Let’s Go Back! Flashbacks and Making Them Work

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By Cindy Patterson

As writers, it’s our job to transport our readers into our stories so deeply, they feel as though they’re no longer reading. This is no easy task. We spend so much time working out our plots, scenes, conflict, and most important, creating our characters, that sometimes we want to spend more time in the history of our character’s lives, but don’t want to use the forbidden back story.

Flashbacks can be useful tools in shedding light on what makes our characters who they are the moment their story begins. But it’s not always easy and it doesn’t always work.

If done poorly, flashbacks can jolt our readers out of the story. And that’s the last thing we want. Flashbacks should not be used to explain a point you’re trying to get across, or thrown in to fill dead space. Instead, the scene should read just like the rest of the story. It’s an opportunity to make your reader care even more about what happens to your character.

They can be short or long or somewhere in between. The longer the flashback the more responsibility you have in holding the reader’s attention and preventing them from skimming ahead.

Before a flashback will be effective, the reader has to care about the character. Give the scene its own goal, its own conflict. Draw the readers in and make them curious to what will happen? Make the reader want the flashback. Make the reader want more flashbacks.

In the time readers give us, there must be some sort of emotional impact. We must move our readers.

In Broken Butterfly, the main character shares memories from her past but they leave the readers with important questions. Who is she talking about? Why are the memories so important? And they’re not answered until toward the end of the book. Here’s an example of merging into a short flashback in Broken Butterfly.

A butterfly looped its way around a row of hyacinths. In the moments Mallory stood waiting, her thoughts raced against her will to a time she never allowed herself to go.

“I’ll call you Butterfly.”

          Mallory whispered, “Butterfly?” She smiled at her new friend. “Why butterfly?”

          “I don’t know, because butterflies are pretty like you.”

          Mallory blushed. e tHe thought she was pretty? No one had ever told her that before. She didn’t know what to think of this boy … this cute boy who seemed to like her.

          “So now we need to come up with a name for me.” His dark, blue eyes intensified.

          Mallory felt silly, but the name came to her immediately. “How about dragonfly?”

          “Butterfly and dragonfly, I like it.”

A few lines of memory can dramatize your character’s history instead of telling the reader through back story. This can allow readers to experience the memories rather than have them explained.

Merging into a flashback can make or break the flow of the story. Sometimes it works to use the flashback as a whole chapter. In Before We Were Yours and Ophan Train one of the main character’s story is told, yet it doesn’t read as a flashback. It reads as a different time period in conjunction with the current day. This works well for these books, in my humble opinion. It seems to be more popular today. Although, this may not be categorized as flashbacks, they still do the same thing. Take the reader back to a different time in the character’s life.

How do you feel about flashbacks? Do you use them or avoid them in your reading and writing?

A few lines of memory can dramatize your character's history instead of telling the reader through back story. #acfwblog @cpattersonbks Click To Tweet

Cindy Patterson is the author of the Paradise Series, Chasing Paradise and Broken Butterfly, Gold and Bronze winners of Reader’s Favorite Book Awards. She believes in life changing fiction and happily ever afters that start with Jesus. She loves to connect with her readers and you can find her at cindypattersonbks.com.



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