How to Write a Flashback

Well, it’s Friday, and I’m late with my post. Sigh. But I have a good excuse this time … an example from one of my stories! You see, the post actually inspired me to do some work on Spark and that led to me creating a flashback scene where I did not think about using one before. So, for those of you who haven’t read my writing yet, there’s a taste of it at the end. For those of you who have, and more importantly, those that have read Spark, this is brand new stuff for the ending which is heading in a totally new direction. So, while I’m late, you do get some writing with explanations of my thought process that I hope will help, and I get some work done. It’s a win win.




If you have a well developed character, one who is rich and entertaining, one that drives the plot forward with his mere presence and force of being … CONGRATULATIONS, how the heck did you do it? I and thousands if not millions more would like to know. But aside from your new found fame, you’ve likely got a little problem on your hands, a problem that stretches back years, maybe even decades, your character’s past.


At any given moment our existence is the culmination of layers upon layers of dried paint on a canvas, and no matter how many times we try to blot out what came before, we cannot get rid of the rolling textures that make up the layers beneath. If we try too hard to cover up the past, the surface cracks, betraying the truth of the sedimentary layers that lie under our carefully conceived surface.


When we meet someone new, we slowly become aware of what those layers of paint peaking through the surface are. We ask the painter why the whites seem a little washed out and he tells of how the sky was once a rich purple skyline under which two lovers sat. We note that the trees don’t quite fit the tropical scene and he tells us about how the trees were adapted from the ones he started as a child in the Deep South before he understood the kinds of lazy, crooked trees that grow on the shores. 


Just as good friendships develop only when we are willing to reveal our pasts, so too does a good relationship between the reader and your character only begin when you can find a way to let your reader into the past of your character without hitting them over the head with telling. It’s achieved on many different levels, mannerisms, dialect, pet peeves, everything your character does, but those are only surface level reveals. At times we have to sit down and really have a heart to heart with our newfound friend. We have to open up and show them what we might be afraid to share because of our fears of how that new information will color their perception.


Flashbacks can be a peak into those intimate moments that the character might not otherwise reveal. We’re not just looking into the character’s thoughts, we’re looking into their past. Since we are going backwards in time, we run the risk of stopping the momentum of the story. The trick to keeping the story moving forward while reflecting on the past is to make the flashback reveal something about the current situation creating a deeper meaning than would have otherwise been impossible.


Items of note:

  • The flashback should work as a rich, clearly defined scene set in the past, but presented in the present. This is not an info dump; it is a scene just like any other. At least, it is if you want your reader to enjoy it.
  • Spring your flashback on the reader, quickly and smoothly. To do otherwise might send some readers skipping ahead so that they can get back to the action.
  • Avoid had. If you must use it, do so only when you are entering your scene and then never again. Had likes to crop up in flashbacks and is the tell tale sign that you’re not writing and immediate scene.
  • Also avoid then. “And then this happened.” Not so immediate, is it?
  • Remember to have a clear and powerful trigger to incite this flashback. The memory your character is calling up is likely not one that they want to think about, so the trigger must be a strong one.
  • Don’t forget the reveal. Your flashback should shed light on something that could not have otherwise been done through the present storyline.
  • Your flashback should be clearly related to the present story, matching up seamlessly at the beginning and end. This way your reader is not removed from the text or the flow of the story. A seamless fit keeps the story moving forward.
  • Dialogue is a nice way to quickly bring your flashback into the immediate. “Joe remembered what Bob said to him the first time they met. ‘You ain’t so bright, is ya?’ Joe shook his head at him, ‘what? Is that even English?’
  • Above all else, you have to be sure that you cannot communicate your flashback information in another way. What are other ways? In dialogue: “Hey, aren’t you that guy who did that one thing?” Thoughts: Joe was hoping that Bob would not recognize him from the article they ran in the paper when he did that one thing.


Now then, I thought I might share an example from my own work. It just so happens that in the rewrite of Spark’s ending I came up with the idea of using a flashback rather than a scene jump. In the previous version Silas’ ability flares, a man falls, and then I section break and head into Act III which is staged elsewhere later in the evening. This time I wanted to carry over more of the emotion I had been building towards the end of Act II. I still section break, but this time I have Silas open his eyes and:



Silas opened his eyes and found the broken remains of Victor lying at his feet. The man coughed. Blood spattered to his lips like the sputtering of a volcano at the end of its life. With each nearly imperceptible fall of his chest came a slow wheeze that clawed its way up Victor’s throat. The sound called up memories that Silas tried to shake away, older memories than Victor was looking for.

He was back home driving a sputtering tractor held together by rust and too much axel grease. The air, thick with humidity, hung low to the ground that day, held in place by a warm shift in the air pressure that forecasted a coming storm. He turned the hauler back toward the barn and caught sight of a familiar black and white blur crossing over to the south. Skip darted back and forth in front of the tractor, chasing anything that moved. A covey of quail burst into the air, their whooping protests barely audible over the steady pop pop of the diesel engine. They swung around to the west towards a low hanging sun, their wings just missing the tips of cornstalks leading to the house. He followed their flight until the machine lurched with a yelp.

Gears ground in his panicked attempt to stop the stubborn machine. If father had seen it he would have caught hell but he was not thinking of father. Even if the old man was standing over him instead of halfway back to the house in the combine, Silas’ reaction would have been the same. The tractor hiccupped to a stop that probably led to the hours of wrench work in the weeks that followed.

