How to Skillfully Use Flashbacks in Your Novels

A section of a clock placed in front of a starry sky.
© Can Stock Photo / Nikki24

Readers give us great feedback. Nearly all of the reader reviewers for my debut Marina Martindale novel, The Reunion, commented on how well the flashback scenes were done.

If used properly, flashback scenes can greatly enhance the story. They can be a terrific tool for telling the backstory. Poorly done, however, and they can become a distraction or even a hindrance. They block your story flow and annoy the reader.

How to use flashbacks in your novel

  • Use flashbacks sparinglyThe Reunion has fifty chapters, but only four include flashbacks. The story is set in the present time. Therefore I didn’t want to spend too much time with the flashbacks.
  • Your flashbacks should be relevant to the present time. The Reunion is about two lovers having a second chance many years later. The flashbacks were a tool to allow the reader to see the characters meet for the first time and get a general feel for their earlier relationship. I decided not to show their original break up as a flashback. That backstory is instead told in dialogue. Dialogue, by the way, is another great tool for telling the backstory.
  • Watch where you insert a flashback. Never drop a flashback in the middle of a scene, especially if it’s cliffhanger. This will greatly upset and annoy your reader. I lead up to the flashback at the ending of a present day chapter. This prepares the reader for the flashback.

how to place a flashback

This flashback from The Reunion includes the ending paragraphs from Chapter One, with the last paragraph setting up the flashback scene. The flashback 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.

Chapter 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.

In conclusion

As you can see, I’ve set the reader up for the flashback by referencing about how the events of one particular day played back in the character’s mind. The reader is then well prepared, and even expects, the next chapter to be a flashback.

And finally, I only used flashbacks in The Reunion. I only did so because of the long interval of time between two characters interactions. None of my other novels include flashbacks.

GM

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