The Case for Powerful Flashbacks

Wednesday, December 13, 2017
There seems to be a trend lately--with storytelling in movies, television shows, and books--to use flashbacks to deepen the plot. It's not a new literary device--that's for sure. But I remember going to conferences, when I first started seriously writing about 18 years ago, and speakers talked about using flashbacks at a minimum and only when absolutely necessary.

Now look at the popularity of the television show, This Is Us, and all the critical acclaim those writers are receiving--and it's well-deserved. The show is half flashbacks, at least. I am also reading a book, What Alice Forgot, about a woman who bumps her head and forgets 10 years of her life. But throughout the book, the author, Liane Moriarty, uses flashbacks, which are even earlier than the 10 years she forgot, to reveal what Alice's life was like as child and as a young adult. Trends come and go--multiple viewpoints were popular for a while as well as using present tense to tell a story--and I'm sure you can think of many more. I mean, that's a trend--it comes and goes, but I love this flashback one!

My writing group members recently had a discussion about revealing crucial information to the "present-day" plot in a flashback. During this discussion, I thought about this novel draft I had been writing and having trouble with--I had felt stuck and like it was the most terrible manuscript I had ever written--and then I thought, WAIT! I could start in the "present" and flashback, instead of trying to tell a linear story.

Would This Is Us be as popular if it wasn't for the elaborate and clever flashbacks?  No. Would I be out of my writing funk with this novel if it wasn't for the possibility of using a flashback? No. But here's the funny thing. When I googled some information about flashbacks for this post, I came upon this post on author Jennifer Scolluar's website , and one of the first lines is exactly what I was mentioning above. Her writing mentor, Sydney Smith, writes, "A fellow writer told me recently there is a hard and fast rule that prohibits writers from using flashbacks. That was news to me!" Apparently, Sydney hadn't been at the same writing conferences as me back in the early 2000s, but at least I had confirmation that I didn't make that up about authors who shun flashbacks.

Sydney goes on to say, "Think of Wuthering Heights – Nellie Dean tells Mr Lawrence the history of Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff. Through her diary, Catherine tells Mr Lawrence more about her relationship with Heathcliff and why he went away. So much of the novel is told in flashbacks of one sort or another that if you take them out, almost nothing would be left." Right? The same is true for This is Us.

So all this thinking about and enjoying flashbacks made me draw a couple conclusions:

1. If you are going to use a flashback, you need a good reason--it is the best way to tell this story, to reveal character traits, to work in the crucial backstory.

2. The anti-flashback movement is similar to the anti-prologue movement or the anti-anthropomorphic advice for picture book writers. Somehow, a few people decided these were no good and got others to jump on the bandwagon. But if your story needs these literary devices and you can write them well, then go for it.

What about you use flashbacks in your fiction? Do you enjoy stories with flashbacks? 

Margo L. Dill is a writer, editor, and teacher, living in St. Louis, MO. She teaches a novel course for WOW! each month, which includes 4 critiques of your work-in-progress. To check out more about her, go to To check out her next class starting January 5, go to the WOW! classroom. 

typewriter photo above by alexkerhead on


Sioux Roslawski said...

Margo--My current WIP is kind of half flashback and half contemporary story. However, it's flashing back more than 60 years into the past--way before my central character ever lived.

Good luck with your story.

Angela Mackintosh said...

I totally remember that and heard the "no flashbacks" advice when I first started writing. I even remember someone at my writing group saying that my short story would be better if I could find a way to eliminate the flashback. I completely forgot about that! They are so prevalent now. I like flashbacks and anything that fits with the story.

I feel like a lot of those types of rules, or trends, got thrown out over the years, and it's kind of like anything goes...except for head hopping and omniscient, maybe. But it could work if done well. Who knows!

Renee Roberson said...

Flashbacks are so hard to do, but I do agree that "This is Us" would not be the show it is without them. Also, they would run of material really fast! It's funny that flashbacks were so taboo just a short time ago. Perhaps WOW! should offer a class on using flashbacks as a device for those of us who struggle?

Mary Horner said...

I struggle with flashbacks, and have considered getting rid of them in my WIP, but sometimes they work too well to ignore.

Powered by Blogger.
Back to Top