privacy Policy. We have placed cookies on your device to help make this website better. You can adjust your cookie settings, otherwise we'll assume you're okay to continue..