Going back in time: 10 Key Steps to writing a flashback scene

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On my way to completing my first manuscript I had to figure out how to get all of the important backstory pieces into play. I knew the importance of immediacy as a main ingredient to fiction writing. I knew going back in time should be used sparingly because it halts the forward motion of the story.

I want my readers involved in the here and now of the story. But the readers also needed to know that Katia lost her mother when she was fifteen and that she took on the role of mother to her five-year old little brother who has autism spectrum disorder. I needed them to know WHY she doesn’t have many friends now and WHY she is a bit dark and WHY she chose to become a paramedic instead of going to college as she dreamed of doing.

I needed flashbacks (something from the past to help a reader understand what compels the protagonist now). I thought that it was important to give the background early so the reader could understand the moment.

My mentor didn’t agree. She put a big red ex through 90% of my first draft of the first chapter. In the margin, she wrote two very important notes:

  1. Where is the inciting incident? It should show up before I am thirty pages into your story, and definitely before I am sent to the past.
  2. Flashbacks should follow a strong scene. Never make it your first. I am not invested yet.

When I read the notes, I did what most new writers do. I pouted. Then I reread her comments, all of them. Then I took out all of that backstory and put it in a separate word document to work in throughout the novel as flashbacks. When I was finished licking my wounds, I went to work on my revisions. When I read back through the new draft, I was proud. It was better. It was more exciting. It was good. Well, mostly good. There was more revision yet to come, but in that moment I was happy. It actually rejuvenated me and reminded me that writing a novel is a multi-layered process.

At the end of my second round of revisions, I still had about half of the chapter one backstory left in my separate file. I tossed it. I decided it was just more than was needed to move the story forward. Another note from my mentor was, “If you take the information out, and the reader still gets what he needs, leave it out.” I did.

Next, I found an amazing beta reader in my daughter-in-law. She told me I was wonderful (as relatives tend to do), but she was not afraid to tell me where she got lost in the draft. Here are a couple of her marginal comments:

  1. Wow. We were on a beach in an ambulance and suddenly we were at a 16th birthday party. This jarred me out of the story.
  2. Not only are we at a party, we then go even earlier. Stoooooooooop. I can’t take it. (And yes, she used that many o’s.)

She was right, of course. I anchored the reader by giving an age (16), but I did not use a smooth transition to get us there. The result was a loss of narrative continuity.

She also pointed out something in a later flashback that I did well:

  1. This scene was powerful. It showed me exactly why Sandman is so convinced killing the women is the only way.

Working on my edits based on the comments of my beta reader was actually fun. I am not sure it should have been, but it was. What I realized with that round of edits is that refining is what makes a good piece of writing great. I wanted my work to be great. I read with a new eye on each scene. In another place in the same flashback, I found that my protagonist swiped her screen to bring her cell phone to life when, in actuality, swiping would not have been a thing that far in the past. Making her triple-tap a message not only made the scene more authentic, it better oriented the reader to where we were in the past.

Many works of fiction have flashbacks, or moments when a character is thinking in the present about something that happened in the past. When you are writing a flashback scene, how much detail is too much detail? What will you add? Take out? What will the result of the flashback be on the future of the story? There are rules for writing flashbacks, things you have to decide and plan. I do not profess to know them all, but here is a review of ten things I have learned as I worked through revisions of my novel:

  1. Have your flashback follow a strong scene, which means it should never be your first scene.
  2. Make your reader care about your protagonist before you halt the forward motion of the novel.
  3. Do not mess with your reader’s patience by going from one flashback into another earlier one.
  4. If you go back in time, remember that the reader was not with you when you did it. He or she does not intrinsically know where you have taken them. Orient them to time and place.
  5. Orient them smoothly with a transition sentence. Smooth can mean that the protagonist moves into the flashback naturally, such as encountering a smell or thought that leads to the past. But it doesn’t have to be. The first sentence of the flashback can be jarring, but it has to be jarring for a reason.
  6. Watch the details. If your character is flashing back five years or more, you can bet there will be differences in the world.
  7. As a general rule, flashbacks should recall a scene of emotional power. Haunting or happy, it must give the reader something necessary and real.
  8. Flashbacks do not mean it is okay to tell. Don’t summarize. You still need to show.
  9. Remember what is important is the current arc of your story. Do not spend too much time in your flashback scene.
  10. Getting back into your story is as important as the transition into the flashback. How is the protagonist brought our of the flashback? Use the transition back to show us. What changes for the protagonist because of the flashback?

Do you have other tips for writing a successful flashback? Let me know in the comments.

Do you want even more on flashbacks? Here are some of my favorites:

http://www.novel-writing-help.com/flashbacks-in-writing.html

Nail Your Character’s Backstory With This One Simple Tip

http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/blog/2011/03/21/what-makes-a-flashback-sizzle/

Passing Time Is The Secret To Improving Your Story

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