13 February 2017

What to Do About Flashbacks

Greetings from Shiny New Story Land! Where I should definitely not be residing. Where the story is so shiny and so new that the characters don't even have names yet! But they have made out a few times! (Priorities!) But seriously, it kind of feels like being a fugitive on the run. I'm currently hiding from the You-Should-Be-Editing-Your-Novel-Squad and the Federal Bureau of Anthology Blogging and Marketing. I'll have to assume a new identity.

The good news is that I'm actually using Scrivener for this book and trying to plan it out before I really get into writing it. But of course, this story is already complicated and I'm trying to figure out how exactly I should write it. The dual POVs may be tricky at first since I've never actually written that way, but I think once I get the voices down it should go more smoothly. So what I really haven't figured out are the flashbacks.

I'm not sure I've ever written an actual flashback. I've had characters quickly reference things that have happened in the past, maybe even a dream sequence or two, but never an actual whole scene that takes place in the past. It's not really the actual writing of the scene that seems difficult, but how it should be placed alongside the scenes that are taking place in the present. I know they can be distracting and jarring if not done correctly (or even done correctly). But with the way I want to set up this story, I need a lot of them.

I realized that I am basically telling three stories at once. There's everything that's happening in the present, which will be from both characters' points of view. Then there's Character A's flashbacks, which are pretty much all about how the characters met and formed a relationship. Then we have Character B's flashbacks, which are all about his troubled past. They all kind of collide when some people from Character B's past come back to cause some more trouble.

So far I think there will be a lot of flashbacks in the first half of the book, not so many (or perhaps shorter ones) towards the end. I'm just not sure where to place them. Should I break up each chapter into half present action/ half flashback (depending on how long the flashback needs to be). Should each flashback just be its own chapter? Do I put the flashbacks in italics or do I write the present action in present tense and the flashbacks in past? I've never been that good at writing present tense so I'm a little wary of this, although I do think it would make it much clearer for the reader (and reading all those italics could be annoying). And of course, I have to do all this not for one, but two characters.

So how the heck do I tell three stories at once without it being distracting? Am I already setting myself up for failure? I have no idea yet! I think I should find some books that rely on flashbacks as well as some writing tips or articles on the subject. Otherwise I'll just keep mapping out the story and try to figure out what works.


  1. It's a tricky one, and not something I have not done too much of myself. Whatever you do, of course it should be about advancing the story forward and every scene from the past should be there for a reason. I guess you know that, though. Having alternate scenes and advertising that structure to readers might be something that works - people will know what to expect ahead of time and they'll be keen to return to the main story after absorbing each hint of information from the flashbacks. If readers know what they're in for, it shouldn't be distracting. And yeah, I don't really like reading lots of italics, so how about having defined chapter headings for each section or maybe using different fonts? Anyway, don't feel bad about pursuing a shiny new story for now. It could be a diversion that allows you to return to your editing refreshed. Have fun!

  2. I've only recently done some flashbacks in stories and it was only a few scenes so I just did italics. If you have more, you may want to give them their own chapters and put something at the beginning, like the dates so we know when we're in the present and when we're going back to past.

  3. Sorry, I've never attempted flashbacks either. Best I can offer is don't overdue it.

  4. Oh! I have the perfect book you should read! Coldest girl in cold town by holly black. She is the master of flashback and helped give me ideas through mine.

  5. I have done a few flashbacks in itslics. If there's a lot, considering writing the flashbacks first as the present in present tense and then continuing from there to the present you have planned now. Or write the flashbacks first and then do a time jump. Ex: 5 years later Those are a couple of ideas. :)

  6. Never written a flashback. Wishing you much success and fun with it.
    Juneta @ Writer's Gambit

  7. I've had this problem before. I always go to the King, yep, Stephen, and study how he handles his flashbacks. If it is a long one, say more than a few paragraphs, you probably do want to separate it visually from the regular text with italics, a new section, present tense, or all of the above.

  8. I'm a flashback fiend. lol I like to break them up by chapters, but have them be linear as well. You might want to consider writing out each time frame as if they were their own story, and then weave them into each other.

    Also, if you're into TV and want to see a neat way to do it, This Is Us does an amazing job of it. I also have a book to recommend, but to say it has flashbacks is a spoiler if you haven't read it already!