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Monday, July 23, 2018

Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Don't Use Flashbacks!"

At some point in your writing journey, you may have had someone complain about a flashback in your story. Or maybe you were the one complaining about someone else's. Or maybe you axed one simply because you were told to, but you don't understand why.

Want to know one of my not-so-secret secrets? Just as I love great prologues, I love great flashbacks! Every time someone told me they were bad, a little particle of my creativity died, because a number of my all-time favorite stories use flashbacks--and they were sometimes some of my favorite parts! (Isn't that so bad?? ;)

What's the Rule?

Flashbacks are scenes that take place in an earlier time than the story's main timeline.

Advice that is commonly given to writers learning the craft is,

Don't use flashbacks!

Why it's a Rule

Why are flashbacks such an issue?

Let me explain.

A lot of new writers overuse flashbacks and use them at the wrong times and in the wrong ways. I've looked at a lot of unpublished story openings. You might would be shocked how often stories begin in the present and then have a flashback only several paragraphs in. This is a problem for a few reasons, but some particular to this opening are:

- If you flashback too early, it might be a sign that you started the story in the wrong spot

- If you flashback too early, it might be a sign that what's happening in the present doesn't have enough tension or intrigue to hold the audience, and you are trying to make up for it by going backwards

- If you flashback too early, the audience hasn't had time to get grounded into the story and characters. Until they care about the story and the characters, they likely won't care about the flashback.

You may be tempted to have a flashback in the opening of your novel or somewhere in your first five chapters. You probably should almost never do this. The audience needs to care about what's happening in the present first. 

But flashbacks can go wrong at other parts of the story too, not just the opening. It's just that they can be particularly problematic in the opening, and they are surprisingly commonly put in there.

One of the main problems with flashbacks is this:

Because flashbacks happen in the past, they immediately and inherently take immediacy (and therefore tension) out of the story.

What has already happened has already happened, and it can't be changed, and it's in the past, so typically it can't be as interesting as the present. Remember a week ago when I said more tension is created by looking forward, not back?

A lot of times, unpublished writers want to put in whole scenes of flashbacks when a bit of summary or backstory weaved in would work fine. Whatever they are trying to include does not need or deserve its own flashback scene.


What is included in the flashback doesn't usually need its own scene. The information can be weaved into the main timeline

 Uugh, but a great flashback and be so, well . . . great. Let's move along.

When and How to Break the Rule

Remember a few sentences ago when I said that the audience won't care about the flashback until they care about the story and characters? This is why you should almost never have a flashback near the beginning. On some rare occasions you can get away with it if you absolutely have to (in a particular type of story tricky to pull off, they may function as teasers)--but if you use one early, it should be short. After all, in the beginning of the novel, you are still trying to get the audience invested in the story, and killing tension and immediacy is not a great approach.

(Worth noting is that using flashbacks once or a few times in a story is different than having a story that follows two or more different timelines that are weaved together. In that case, you would be showing multiple timelines in the opening of the story and that's fine, though it has its own advantages and disadvantages.)

Flashbacks are typically most powerful when looking back is effective because of what we know or suspect in the present or predict for the future. 

There has to be some kind of value in looking back that's worth the change in time and the lack of immediacy.

The audience doesn't usually care about the flashback until they care about the present story and characters, so, in order to make a flashback most effective, you relate it to what is happening or could happen in the story. This might be done obviously, or it might be done more covertly.

You've probably seen this time and again and may or may not have realized it.

There are really two main reasons to use a flashback.

1. Character Background and Motivation

Flashbacks should not be your automatic go-to for backstory and motivation, but it can be a good reason to have a flashback if having something in the past rendered dramatically adds to our understanding of the character in the present (or in some cases, future).

Not all backgrounds deserve their own flashback, and you want to be careful that in putting this information in a dramatized one that you aren't actually diminishing your character's subtext and intrigue by revealing everything on the page about them or revealing it at the wrong point. Even with the flashback, they should still have some subtext.

Subtext > Flashback

The subtext should always be greater than the flashback. This means the flashback either maintains some subtext or introduces new subtext.

The backstory needs to be interesting enough to sustain the audience despite the lack of immediacy.

These kinds of flashbacks provide insight into why a character is the way he is or how she knows what she knows, or anything like that. But they are probably one of the most overused flashbacks, because writers may care more about the character's past than the audience actually does (which is why it needs to be particularly interesting)

In the movie Split, protagonist Casey is unusual compared to other girls her age, and when she and two others are abducted, Casey understands how her abductor operates better than the others (and how to survive). The audience wonders about her unusual behaviors and demeanor and methods, but in flashbacks it's revealed that like their abductor, she has also had to weather repetitive abuse. Watching the flashbacks play out is more powerful because of how atypical she and her backstory are. They wouldn't have been as emotionally effective if relayed in dialogue or summary.

Once again the flashbacks are powerful because our understanding of the past is important to the present (her character and the fact she's dealing with an abductor) and future (because of her background, she has success getting away.)

One key of writing particularly great flashbacks is to get the audience to wonder, want, and yearn for them before they happen. That way when they do happen, readers are glued to the book.

2. Important Past Events and/or Information

Like character background, key events or information might be important for the audience to understand or appreciate the present (or future of the) story. These things should add depth or significance to the narrative. If they don't do either of these things, you might want to reevaluate if you really need them as a flashback.

