Here’s a spoiler alert for one of the most well-known movies of all time: Charles Foster Kane dies at the beginning of Citizen Kane. Don’t worry—this doesn’t ruin the movie. Kane’s death, uttering “rosebud” as he goes, is central to the movie’s first act. A journalist trying to find the meaning of rosebud then interviews the key players of Kane’s life. In other words, American Film Institute’s top movie of all time is really just an ingenious series of flashbacks.

Unfortunately, the flashback doesn’t necessarily have a great reputation. The showrunners of Game of Thrones, for example, tried to avoid flashbacks as much as possible. But in the hands of a polished writer, flashbacks can be essential tools. They can deepen mysteries, build tension, and provide critical character context to enrich everything you’re writing.

What Is a Flashback?

The classic flashback definition is a scene or sequence in which the timeline shifts to an earlier point in the story. Flashbacks serve all sorts of purposes: They can reveal answers to critical mysteries, highlight why a character developed into who they are in the present, or add historical context to the present moment. 

Writing flashbacks has a rich history in literature. Even Homer’s The Odyssey, which starts in media res, or in the middle of things, uses the device of Odysseus telling half of his adventure to the Phaeacians. 

But you have to be careful to use flashbacks effectively. Otherwise, you risk pulling the reader out of the story and plopping them in the middle of a snoozefest.

The Basics of Writing Better Characters

Writing Authentic Fiction: How to Build a Believable Character

Types of Flashbacks

Internal Analepsis

Though it sounds like a gastrointestinal disorder, internal analepsis in literature refers to a flashback within your established narrative. These flashback examples are common in thrillers and mysteries. In an Agatha Christie novel, for example, it is common to “flash back” to a scene we’ve already witnessed so we can get additional context for what was happening as we learn more about the murder. It’s a great literary device for slowly unwrapping the story, layer by layer.

External Analepsis

This refers to flashbacks that take place outside the established narrative. An example might be a family saga story that takes place in the present, then suddenly zooms back to three generations earlier, years before the narrative began. Of all the examples of flashbacks you can use, this can be the most difficult to pull off.

Storytelling Flashbacks

Sometimes, as in The Odyssey, a character will pull up a chair and tell a story within the story. Alternatively, a character might discover old letters or diary entries from another character, suddenly illuminating some of the central mysteries of the book. 

Examples of Flashbacks in Writing

For Whom the Bell Tolls

The character Pilar from Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls spends an extended portion of the story detailing executions in her village during the era of the Spanish Civil War. It’s one of the most famous examples of flashbacks in literature and a harrowing re-telling of the war. Although the stories don’t have immediate relevance to the present narrative, Hemingway uses these flashbacks to establish both character and historical context. Through them, we learn more about the setting and the ideals up to which the main character, Robert Jordan, believes he has to live.

The Three Apples

One of the famous from the Arabian Nights collection of short stories, The Three Apples begins with a locked chest containing a woman’s dead body. It’s only then through flashbacks that the tale deepens the mystery—not only the woman’s identity, but which suspects are lying (and not lying) about the murder.

How to Write Flashbacks

Flashbacks are like salt. Use just enough and you’ll flavor your writing with context and essential backstory. Too much and the whole story will become indigestible.

The key to using flashbacks is to make sure you’re satisfying both of these requirements:

  • Only start with a “trigger”: Don’t drop a flashback out of nowhere. Let one character tell their tale, for example. Or let a scent evoke a memory for your protagonist. If you don’t take some care in explaining why the flashback would occur within the story, readers will tend to roll their eyes and wonder why the author is dumping it on them. Instead, use a trigger to make the flashback seem natural, rather than a distraction or like something you jammed in. 
  • Don’t give away the game: If a flashback solves your book’s mystery by page 10, there isn’t much point reading beyond that, is there? The Three Apples uses flashbacks to simultaneously add context and subtract from what the reader thinks they know. Don’t launch into a full-fledged flashback until your reader is ready for the full mystery to be unveiled. Before that, only sprinkle in enough to add to the intrigue—but not so little that you confuse the reader.

Flashbacks as Storytelling Devices

Whether you’re telling your own story or making one up, a good flashback should always strive to do two things at once. It should solve a tiny riddle in the story while deepening the central mystery. It should add context to a character while complicating their motivations. 

But while it may feel like a tightrope walk, a well-executed flashback can be the moment your reader knows they loved your story. After all, not all of the good stuff always has to happen in the present.

Bring Your Characters to Life!

Writing Authentic Fiction: How to Build a Believable Character

Written By

Dan Kenitz

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