Don’t Fear the Flashback: How to Deal With Your Past

The Writers Studio

by Valerie Davisson

If your novel takes place in a short amount of time, with everything your reader needs to know contained within that time frame, consider yourself lucky and write away! A series of scenes all set in chronological order, even if told from multiple points of view, is fairly easy to write.

The kicker comes when there is just no way to avoid dealing with the past. Sure, you can sprinkle in some backstory in dialogue and narrative, but sometimes you need to jump back to one of your character’s childhoods, or some pivotal event in their lives, to explain why they are doing what they are doing now.

I am dealing with just such an issue in my current novel. If, like me, you don’t want to meander your way through a pile of backstory before getting to the action – I write a Mystery/Thriller series – it will serve you well to master the flashback.

Never Fear

There are challenges with this device. By very definition, a flashback takes you out of the present, out of your current story, and jerks you back in time. It can lack freshness. Your job as the writer is to make this transition easier for your reader. You have to get them to trust that you know what you’re doing and will bring them back soon!

But there’s no need to fear the flashback. It can add valuable depth to a character, clarifying his motives and making us pull for him. Or, it could add shades of understanding to the antagonist. I kind of like flashbacks, although like good spices, use them sparingly.

Top Tips to Get You Started

Here are three top tips for handling major time changes and incorporating flashbacks into your novel:

1. Break your novel into parts. This isn’t technically a flashback, but it can help you handle major shifts in time or place. If things make a sudden shift, you need to warn your reader something is coming. Nothing wrong with Part I, Part II, Part III. Patterson does it in his Alex Cross series, and of course, in epic novels, it’s used frequently. Like the swallowtail, the author brings all the storylines back together at the end. Sometimes taking a helicopter view of your outline (if you outline) makes this option very obvious. Things just naturally fall into major sections.

2. If you decide to try a flashback, begin it after a particularly vivid scene. Don’t start your book with your flashback scene – there isn’t any action for it to follow.

Maura seemed glued to her chair, eyes watching a cockroach crawl across the table. The repulsive insect reminded her of her horrible childhood…

Besides being badly written, this line will not hook your reader into your story. There is no strong scene here. We don’t know who Maura is. We need a little more detail to care about her childhood.

3. Finally, there is a grammatical trick that will help transition your reader seamlessly from present to past. Put the first sentence of your flashback in simple past tense, followed by past perfect.

Gathering his courage, Joe jumped into the water. The water was just as ice cold as it had been when he was five. He had been so small. Back then, it was the scariest thing he’d ever done in his short life.

Simply put, first, you say Joe jumped. Then you add a lot of haves and hads to the rest of the verbs. If you want more nitty gritty detail about the use of verb tense in flashbacks, check out Grammar Girl.

How Do You Handle Time Changes?

I’m still torn between breaking my novel into Parts and using a simple segue for the major time shift in my story. I’ll let you know how it goes. I’d love to hear how you’ve handled time and incorporated essential chunks of backstory into your novels. What has worked for you? Maybe next time we can talk about Prologues….Love ‘em or Hate ‘em?


Valerie Davisson, Author

Valerie Davisson, Author

A self-admitted book addict, Valerie Davisson was the kid with the flashlight under her pillow, reading in bed long after lights out. Growing up in different countries led to degrees in Cultural Anthropology, Teaching, and a pervasive interest in people and how we navigate our world. Writing is her Passion! She is the author of Saturday Salon: Bringing Conversation and Community Back Into Our Lives, and the new Mystery/Thriller series featuring strong, female protagonist Logan McKenna. You can find her on her website at

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