Imagine this: After an old, familiar argument with your spouse that, as always, goes nowhere except to hurt feelings and hard silence, you’re walking in the park to cool off when a young family comes by, parents, two kids, and a dog.
The kids go tearing off with screams of glee toward a nearby playground while the dog barks joyfully and the parents settle onto a park bench, the husband’s arm around his wife as he leans in and whispers something in her ear that makes her smile.
The sight makes your heart ache, remembering when that was you and your spouse, young parents struggling financially. Every summer you felt guilty there were no big vacations to Disney World or Six Flags, but you just didn’t have the money.
All you could do was take the kids down to the public playground, but you both tried hard to make it fun: packing picnics with special treats like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches cut into animal shapes, big bags of popcorn you’d made at home, the occasional forbidden can of soda the kids treated like the Holy Grail of refreshments.
Your spouse never worried about getting dirty or looking ridiculous. She’d climb right up on the monkey bars with the kids, crawl through plastic tunnels not meant for grown adults, beckon you over with a big smile to join them and slide down the cheap metal slide—scorching the backs of your legs—in a four-person caravan with the kids sandwiched between you.
You remember one such time in particular, tumbling to the turf at the bottom of the slide in a big family pile, laughing so hard you got a stitch in your side, which made the kids laugh even harder. Sprawled half across you, your spouse leaned over and placed a soft, warm kiss on your mouth, and you felt as if nothing mattered—not the unpaid water bill, the leaky car radiator, your crappy entry-level job you hated thinking about going back to on Monday—except these three people you held in your arms.
You notice that your eyes are wet and this little family in the park has grown blurry, and you abruptly turn around and head for home, determined to apologize to your spouse.
You just had a flashback.
Authors often think of flashbacks as separate, self-contained scenes that serve to fill in essential backstory for characters—and sometimes this can be their format and function.
But this separatist approach is often at the root of why flashbacks can be so tricky for authors to incorporate without pulling the reader out of the smooth flow of the story or stalling momentum, and why they may wrestle with smoothly moving in and out of a flashback.
What is a flashback?
Flashbacks are simply another form of backstory—events from your characters’ lives that happened before the events of the current story—that help flesh out your characters and their histories, dynamics, and arcs.
Flashback often works with the two other main types of backstory—context and memory—to create seamless, intrinsic flow, as in the above example. They don’t need to be treated as a standalone entity (which may be awkwardly inserted into the main story), but rather can be an intrinsic part of it.
The main components of a well-integrated flashback
Let’s look closer at the hypothetical flashback situation above to identify the main components of weaving in flashback smoothly and organically.
- The character’s current situation: Before you introduce the flashback, we see your character experiencing something directly relevant to the main story—in this case, the protagonist has just had a fight with his spouse that’s one they’ve had many times, and which always ends in an impasse. Context tells us he’s upset—he’s walking in the park to cool down.
- A “real-time” impetus: Something in the present-day main story happens to or around the character that sparks an association or personal experience: Here it’s his seeing the happy young family that reminds him of his own.
- General memory: The protagonist thinks of his family when they were younger: their situation (young, financially strapped, worried about giving their kids a vacation), and similar activities to the one he’s currently seeing in the present-moment encounter with this young family.
- Detailed memory: The general memory leads into more specific ones that paint a clearer picture: the snacks they’d pack, the specific jungle gym equipment they’d use, the heat of the metal slide.
- Specific anchor memory—the flashback: The general memory and concrete details coalesce into one distinct occasion the protagonist revisits: a particular time his family all heaped up on top of each other at the bottom of the slide, his wife kissed him, and his heart was full.
- Transition: The protagonist returns to the present moment in some clear way that signals the shift to the reader, in this case his wet eyes that blur the sight of the family in the park that sparked his memory.
- Connection: Something about the flashback serves to spark a reaction or action in the protagonist in the present-day story. In this case, context suggests it reminds him of his love for his family and makes him want to set things right with his spouse.
