Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Writing the Perfect Flashback

by DiAnn Mills @DiAnnMills

Flashbacks often have a bad reputation in the writing world. Writers hear warnings like, “Avoid a flashback like the plague.” I confess I’ve said that. But maybe I should have investigated further. Maybe I wasn’t fair to the purpose of this literary technique.

Let’s talk about definitions so we understand the meaning of a flashback.

Backstory is something remembered from the past that is critical to the goal of the scene. It is not a scene.

Prologue is an introduction to the story before chapter one line one. Often a prologue isn’t needed or can be chapter one. 

Flashback is a scene that happens before the story opens. Before line one of the story, a flashback has occurred, and the writer deems it important for the character and the reader to revisit the event. The flashback can be a dream or a memory often triggered by an emotional event. 

I want to show the advantages and disadvantages of using a flashback and how to write one effectively.

Tips When Writing a Flashback

Advantages of a Flashback
  • Shows why a past event is essential to what’s occurring in the present—a connection point.
  • Shows deeper motivation for the POV character(s).
  • Shows how the present stress, tension, and conflict are more affected by the happenings in the past.
  • Shows foreshadowing and symbolism with deeper insight.
  • Shows how the character’s emotion in the past contributed to emotions in the present.
  • Provides more information that contributes to the story’s content, pacing, and power.

Disadvantages of a Flashback
  • Tosses the reader out of the story due to transporting them back in time. It’s a scene shift.
  • Halts the forward momentum and can make the story confusing.
  • Stops the present adventure and leaves the reader hanging.
  • Weakens the story by providing unnecessary or too much information.
  • Disables the reader’s experience by not allowing them to find out information on their own.
  • Bores the reader.
  • Length of flashback when backstory suits the purpose.

How to Write a Flashback
  • Establish the necessity and purpose for the flashback.
  • Choose the right scene to incorporate the flashback.
  • Write in past perfect verb tense, but use “had” only once at the beginning of the scene.
  • Abstain from using italics.
  • Make the scene short and succinct.
  • Use necessary emotion.
  • Transition the chronological order. This can be accomplished by adding an extra space before and after the flashback. Some writers use a time element like, “Five years before.” Or “Now/Present.” The secret is clarity.
  • Limit the number of flashbacks.
  • Don’t introduce a flashback too early.
  • Edit. Edit. Edit.

We’ve read amazing stories that use flashbacks successfully. I recommend reading the following for style and purpose. You can also watch the movies made from these highly acclaimed books.

Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
The Catcher in the Rye – J. D. Salinger
The Notebook – Nicholas Sparks
Bridges Over Madison County – Robert James Waller 
Forrest Gump – Winston Groom

You be the judge if writing a flashback works for your story and the reader’s adventure.


DiAnn Mills is a bestselling author who believes her readers should expect an adventure. She creates action-packed, suspense-filled novels to thrill readers. Her titles have appeared on the CBA and ECPA bestseller lists; won two Christy Awards; and been finalists for the RITA, Daphne Du Maurier, Inspirational Readers’ Choice, and Carol award contests. 

She is the former director of the Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers Conference, Mountainside Marketing Retreat, and Mountainside Novelist Retreat with social media specialist Edie Melson. Connect here:


  1. Love this topic, DiAnn. I use two flashbacks in my most recent novel, Lacey's Star. The book is written in first-person, but the flashbacks include scenes that took place before the story began and that my protagonist wasn't present for, so they're in third person. Btw, I used italics in both of the chapters. Although many writers advise against it, I find it's a great way to keep the reader cognizant that they're in the flashback.

  2. Hi Kay, so glad you found the information helpful. Flashbacks can be tricky!