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How Authors Use Flashbacks

Occasionally I submit a blog to on writing. Here’s one they published last December on incorporating flashbacks into your story. I hope it helps you whether you’re a reader or a writer.

A flashback is the scene of a past event used to provide information or explain the actions or motivations in the ongoing story. It has all the elements of a scene, such as setting, action, and tension, but it takes place in the past. When you depart from chronological order, you risk confusing the reader. Does that mean you should never use flashbacks? No, but it means their use must contribute to the telling of the story. For example, in the film Casablanca, we get a glimpse of Paris and the love affair between Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) to understand the romantic tension between them when they meet years later in Casablanca.

So, when could a flashback be useful?

After the opening scene of your book: The best place to start your book is with an action scene that hooks your reader. That scene may be the beginning of your book, but it’s not necessarily the beginning of your story. Now maintain the suspense of the opening scene by taking the reader back to the real beginning of your story.

To avoid a dull stretch in your story: Use the flashback to enliven the pace of a contemplative scene or avoid a potentially dull stretch of your story, such as when a character travels from one place to another. Break from the ongoing story by having the character remember a significant event during the trip and then play out that scene.

To hide a clue from the reader: Use a flashback to drop a clue that has relevance to the ongoing story. You’re still being fair to your reader, but the clue may be less obvious when it’s planted in a flashback.

To show rather than tell: Use a flashback to show rather than tell the reader about a newly introduced character or a pre-existing relationship. As in Casablanca, instead of telling about the love affair between Rick and Ilsa, show it with all its promise and pathos in a flashback. Rather than slowing the pace of the story with exposition, a vivid flashback enables the reader to experience that past event.

So, use flashbacks sparingly and strategically. Make them vivid and brief. And give the reader the opportunity to learn something relevant to the ongoing story. I used a flashback in Chapter 2 of THE DEADLIEST SPORT to avoid calling my first chapter a prologue. (Readers confess to me that they tend to skip prologues.) Wanna see how I did that? Just “look inside” THE DEADLIEST SPORT on Amazon to read the first chapter and the beginning of the second. Click here.

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