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How I Learned to Love the Flashback

Editor’s Note: Amy Rose Davis is looking for suggestions on what topic to write about next. Fantasy Writers, please give her some ideas on what you would like Amy to discuss in the coming weeks by leaving a message in the comments section 🙂

There are very few writing habits, techniques, styles, or voices that I will just come out and say I hate. I try very hard to practice writing agnosticism, which means that I tend to believe you really can’t know beyond a doubt what the right thing is for any given writer or story.

The exception to my agnosticism used to be flashbacks. I hated flashbacks. I hated writing them and reading them. But in recent years, I’ve grown to appreciate them for the purposes they do serve—they can build character, provide relevant details, give the reader a “breather,” and any number of other things.

The main pitfall or problem with a flashback is that it lacks immediacy. By its very definition, it takes place outside story time. You remove your readers from the timeline and put them into another timeline—one from the past. Why is that a bad thing? Readers want to move forward, not back. They want to know what happens next, not what happened first. To get your reader to appreciate what happened in the past, you have to handle that past very, very carefully.

The trick is to integrate your flashbacks so smoothly and seamlessly that your reader doesn’t feel the speed bump entering or exiting the flashback. Perfecting the technique is tricky, and I don’t think I have it down 100% myself, but I’ll offer some bits of advice for who, why, when, and how to use the flashbacks to improve your piece.

The Who

The best flashbacks are the ones experienced by characters the reader cares about—main characters, or at a minimum, point of view characters. In other words, there’s probably little compelling reason to give a flashback to a character who only appears once in your novel.

Likewise, give your reader time to care about your character before introducing a flashback. Your reader needs context, and that means he needs a little time to get to know and care about your character before you give the character a flashback. Otherwise, the flashback won’t mean anything to the reader. It will feel like an infodump or unnecessary exposition.

The Why

Are you just looking for a way to give information? A flashback may not be the best way to do that. Flashbacks are best reserved for moments when no other technique will really do the trick. Use them to build character or show the reader why your character acts the way he does. If you just need to give information, find ways to do that in dialogue or exposition.

The When

Flashbacks, by definition, slow down the action, lack immediacy, and pull the reader out of the story time. If you use one, make sure it follows or occurs in the midst of a very strong scene. The strong scenes will keep your reader grounded in story time and make the reader care more about what happens in the flashback. It’s hard to care about flashbacks when they have little or no context.

The How

Now to the actual technique. If you are writing in the past tense, you need to start your flashback with the past perfect tense. That’s a really fancy way of saying “use the verb ‘to have.’” This isn’t as hard as it sounds. Here’s an example from my novella Silver Thaw:

The winds howled louder, and a clap of thunder struck not far away. Niko jumped, then resettled his robes around himself. You jump like a novice at his first blessing day. But novices had nothing to fear but a stern glance from the archbishop. He remembered his own first blessing day, decades before, when he had donned the black robes of a novice and given himself to the church. As a fifth son of an earl, Niko had grown up knowing he would choose between the church and the royal army. An apprenticeship to a merchant would not do for an earl’s son, and Niko had shamed himself before his brothers in the practice yard too many times to delude himself into believing that the army would want him.

When Niko had gone before the archbishop to receive his first blessing, his mouth had been dry and his tongue as thick as the sole of his shoes. He’d wetted it with citrus water given to him by the priest who ushered the nervous and eager boys into the archbishop’s presence. Sweet voices of young virgins echoed off the cathedral walls in a hymn of praise and peace in the distance.

The verb phrases “had donned,” “had grown,” “had shamed,” etc. are language cues to the reader. They tell the reader that the story is going back in time. Once you’ve established that you’re going into a flashback, you simply return to past tense, as in my last sentence: “Sweet voices of young virgins echoed…” The flashback continues from there in the past tense before returning to story time.
To return to story time, you simply keep using the standard past tense, but you do need to give your reader a few setting cues that you’re back in story time. Here’s how I returned to story time from the flashback I started above:

The wind swirled around him, and Niko thought he could still hear the ringing of the bells and the virgins singing as the archbishop gave him the new slippers.