Silas was on the ground by the time the tire tread settled into place. He knelt down next to a still lump of fur, too afraid to touch it for fear it might lash out in pain. A cool blue eye looked up at him sideways, doing the turning that the dog’s neck seemed unable to. He saw a kind of permission there, an invitation to help him. Silas slipped his hands beneath the limp form and hoisted it up.

Father’s combine was too far away to call out to, the farm even further. He headed towards the road. No sooner did he cross through the ditch water and onto the road than an old Ford eased to a stop, the wooden slats of its bed rattling in time with the engine.

“Need some help?” called a tar choked voice from the cab. Silas nodded and the man told him to get in. Silas started to climb up on the bed when the passenger door swung open letting out a waft of sweet tobacco. A leathered hand waved him in, wet jeans and all.

Silas did not know old Mr. Slone. Nor did he want to. If he was anything like his children or his grandkids, then he was just another self-absorbed old codger who cared for nothing more than the next farm he was about to buy up. “Keep the pup up front with us, son,” he said as Silas started to lay Skip down on the bed.  

He didn’t take Silas home. They drove over ten miles to the home of the local vet. Halfway there, Skip nuzzled into Silas and let out a clipped sigh that his lungs never rose from. Silas did not say anything at first but mother’s proprieties eventually won out. No sense in having a stranger go even further out of his way because he did not want to accept the truth.

“I think he’s –”

“Almost there, just a couple more miles,” the man said without looking at him, eyes fixed on a road that anyone in town could have driven blindfolded.

“That’s what I’m trying to say, I don’t think he’ll be able to do anything.” Silas paused for a deep breath. “It’s too late.”

“All of God’s creatures deserve every chance they can get. He was willing to make it this far, it’s the least we can do to take him the rest of the way.”

The Mr. Slone was waiting for him after the vet was done. They wrapped skip in an old blanket so that he could be buried back on the farm under his favorite shade tree. “My house is just down the road. It’s supper time and I’m sure both of our families are getting worried. Why don’t you have dinner with us and we’ll phone your folks from there?”

That was the night he met Mr. Slone’s granddaughter, a determined girl a few years behind him in school but years his senior when it came to maturity save for one thing. All through dinner she stared at him like she was trying to figure out a puzzle tattooed on his forehead. She insisted on riding back with them after the last of the gravy had been sopped up. When they got to Silas’ she walked with him to the front door as he carried Skip.

There was no one with him now, to knock on doors. No one willing to stop their car for a grown man carrying another grown man as grizzled as Victor down the street in his arms. Passersby ignored him even as the rain began to fall. Silas watched through shop windows as a vender raced from his counter to the door, latching it just before he could get there. “Sorry, we closed. No, no, you go away. Closed now. Come back tomorrow.” 



Admittedly, this probably still needs work, but it gives you an idea of what I have in mind. I’m trying to do several things with this flashback:

First, identity: I wanted to help the reader identify with Silas a little bit more. In various incarnations of the story I had tried to reveal Silas’ upbringing and his life pre-city but failed to do so appropriately. I also wanted the reader to get the sense that he has character.

Second, past: I have an antagonist who is not fleshed out and who also needed a hint of back-story, something that allowed the reader to believe in the bond Silas has with her without spending a great deal of time on it.

Third, emotion: I wanted to draw that pain and suspense out, and it was going to be difficult to do that with two grown men, one of whom is a hit man. However, if you insert cute family dog into that scenario, you not only explain how it is that Silas can be so empathetic, but you can also allow him to feed on emotions that the reader might not otherwise be aware of.

Fourth, foreshadowing: The past is relating to the present in a clearly and possibly hinting at something in the future.

Fifth, comparison: I seem to have a theme that runs through my contemporary fantasy that has to do with comparing city life to rural life. It probably stems from my time living in San Francisco during my art school years. While I love visiting the city, I’d never want to live there. On the other hand, I’m a bit too much of a culture snob to fully appreciate the country experience. It lends itself well for writing because I experience everything, but when it comes to real life it leaves me as an outsider because I just don’t fit in. Le sigh. 

Now, go forth and flashback. Oh, and comment ... and add ... and spred the word. 

Edit 090802: I should note that this flashback has since been cut from the story. Upon further reflection and consultation with my crit partner, I realized that I was trying to tell the reader too much. When I explained to my crit partner what I was trying to do with the romance bit and how convoluted the relationships were, she said, "Yeah, I kind of already got that," meaning she understood the relationship without having to be told about it. I never told her all of the backstory, she picked it up from the way the characters interacted. 

While I was very much looking forward to adding all that extra writing in, I had to take a long hard look at the story and decide if my flashback was necessary or something I was adding in to make myself feel better. Turned out I was adding it in to make myself feel better. So this serves as an object lesson in not being afraid to pull out the hatchet and whack away when it is called for. 

It is worth noting that as the writer, I needed to work through this segment for myself. That flashback had to be written so that I could understand my characters better. Without it, I might still be wondering around in my head unsure as to why characters were doing things. So if you feel compelled to write your flashback, by all means, do so, just be sure to pay extra attention to it when you come back through with your red pen of death. 


Anonymous said...

Tease! I really can't wait to read the rest of it now. :)

Just a thought, but for me, the granddaughter felt familiar. Perhaps, this is the woman that he ultimately fell in love with prior to Jan?

(Oh, ode to the characters whose stories are never fully realized beyond the sprinkling of back-story!)

Good post, David.

David Noceti said...

Yeah, Mel's a bit suspicious. She's wondering how I'm going to tie everything together without making it Soap Operish. My response, "I'm not sure either."

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