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One of the most common questions I hear from authors is how to use flashbacks in writing—how to lead readers into and out of them smoothly, without resorting to cheesy intros like, “The memory played in his mind as if it were yesterday…” or outros like, “He returned to reality with a jolt.”
These clunky announcements of “Flashback Ahead!” are the quickest way to yank readers out of your story and make them uncomfortably aware of the author’s hand.
But knowing how to write flashbacks can be as simple as understanding two key elements—the main components of memory and why flashbacks happen. Then fluidly transitioning in and out of flashbacks can be as simple as mix-and-match.
Define the Flashback’s Components
Flashback is simply memory that is presented as if it’s happening in “real time” like a scene, rather than recalled by a character while in the present moment of the story—even if it’s presented as a standalone scene rather than in the context of a main-story scene.
That means that understanding how memory works is key to creating smooth transitions into your flashbacks. Here’s an exercise to illustrate that, using a fairly universal memory for most of us: Think about what your pandemic experience was like.
Pay attention to how your brain brings up those memories:
- Did one particular main memory spring immediately into your mind—an especially impactful moment or image? I call this the anchor memory. Maybe it was the first time you realized how serious things were when you saw the empty shelves at the grocery store, or heard a major event had been canceled, or that cruise ships were shutting down operations, or that Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson had tested positive, or contracted COVID yourself.
- Did you think of some of the specific details of your pandemic experience: stockpiling toilet paper or hand sanitizer, making masks, learning to make sourdough bread?
- Or did your mind just fill with general memories of those endless two years: sitting around watching too much TV, abandoning any clothing with buttons or zippers or laces, careful outdoor gatherings with friends in your “bubble” sitting six feet apart?
Contrary to what might seem to be popular literary belief, memory doesn’t “play in our minds like a movie,” chronologically beginning to end. We’re usually plunged into it en medias res, drawn in by some particular aspect of the memory that sticks with us most strongly, and only then might the rest of the memory unspool around it.
Most flashbacks will encompass all three of these memory components, and any of them can be used as a way of segueing the character into the memory.
But for the transition to a flashback to feel seamless and organic, something in the present-moment scene must spark that initial association and connect it to the memory.
Identify Why Flashback Happens
Before you can stitch a seam you have to fasten the thread to the fabric: What brings this memory up for your character or makes it relevant to her story now? Let’s call these connecting tools.
For instance, does the character think back to happier early days with her spouse on seeing what is clearly a first date at the table next to her in the coffee shop? When a character’s therapist asks about the last time he cried, does he remember the car accident that killed his best friend? Does the taste of cotton candy take her back to the day her dad took her to the fair, and then dropped her off, left with a suitcase, and never came home?
Using something specific in the present-moment scene to create a direct connection with a particular aspect of the flashback memory (general, specific, or anchor) will help you segue smoothly into the flashback scene.
Connecting tools can be most anything at all, but here are some common ones:
- an object: An item in the real-time scene can connect to a similar item in the memory.
- an occurrence, moment, or beat: Something happening in the current scene reflects a similar event from the past.
- dialogue: Something someone says in the present scene may hark back to a key remembered line of dialogue from the flashback memory.
- a sense memory: Scents, sights, sounds, tastes are all potent gateways into memory.
- an emotion, feeling, or sensation: Something the character experiences or witnesses draws a direct parallel to a time she felt the same thing in the flashback memory.
- a setting: A place or environment recalls a similar setting of the memory.
- a prompt: This is more direct than some of the above methods: something another character point-blank asks the POV character or says brings up the memory (as I did with the pandemic scenario above).
Mix and Match to Weave in Flashback
Now it’s time to mix and match: Once you nail down these concrete details—the key ingredients of the memory you’re showing in the flashback—and choose a specific connecting tool that attaches it to the present, you can seamlessly stitch in the flashback.
- A pristine white sofa [object] reminds a character of the time her mother punished her for drawing on the Scotchgarded divan none of the kids were allowed to touch [anchor memory].
- A man refilling his date’s wineglass at the next table [occurrence, moment, or beat] might spark a woman’s memories of a carefree trip to Spain after her divorce when she took a lover who taught her how to properly taste wine [specific memory].
- Acharacter hears someone’s child in the park call, “Mommy, I need you!” [dialogue] and remembers hearing her own child scream that same thing from the front yard just before she heard a terrible crash [anchor memory].
- The smell of fresh-cut grass [sense memory] brings up memories of the character’s unhappy adolescent years forced to play football by his overbearing father [general memory].
- The sudden loud pop of a balloon at a birthday party [sense memory] sends the character to the moment she was shot in Afghanistan [anchor memory].
- The swell of pride of a struggling artist watching his child graduate college [emotion] may take him back to the way he felt when he sold his first painting [anchor memory].
- The exhaustion a physician may feel after days on the COVID ward [feeling/sensation] might hark back to her bone-deep fatigue after laboring thirty hours with her firstborn [specific memory].
- A character walking into her high-school gym for a ten-year reunion [setting] might flash back to the day the “mean girls” stole her clothes and the PE coach found her huddled and shivering, sobbing naked in the shower [anchor memory].
- A character whose boss points out an error he made in a key presentation [prompt] flashes him back to his mother constantly criticizing and correcting him [general memory].
And the fun’s not over yet, friends! Because you can use these same connecting tools to transition out of the flashback too, rather than relying on heavy-handed devices like, “He shook the memory off.” Just bring something in the “real-time” scene into your character’s consciousness, similar to the way you sparked them into the flashback, to draw the character out of the memory and signal to readers we’ve rejoined the main story.
Once you master these two elements and learn how to pair them to smoothly lead your character and your reader into the flashback, you’ll never commit another clumsy neon-sign transition again.
Read more: Weaving Flashback Seamlessly into Story
If you want to dive even deeper into flashbacks, check out my course “Master the Flashback.” This in depth online self-paced course is $39, and we’ll cover:
- How to decide whether, where, and when to use flashback
- How much to reveal as flashback and how much belongs in the main story
- How to transition smoothly in and out of flashbacks without pulling readers out of the narrative flow
- How POV affects flashback (and vice versa)
- Starting a story with flashback—is it a “cheat”?
- How long should/can a flashback be?
- Formatting flashbacks
- Flashback faux pas
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