Flashbacks: Fun with Timeline Tampering


I don’t use flashbacks because they never really worked for Third-Person Present tense writing.  At least in my mind.  If I’m showing what’s going on now then jumping into the past can make things confusing.  Of course, I have an aversion to writing flashbacks in general.  Let me explain:

Long ago, I was in college and was making friends during my freshman semester.  I didn’t hide the fact that I was a Writing Arts Major and enjoying writing books.  This led to a new friend suggesting we write a story together.  It seemed like a good idea at the time, but quickly went south.  We had characters, but the only description I was given were the actors who were expected to play them in a movie.  I tried my best though.  The writing began with me being told what I should be describing.  Made good time in getting to the end of the first page and then . . . Flashback . . . Wait . . . Put a flashback . . . What?

Yeah, I was told to put a flashback in at the start of the second page even though we were at the start of chapter 1.  There was no transition or explanation as to why this had to be done now.  We stopped writing for the day, but I couldn’t go back to that project and refused to try again.  The paper notes met their end with a can of Dr Pepper and the Word file was lost to a ‘computer crash’.  I was only 18, so this one hit me pretty hard and made me think about the whole thing.  My mind focused on flashbacks and how they’re viewed by others.

People do seem to take them for granted.  They’re a great way to show the past and give background information without an info dump.  Yet, I don’t think people realize how they need to be triggered and can wreck the pacing, especially in a book.  You see them regularly done in certain mediums to the point where you can make a drinking game out of them.  Best example is ‘Family Guy’ when a character talks about a past event in the middle of a conversation, the scene is show, and then they’re back or things have moved on.  The flashback is used as a scene ender at times here, but that’s because it kills all momentum for the present-day story.  So, you can’t go dropping it every time you feel like explaining something.

I always thought the point of a flashback is to inform instead of entertain more than the main story.  I’ve watched some shows where they’ll have a flashback episode or story arc, which is supposed to explain points.  While it does that, it also makes me want to learn more about the past than what I started with.  If you hook a reader so much into the flashback that they get annoyed with it ending then you made a mistake.  Even if you release a short story or book to continue the flashback, you’ve done harm to the current book.  A reader won’t know you’re going further later on, so they’ll be shunted out of the flow and may never get back into it.

This is another reason I’m nervous about using one.  I can simply do the background scenes with a prologue and then write the main story without having to time travel.  The risk feels too high for what I’m writing.  If I need to explain anything, I can have a character figure it out and summarize.  Do people need to see a detailed scene of a dragon being slain and the sword being imbued with its power and hatred?  Not really if it can simply be shown by a character grabbing the weapon, being consumed by the dragon spirit, and declaring that vengeance will be his.  The finer points can be found out in other ways, but might not be necessary.

Again, this is all about style and preference.  Flashbacks simply don’t work out for me at this point.  Maybe I’ll use one later, but I can’t think of any story that needs one.  I do use actual visions of the past that the characters view as specters or can actually interact with, but those aren’t flashbacks.  Those are neat ways to reveal events without having to actually go into the past.  Works with magic and certain technology, so it’s limited to a few genres.  Thankfully, I don’t like straying from those, which is another reason why I don’t really have to worry about this literary tool that much.

So, what do you think of flashbacks?  Ever use them?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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11 Responses to Flashbacks: Fun with Timeline Tampering

  1. L. Marie says:

    Great post, Charles. Flashbacks are tricky. I think we’ve all read books where flashbacks were thrown in and made everything seem confusing. Like you said, they need to be triggered in a convincing way.

    I am using flashbacks in my WIP. I wanted to include the flashback in a scene where the character was somewhat incapacitated and thinks back to an event in his life. I didn’t want to wreck the pacing by having the flashback occur during a more active scene. However, I have read flashbacks done really well in To Kill a Mockingbird, A Christmas Carol, and other books.


    • Flashbacks aren’t that common in present tense, so I don’t touch them. Great point on the pacing. Every method of skipping time alters that. Either it slows down because you go backwards or speeds up for a jump. If a reader can’t tell if they’re looking at the past or present (without that being intentional) then there’s an issue.

      Liked by 1 person

      • L. Marie says:

        Yes, which is why they are so tricky. I’ve read manuscripts where the author added a flashback right in the middle of a scene. I felt confused reading the scene, because with some action sequences, a character is not at leisure to recall certain memories. If I’m fighting someone, I’m not going to think back to my first battle. The distraction could get me killed!


      • My guess is that authors who do that are thinking of movies. Those kinds of flashbacks work visually because there are cues to show they are happening in less than a second. Doesn’t work as well in a book because you sacrifice pages and the reader can get confused.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Sometimes I have my characters think back on important experiences. Does that count as a flashback?

    On the other hand, certain episodes of Naturo (among others) really are almost entirely flashbacks, and that gets annoying. It does stop the action literally in the middle of battles. However, it’s a narrative technique that gets used a lot in anime, so really maybe it’s a kind of cultural expression we don’t have in the USA.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t know. I have my characters discuss and think about past events without going to them with the exposition. I guess that’s a way to do it without breaking the flow, but I don’t know if it would be a flashback.

      Naruto depended on flashbacks a lot. I can’t think of many others that do it to that extent. I know One Piece has a story arc that’s all flashback of Luffy, Ace, and Sabo growing up, but that was a whole story utilized to help make the time jump be smoother. I think anime do the flashback and filler episodes when they catch up to the manga and can’t go ahead. I know that’s what Naruto and, I think, DBZ ended up doing.

      Liked by 1 person

      • L. Marie says:

        I think it’s like what you said. Anime and movies can do flashbacks readily, because they can happen instantly. But in a book, you need transitioin, which takes work.


  3. I wrote a flashback in my current WIP. I used it to explain why a couple broke up. I couldn’t have the characters describe the reason since one of the couple is in a coma.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I suppose, like all things, if it’s done well it works. Maybe with a triggering event it could work. (Moon Knight tried this, and it didn’t work.) These days there are a lot of dual timeline stories, and those are better. Even chapter headings help ease the transition.


    • Triggering events are typically needed for flashbacks. That way they don’t just appear without any reason. Even if it’s not a physical event, you need something for the transition. I think a dual timeline only really works if you have a longer story in the past. A flashback works better if you only want to show one short event that will explain a main story plot point.

      It does feel like the dual timeline thing is getting used a lot. Saw ‘Resident Evil’ on Netflix a week ago, which tried it. The problem was that it would jump around so much, but not always give equal time to each timeline. So, I lost interest in plotlines because they came off as unimportant.

      Liked by 1 person

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