Some tips for using flashbacks

Flashbacks can be great things because they show backstory in real time, versus just narrative (which is “telling” rather than “showing”).

However, they tend to slow the reading flow—either with the content of the flashback or the initial transition into the flashback. So you have to place and use flashbacks very judiciously.

1—Be careful about WHEN you go into flashback. Since the transition will slow the reading flow, specifically time your flashback for when you want to create a lull in the reading pace, maybe after a tense or conflicted scene.

2—Be careful about HOW you go into flashback. The best thing is to have the flashback triggered by a very significant event in the story. Don’t just morph into a flashback from a scene that’s already meandering, or else you could lose reader interest.

3—Make the flashback as CONFLICTED and TENSE as you can. The transition is already going to slow the reading pace, so make the flashback powerful and vivid to keep the reading flow going smoothly. Use the principles of Scene and Sequel from Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer. I have several articles based on Swain here.

Go back over your manuscript and find your flashback scenes. Can you rewrite the scenes for more vividness? Can you change their placement for better story rhythm? Can you find a better trigger for the flashback?


  1. I teach creative writing at Missouri State University, and one of my students asked for advice about using flashbacks. I referred him to this blog entry; quick, but through summary of the bare basics. Thanks!


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