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 reviews for my debut Marina Martindale contemporary romance novel, The Reunion, commented on how well the flashback scenes were done.

If used properly, flashbacks can greatly enhance the story. They’re 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 and when to use flashbacks 

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. 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. However, I didn’t include their original break up as a flashback. It’s told in the dialogue. Dialogue, by the way, is another great tool for telling the backstory.
  • Watch where you place a flashback. Never drop a flashback in the middle of a scene, especially if it’s cliffhanger. This will greatly upset your reader. I lead up to the flashback at the ending of a present day chapter. This prepares the reader for the flashback in the next chapter.
How to place a flashback

This flashback from The Reunion includes the ending paragraphs from Chapter One, with the last paragraph setting up the 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. As she reminisced about the past 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.” As she took a few more deep breaths 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 clock. It was almost four twenty-five. Class would be over at four-thirty.

“Damn it,” she said under her breath as she tried to work more white paint into the canvas. This particular painting simply wasn’t coming together, and the more she worked with it the worse it became. 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 well prepared, and expects, the next chapter to be a flashback.

And finally, I only used flashbacks in The Reunion. I’ve not included them in any of my later Matina Martindale contemporary romances. They were only used in The Reunion because of the long interval of time between two characters’ interactions.

Use flashbacks sparingly, and then only use them when they are absolutely necessary to enhance the plotline.

Gayle Martin, aka Marina Martindale

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