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A heads-up: while there is some objective advice in today’s post, such as the mechanics of flashbacks, I want you to be aware that there is also a lot of my personal opinion in here. My opinion is not law. I think it’s good advice, but I’m not conceited enough to think that my way is the only way.
Something that I see a lot from new writers (and occasionally from experienced ones) is that they indicate flashbacks using italics. This can in fact be done. It’s not a bad method per se – in fact, Jay Kristoff uses it in Stormdancer. (While Stormdancer is his breakthrough novel, I doubt that he’s a writing rookie.) He also uses another method commonly used – using line, chapter, or page breaks to demarcate (set apart) where the flashback begins and ends. I do think it’s a little ungraceful, but it works and it didn’t ruin the story for me. Even one of my favorite authors uses this in one of his series, but the flashbacks he wrote without this method were far superior.
Another way to write flashbacks, by way of explaining history, is to use the character’s dreams. It’s really easy to do it this way, but easy does not equal awesome. Personally, I really dislike this. It’s overused and a little unrealistic, since most people don't dream exact scenes from their pasts. It can work, such as in cases of PTSD where people really do re-live what happened in their dreams. If you’ve done this in your writing, don’t feel bad. I’m not saying you are a bad writer or anything like that. I’m not even saying you have to change it – after all, it’s your story, and only you can make that decision. But it is kind of an easy way out, and the easy way out isn’t generally the best way.
An exception to this is for letting characters relive traumatic events, but it works best if you only give the tiiiiniest little tease. It leaves the reader hungry for more. If you do the whole memory in a dream, in one big clump, it can disrupt the flow.
The preferred way, at least according to academics, is the in-story flashback. This, instead of being set apart by visual aids or dreams, is set apart by tense changes. This is the way I was taught to write flashbacks in either my junior or senior year of high school. (The curriculum I used was Writing Strands, which is a great resource if you ever want to look at it over a summer or something like that.) There are a set of pretty rigid rules as far as using the tense changes themselves, but don’t worry – there’s still plenty of room for creativity.
Before we get to the tense rules of writing a flashback, I’d like to put in my two cents about all of this. Every single method I’ve listed can be used to write flashbacks, and every single method can be used well. However, the first two have disadvantages that the third one doesn’t.
I have written both in-story (without being visually set apart) flashbacks and flashbacks that were set apart physically. In my PERSONAL OPINION (that means that you should take this with a grain of salt, and decide for yourself what you think), in-story flashbacks are by far superior. You don’t disrupt the flow of the story, and you don’t practically shout to the reader: “Hey! Lookit! A flaaashbaaack!!” There is a time and a place for visually set apart flashbacks, but they tend to be cumbersome and ungraceful, in my opinion. (Keep in mind that I am including my own work in this category, so don’t feel bad or like I’m putting you down if you have done this.)
So, how do you use tense changes to write flashbacks? Perhaps the easiest way to start is with this chart demonstrating what tenses should be used when.
Flashbacks are simply the character thinking back to something that has already happened. If past tense is your main tense, then you will use the past perfect for this regardless of how long ago in the story arc the flashback happened. However, if you’re using present as your main tense, you’ll want to use the regular past tense for things that happened, say, earlier that day or the day before. For things that happened a long time ago, you’ll want to use past perfect tense.
Now that we have that established, here are the steps of writing an in-story flashback.
Step 1 – the lead-in
This is how you cue your reader to the fact that they are about to be reading a flashback. It could be as simple as, “He remembered a time in his life when he had been happy,” or you can use more complex, creative things too. Either way, you want there to be an obvious indication that we’re about to learn about something that has already happened.
Step 2 – the lead-in tense change
If you’re writing in present tense and are writing about something that happened very recently in the story, you’ll simply switch to past tense for the duration of the flashback. Easy enough, right?
The trick comes when you’re writing in past tense or you’re bringing up the distant past. Have you ever tried to write an entire paragraph in past perfect? It’s obnoxious to write, and it’s obnoxious to read. So what you do, after you’ve got your lead-in sentence that cues us to be on the lookout for a flashback, is write two to four sentences in past perfect. How many you write depends on how long the flashback is. The rest of the flashback can then be using the simple past tense. If the flashback is really, really long, it doesn’t hurt to throw in another sentence in past perfect here and there, just to help the reader remember that this is still a flashback.
Step 3 – the ending tense change
Assuming that you are writing in past tense or the distant past, the last two to four sentences of your flashback should be written in past perfect. This is a solid reminder everything mentioned is in fact in the past and has already come to pass. Once this has been finished, you switch back to your main tense.
Step 4 – the jolt back to the present
Just like the lead-in tells the reader a flashback is about to happen, this out-tro of sorts lets them know that it is over. Generally, working the word ‘now’ into the sentence somehow is a really good way to do it, but there are a lot of opportunities for creativity.
So, more or less, that’s how an in-story flashback works. If you want to, you can combine this with the visual separation techniques for a very stark contrast. (This is all about the style you want to achieve. Kristoff did this in Stormdancer and it worked well.) As I said, I’ve discovered that I like the subtlety of in-story flashbacks better than the other method.
If you decide to write a dream flashback, then don’t use the tense change rules. Dreams are something that the character actively experiences, so all you need to do is indicate that the character is dreaming and then relate the events in your main tense. It’s a good idea to avoid not telling the reader that something is a dream, unless it’s a very brief dream. If you have a big ol’ long dream, it can be annoying for your readers to suddenly discover that what they thought was actually happening happened a long time ago. (At least, this is what the writing books tell me.)
Think carefully about which type of flashback works best for your story. It won’t always be the same, and you may use multiple methods per story. But when you want a smooth, even flow and readability to story, then the in-story flashback really works the best.
Share any thoughts or questions in the comments!
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