How to Skillfully Use Flashbacks in Your Novels

Reunion Loew Cover NookMy day today got off to the best start ever. My latest novel, The Reunion, just got another five-star review on Amazon. One comment made so far by all of the reviewers is how well the flashback scenes were done.

If used properly, flashback scenes can greatly enhance the story, and can be a terrific tool for telling the back-story. Poorly done, however, they can be a distraction or a hindrance, blocking your story flow and annoying the reader. Here are my suggestions on how to apply flashback scenes.

Use flashbacks sparinglyThe Reunion has fifty chapters, but only four are flashbacks, and the flashbacks end after Chapter Six.  The story is set in the present time with the characters in the here and now. Therefore I didn’t want to spend too much time with the flashbacks.

Make sure your flashbacks are relevant to the present time. Since The Reunion is about two lovers having a second chance later in life, the purpose of the flashbacks was so readers could see them meet for the first time, consummate their relationship for the first time, and get a general feel for their earlier relationship. Interestingly enough, I decided not to show their original break up as a flashback. That back-story is instead told in dialogue when leading lady Gillian describes their break up to a friend. Dialogue, by the way, is another great tool for telling the back-story.

Watch where you insert a flashback. Never drop a flashback in the middle of a cliffhanger. This will upset and annoy your reader to no end. I lead up to the flashback at the ending of a chapter, with the flashback starting at the next chapter. This way my reader is prepared for the flashback scene.

The following is an example of how I set up one of the flashback scenes from The Reunion. It includes the end of Chapter One, with the last paragraph setting up the flashback scene, which immediately begins with Chapter Two.

* * *

Gillian looked a good ten years younger than her actual age. Despite all the time that had passed, she still looked much the same. About the only noticeable difference between then and now was that her long blonde hair was now a shoulder length pageboy. She started to reminisce about the past and her mind suddenly filled with a whirlwind of images of all they had shared, the good times as well as the bad. It was like watching a movie, but the scenes were spliced together out of sequence.

“Calm down, Gillian,” she told her reflection. “You’ve got to pull yourself together.”

 She took a few more deep breaths, and as she did the events of one particular day began playing back in her mind with crystal clarity. It was the day she first laid eyes on Ian Palmer.

Two

Gillian jammed her paintbrush into her palette and glanced at the wall clock. It was almost four twenty-five. Class would be over at four-thirty.

“Damn it,” she muttered to herself as she tried to work more white paint into the canvas.

This particular painting was one of those projects that simply wasn’t coming together, and the more she worked with it the worse it got. It happened to every artist from time to time, but it was never good when it happened in a university art class the day before the project was due, and the painting in question would count toward the final grade.

“So what’s up, Miss Hanson?”

The voice behind her was that of her professor, Dr. Kinney. Kinney was a good instructor, but he could be hard-nosed when he wanted to be.

“I just can’t seem to get the lighting right on this one, Dr. Kinney.”

“Obviously. So now you’ve overworked it to the point that it’s turned into mud. A half hour ago this painting wasn’t that bad. You should have quit while you were ahead.”

“Should I come back later tonight and try to fix it?”

The university kept the art studio doors unlocked until ten o’clock every night so students could comeback and put in extra time, if it was needed.

“At this point, Miss Hanson, it would be a complete waste of time. As it stands right now, you have a few aspects that are still working. As I just said, if I were in your shoes I’d quit while I was ahead, especially if I had any aspirations of passing this class. You’ll get your new assignment next week. Perhaps you’ll have better luck then.”

As her professor turned away to announce that class was dismissed, Gillian let out a frustrated sigh…