Flashbacks: When They’re Not Appropriate & Tips for When They Are

image by 304cina62
image by 304cina62

While researching whether or not to use flashbacks, I received warnings from, “Don’t,” to “If you must.”

Reasons to resist flashbacks.

image by OpenClipart-Vectors
image by OpenClipart-Vectors

They often:

  • stem from the author’s wish to explain everything – info dumps of old news.
  • tell information that can be shown through current scenes and dialogue.
  • may indicate, if especially long, that the main story should’ve started earlier.
  • beg that a prologue may be a better vehicle.
  • halt the story, distract the reader, and cause a reader to lose interest.
  • remove suspense, ending the reader’s desire to know a secret.
  • are unnecessary if they don’t advance the present plot, or exist for no good reason.

Reasons to include flashbacks.



  • image by geralt
    image by geralt
    assist a dual-story – chapters alternate between a past time and a present time
  • provide crucial information when there’s no other way to include it.
  • provide backstory in a more dramatic, immediate way than a character in the present telling it.
  • may work for a prologue to reveal something essential to the story that happens several years earlier in the character’s life or in the story world.
  • provide a device to tell the story of a character with memory loss.

Tips for Writing Necessary Flashbacks



  • Don’t use flashbacks as a cop-out to avoid writing difficult present story.
  • Don’t include more than one or two flashbacks.
  • Let go of a merely interesting flashback from a character’s biography.
  • Use flashbacks only after the reader’s engaged in the story and knows the character (after several scenes).
  • Make sure a flashback advances the main story.
  • Make sure a flashback scene, like a main-story scene, has goals, motivations, and resolutions.
  • Give long flashbacks their own chapter or scene.
  • Hold back flashbacks until the reader must know the information – keep the suspense going.
  • Have flashbacks follow exciting scenes so the reader will want to return to the main story.


image by venturaartist
image by venturaartist

Tip 1: Make it clear the character is going back in time.

  • Give the character a trigger – he sees an object, smells a scent, or experiences an action.
  • For stories written in past tense, use past perfect tense a few times when entering the flashback. Once in, switch to past tense until near the end of the flashback, then switch to past perfect a few times. After leaving the flashback, return to past tense. (Limits cumbersome past perfect.)

For stories written in present tense, use the simple past in the flashback.

Tip 2: Write the flashback so it:

  • Serves a purpose – shows what shaped characters into who they are now or shows past story world.
  • Engages the reader.
  • Is limited to key moments.

Tip 3: Write ending sentences that transition the reader and character from the flashback.

  • Use another trigger – abrupt or easing.
  • Change verb tense as mentioned above.

Tip 4: After the flashback, the reader must see the character or story world in a new light as they read forward in the present.

Flashbacks: dangers, benefits & tips for writing necessary ones. Click to tweet.

For what other reasons should we use or not use flashbacks?