If you’re writing in present tense, flashbacks are even easier. You simply shift to past tense for the flashback and return to present tense when you re-enter story time. You may still want to give some cues of setting, though. You need to re-anchor your reader in story time.

How did I learn to love the flashback? I used several of them to tell the story in Silver Thaw. The main conflict of the story is man vs. creature, so the arc involves people trying to destroy or be destroyed by a creature from legend. But I discovered in writing the story that I could use flashbacks to build character and show how each man approached his attempt at destroying the creature differently than the other men. Using flashbacks allowed me to build the world, the characters, and the setting more fully, and it gave a common link to the four different points of view.

I’ve come to view the flashback as a powerful tool in my literary arsenal. Used with care, they can help bring your characters and your worlds to life in your reader’s imagination.



  1. Avatar Tim says:

    Nice work. I find a flashback to be very useful in developing a new character as a point of view character. After they’ve had a few scenes for the reader to get used to them you can have a flashback to really get to know a character that is only new to the story. If you over use flashbacks on established characters you risk contradicting what the reader has already learnt about the character.

  2. Avatar Kyla says:

    Thanks for this Amy, food for thought as always. I definitely think flashbacks should be brief and functional otherwise they are very dull to read. I try to focus on one evocative moment in flashbacks like your excerpt to keep up the pace.

  3. Avatar Kyla says:

    Idea for future article- something about violence and gore in fantasy? What’s too much/not enough?

  4. Avatar Alex says:

    Great article!

    Flashbacks work best when they’re late in the story. Get us hooked on the characters and plot, and once we care about them we’ll be happy (and actually craving) more information in the form of flashbacks.

    I just came across an example last night while reading Reaper’s Gale by Steven Erikson. It’s the seventh book in the series, and we only just learned about the origin of Moranth munitions, which had been used by the characters in every book since the first.

  5. Avatar Overlord says:

    Taster Of Twitter suggestions:

    @FantasyFaction have you guys already done something with action scenes in fantasy? or something do with sword-combat or something?

    @FantasyFaction I’m fairly new to FF, so this might have been covered already, but: creating new religions?

    @FantasyFaction I’d find an article on how to write songs useful. What makes a song great or a bit of a fail?

    @FantasyFaction How to handle language? Not just how characters understand each other, but do you invent new syntax, etc.? Keep it simple?

    @FantasyFaction Themes! Themes are totally neglected sometimes. Also, bringing the funny.

  6. I was wondering on the fight/action scenes as well. I might have missed a post, but I’d like to read on writing that. 🙂

    Thank you for these posts. I do enjoy reading and learning from them. 🙂

  7. Avatar Khaldun says:

    Actually, all of the suggestions you mentioned from Twitter are good ones. I’ll be happy either way!

  8. Avatar Khaldun says:

    GRRM is a master of the flashback. Sometimes I read a few pages and barely notice entering and leaving the flashback at all, and I go back and consciously look to see exactly how he managed it. So much information comes from the brief flashbacks he includes throughout the text.

  9. I love flashbacks and use them extensively (my novel At An Uncertain Hour) is largely built around them, but I agree they have to be handled carefully. Besides filling in background detail, they can create their own tension if they’re serving a mystery of “how did we get here from there?” The best flashback writer I’ve ever come across, in my opinion, is Iain Banks (with or without the M).

  10. Thank you for all the lovely comments and suggestions, folks! I’m going to make a list and start addressing each topic you’ve mentioned. Feel free to post more suggestions or send me a tweet with your ideas. I’m on Twitter as amyjrosedavis. Thanks!

  11. I have found flashback to be a very useful way of handing out information, especially with a little foreshadowing of the flashback in the story. Maybe a little dialogue or thought about something that happened in the past that will have an effect on the present, and then show what happened to make the character determined, afraid or whatever. I also find that flashbacks are most interesting when they show action, maybe in a rest sequence between real time action. I know some don’t like using any kind of technique that doesn’t seem new and fresh, but I enjoy them to a point in things I am reading myself, and since I write for readers like myself I think they will enjoy them as well.

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