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How and When to Flashback

Flashbacks can be a powerful tool in a writer’s arsenal.  Used well, they can show hidden aspects of characters, add interesting plot twists, or explain how something came to be.

Done poorly, they’ll distract, bore, or confuse your reader.

Flashbacks require special scrutiny.  Many stories and television shows use them, but writers should consider whether they’re really needed.

I generally recommend that you use as few flashbacks as possible within your story because they slow down the action, can confuse your readers, and may be better shown when it actually happens in the story.

Reasons to use a flashback:

  • There’s something vital related to the next event
  • To replace conversing about a memory for too long
  • When the benefits outweigh slowing down the current story
  • To give depth to a character (only when relevant)

Reasons *not* to use a flashback:

  • There’s something you’d like your readers to know that isn’t vital.  Instead, use an alternative method (like reordering your story) or cut it out.
  • To explain how a piece of technology works (usually–there are exceptions here, but they’re rare)
  • You’re already in a flashback.  Flashbacks within flashbacks rarely ever work.

What do you think?  What flashbacks do you find gratuitous?  What strategies do you use to ensure that your flashbacks are relevant?

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