For important events, it might not be plausible to fit them into the story in the typical ways. If it happened long before the main story--perhaps even decades--it might not work well at the beginning of the novel. In some cases, you can make it work as a prologue or opening, but only if it carries the right promises and gives the right impression of the main story.

With events and information--these things may not seem important or pertinent to the story at the beginning, in and of themselves. But as the story develops, so does the need for them. Again, this may relate to having the audience hunger for the flashbacks before they are on the page.

Other times, having this important information enter the story at a particular point adds value both to the flashback and the present story. This can be really great for mysteries and undercurrents.

In a flashback at the right point, the audience may put together who the murderer actually is, for example, because looking back at the event from a particular point in the main story gives the flashback a different meaning and context. This may or may not be something that the character puts together, depending on how it's handled and the effect you are going for.

But do you see how handling a flashback in that way may actually make a story more powerful? Not weaker? This is perhaps one of my favorite ways flashbacks are used.

Now that the audience and/or character has realized something from receiving the right flashback and the right time, the future of the story changes.

Therefore the flashback is pertinent to the past, present, AND future of the story.

Now that's a great flashback. (And a lot easier said than done. But it can be done. And hopefully it now makes more sense why I love a good flashback.)

Worth noting is that the flashback itself should have tension or intrigue and/or emotional appeals. Like I said, pacing has to do more with tension, intrigue, and conflict than with cutting or adding something. Similarly, you can help make up for lost tension when looking backwards by making sure the actual flashback scene has that. Keep in mind that sometimes the point and context of the main story may be used to provide that when looking back at the right moment in the book.

How long a flashback can sustain an audience is proportional to how relevant it is to the present and future of the story, and how hungry they are for it. (Perhaps an exception to this would be a flashback that functions as a teaser. In that case, as with all teasers, it should be short.)

Whew! Now let's look at a famous example that embodies ALL these things.


But before I get some flack, I should acknowledge that some people may not actually consider this a flashback because we are getting information the same time as the protagonist and are technically in the protagonist's viewpoint. (J. K. Rowling cleverly gets away with any would-be flashbacks by have the pensieve.) However, I argue that the sequence would have been nearly as effective on the audience, if not just as effective, if it was handled as a typical flashback, as long as Harry still got the same information (maybe he'd get it through dialogue while the audience was treated to a flashback). Anyway, my point is, whether or not this is considered technically a flashback, it still functions as one and hits all the points I've been making. And it is: "The Prince's Tale."

Perhaps one of the most anticipated, pivotal chapters of the entire Harry Potter series (and some would probably argue that it is the most pivotal.)

And guess what? That chapter is essentially 30 freakin' pages of flashbacks. And every. Single. Moment. Was riveting.

How does that work? Because it accomplished everything I outlined here.

1. The audience was not only hungry, but starved for it. And the need for the flashbacks developed as the story did.

From the very first book, Snape has been difficult to discern. By the time we got to "The Prince's Tale" everyone was starving to understand him and his allegiances (some say he's even one of the best characters written of our time). The need to understand grew. What the heck was his story and--

2. Motivation and background were important to know and understand.

Finally we get Snape's backstory. Finally we understand his motivations better than we ever have before. And holy cow, are they important. Not just to his character, but to other characters--Lily, James, Dumbledore, and especially, Harry.

3. Subtext is greater than the flashbacks.

Even though we finally get Snape's backstory and motive, Rowling feeds us an entirely new kind of subtext, which gives us an entirely different interpretation of everything Snape has done in the series. The scenes don't directly tell everything to us. They still allow room for the audience to put things together themselves.

4. Important past events and/or information.

All of the information is important to the overall story--in fact, some of it is absolutely vital.

5. Having this important information enter the story at this particular point adds value both to the flashback and the present story.

If we had received this information at a different part of the series, or throughout the series, it would have had a very different affect on the narrative and on the readers' experiences. When it comes in, adds value. It was important both to the past and the present that the information be revealed at that time.

6. Therefore the flashback is pertinent to the past, present, AND future of the story.

Because of the flashbacks, Harry learns the last thing he needs to do in order to defeat Voldemort. The flashbacks are important to all three time periods and help us predict what will happen next.

7. The flashback itself should have tension or intrigue and/or emotional appeals

Is there really much more intriguing than finally learning Snape's backstory? The tension that begins to build as we begin to understand what Harry must do? The sense of mystery and shock and . . . love?

8. How long a flashback can sustain an audience is proportional to how relevant it is to the present and future of the story.

Because of these things, Rowling was able to easily sustain an audience through about 30 pages of flashbacks.

If that chapter isn't a good example of flashbacks, I don't know what is.


  1. I am writing a memoir and want to start at the point of what I call impact, which is in the past.
    The craft books I have read on this genre say to start at the beginning..the past..them move to the present, to the past, etc until you hit the end, present tense or the final outcome of the situation. Is this something you can comment on?

    1. It sounds kind of like you are describing having two different timelines. Is that what you mean? Starting in the "past" is not necessarily a flashback, if that is what you open with. Many prologues (or prologues disguised as first chapters) function this way. For example, the first chapter in Harry Potter (which is really more of a prologue) happens long before the rest of the story, but it's not a flashback. And I think it is fine.


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