Notice some of the key characteristics of weaving in flashback in this way:
- There’s no clunky, overt “announcement” or setup of the flashback in our hypothetical example, like, “He remembered as if it were yesterday coming to the park with his own family…” or the dreaded “The scene played in his mind like a movie.” Instead the character simply falls naturally into it based on his current situation and the real-time impetus that sparks one association and memory at a time, until a particular one is tapped into.
- The same goes for coming out of the flashback—the character is drawn out naturally (he realizes his eyes are wet because the scene he was watching blurs), rather than the reader being led out of the flashback with some overt narrative device like, “His awareness returned to the family in the park…”
- Flashbacks don’t have to be set apart, or even fully developed scenes: they can be snippets of experience, momentary journeys back to a past moment that integrate into the present one, as above.
- You don’t need to adhere to strict chronology as you would in a full scene—memory happens in fragments and flashes like this, not in chronological order. A general image or idea engenders a few salient details, which may lead the character to a specific instance.
- For the love of all things narratively holy, flashbacks aren’t set in italics or a different font. Well-used flashbacks don’t need visual tricks to “cue” readers to their identity; in fact, doing so is part of what pulls readers out of the story. Leading into and out of a flashback organically brings the reader naturally along on the journey with your character; context and verb tense will usually do the rest.
Fully developed flashback scenes set apart in separate sections can follow these same guidelines.
Let’s say you start with the same present-moment scene of our protagonist seething from the fight with his spouse, the family playing in the park nearby as simply part of the background as he thinks about how frustrated and angry he is that his spouse never seems to understand him or to give an inch in this old familiar clash.
Suddenly one of the kids shrieks out, “Mommy, Daddy, watch me!” And our protag glances up to see the child perched on the top of the slide, waiting until his parents are looking before pushing off.
You could dive right into a full flashback scene here—often a space break helps cue readers—and then begin a new scene from the past as if it’s unspooling before our eyes:
“Daddy, Daddy, look!”
He’d been lost in worry about his annual review on Monday—if he didn’t get that raise then how was he going to repair the car?—but his son’s shrill cry yanked his focus up, his heart pounding. The last thing he needed was a trip to the hospital—they couldn’t even pay the copay this month.
Instead he saw both kids at the top of the slide, Alex bracketing them with her long legs, her mouth spread wide in the kind of smile that had been scarce for too long, with all their money worries.
She winked at him and inclined her head. “Come on, Daddy. Let’s make a family train,” she called out…
You can write a full scene this way, then return readers to the “real-time” scene post-fight in the park, either with transition cues or by inserting another space break and rejoining the present-day scene.
But notice how this follows similar guidelines to the above: the real-time impetus—in this case the child calling for his parents’ attention—leads straight to the flashback, but one anchored by a particular, not-necessarily-chronological moment: the remembered cry of his own child in a similar situation that draws him in medias res into a scene from the past.
After the flashback you might subtly cue readers to the transition by simply establishing the setting as you would at the beginning of any other scene: “The little boy pushed off down the slide, squealing happily as his parents looked on,” or “The hard ground cutting off circulation in his feet told him he’d been standing here too long.”
Context tells readers we’re back in the “real-time” scene without needing to overtly announce it, and you can then show the connection the protagonist makes in this current moment: “His eyes were wet—Alex had always made him a better father, a better husband…a better man. He turned around and headed back home. They’d solve this the way they’d always done things best: together.”
Flashback is a powerful tool for weaving in important backstory with immediacy and impact—but as with any power tool, using it well requires knowledge and care. Incorporate the “safety guards” above and you’ll enhance readers’ experience of your story and characters smoothly and seamlessly.
Tiffany Yates Martin has spent nearly thirty years as an editor in the publishing industry, working with major publishers and New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling and award-winning authors as well as indie and newer writers, and is the founder of FoxPrint Editorial and author of the bestseller Intuitive Editing: A Creative and Practical Guide to Revising Your Writing. Under the pen name Phoebe Fox, she’s the author of six novels, including the recently released The Way We Weren’t (Berkley/PRH). Visit her at www.foxprinteditorial.com or www.phoebefoxauthor.com.