How To Write Killer Flashbacks in 3 Steps

by Tim Kane

Flashbacks are a perfect way to establish back story or wrangle with some key emotional issue. How to achieve that is easy. It takes only three simple steps.

Step 1: Set up the flashback
You can get the reader ready for the flashback with verb tense. Most writers who write in past tense will use past perfect to set up a flashback. Say what? Okay, maybe you’re not a grammar geek. This means you use the “had” verb in front of your normal past tense.

Simple Past Tense: Yesterday, I ate some ribs.

Past Perfect Tense: Years ago, I had eaten ribs, and it changed my life.

Notice the difference? The had (which uses eaten rather than ate) tells us that the event is farther back in time than the standard past tense of the story. Basically, the had is the same as those wavy lines you see in films to show that we’re heading into a flashback.

**If you write in present tense, then use simple past tense for flashbacks.

Step 2: Write you flashback in simple past tense
Write more than one sentence in past perfect and you end up with hordes of “had”s clogging up your narrative. It can be hard for readers to get through. The best solution is to get rid of them. Switch back to simple past tense. Say what? Yes, now that you’ve established the flashback with the past perfect, you can use simple past tense to tell the story.

Step 3: Prepare the reader for the end of the flashback
One or two sentences before you end your flashback, switch back to past perfect. This will signal your reader that they are moving back to the main action of the narrative (again, the wavy lines). You should also follow this with a paragraph break.

Don’t be afraid of flashbacks. They’re a great tool to building back story without excessive information dumps.


About Tim Kane

Tim Kane is a writer of fiction.
This entry was posted in Writing Advice and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to How To Write Killer Flashbacks in 3 Steps

  1. lorageneva says:

    Reblogged this on lorageneva and commented:
    Great advice, especially for those writing a first novel. But, experienced writers can always “touch” up what they know!

  2. Marianne Su says:

    Oh, how I love grammar! But the various past tenses do get confusing. Thanks for the tips and reminders.

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