Flashbacks: When and How to Use Them in Your Novel



hey guys it's Ellen Rock novel editor today I'm going to talk about flashbacks when you might want to use them and how they can benefit your novel so when I talk about flashbacks I'm talking about a scene with some dialogue or some action that conveys some backstory or something that occurred before the start of the novel as opposed to just ordinary backstory that's explained in exposition by just simply stating that it occurred flashbacks are a good option when what occurred in the past is really important and couldn't be conveyed as well through exposition so perhaps there's a lot of emotional content or perhaps what occurred is sort of complicated or nuanced and conveying it through a scene is really more efficient than explaining it through exposition a good example of this is in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins early on me get a flashback about when Peeta intentionally burned bread to give it to Katniss so she could feed her family as they were going hungry and there are a lot of details that are important so while it could have just been explained as I explained it to you through exposition it wouldn't have really had the level of detail nor they level of emotional impact Katniss even goes so far as to directly explain to the reader why it matters that this piece of backstory be conveyed I feel like I owe him something and I hate owing people maybe if I had thanked him at some point I'd be feeling less conflicted now I thought about it a couple of times but the opportunity never seemed to present itself and not never will because we're going to be thrown into an arena to fight to the death exactly how am I supposed to work and thank you in there so kindness tells us exactly why this scene is relevant and why it's important that we pay attention to this bit of backstory if you've seen the movie of The Hunger Games where you've read the book of The Hunger Games you know that this incident with Peeta plays a big role in how Katniss acts towards him throughout the novel and it actually impacts the plot one of the big mistakes of aspiring writers make when including backstory is that they'll include this big tragic scene but it doesn't really impact anything about what the character is doing and it does really have any bearing on the plot so make sure if you do include a flashback that it really is relevant and that it's impacting your character's behavior in chasing Redbird by Sharon Creech the main characters in ease goal is to clear a trail that's overgrown the trail represents to her a way to absolve herself of the guilt that she feels over the death of her cousin and then the death of her aunt and Creech wisely chooses to show us to a flashback what the death of her cousin Rose was like for her so that we really understand this spaces for her motivation to clear the trail I kept sneaking in to look at Rose waiting for her to blink her sleepy eyes and sit up people said don't touch her but I did once I tapped her hand and it scared the beans out of me it wasn't her hand it was like a doll's hand stiff neither warm nor cold I studied my own hand wondering if it was going to turn into a doll's hand like roses the chapter goes on to explain that Rose was placed in a drawer after her death as part of her aunt's belief system in my four-year-old mind I knew I was responsible for Rose being in that drawer and I waited for someone to punish me instead people kept asking me if I was feeling better and telling me how lucky I was I didn't feel very lucky I felt like it was me and that for or as if someone was going to lift Rose out and put me in instead in chasing Redbird the flashbacks really helped us to understand Jenny's motivation so when she spent all this time trying to clear this trail and absolve herself of guilt we understand what it's built on and we understand how she felt during and after these deaths it's a lot more difficult to convey that level of emotional motivation just by explaining through exposition what occurred because we wouldn't have felt the same closeness to Zini as a character both chasing red bird and the hunger games present the flashback relatively early on and pretty directly but I want to go over another technique that you can use and that's foreshadowing in the thing about jellyfish by Allie Benjamin we learned early on that Susie the protagonists best friend Frannie passed away but what we don't learn is how Susie's relationship with Franny actually ended before her death this is tease to the reader multiple times throughout the novel but the truth of what occurred isn't actually revealed through a flashback until nearly page 200 when Susan's mother tells her about her friend's death Susy reacts by saying that her friend's death didn't make sense because the way things ended between us was not the way they were supposed to end they were not the way anything should ever end and yet here was my mom she was right in front of me and she was saying these words and if her words were true if she was right about this thing she was telling me it meant at the last glimpse I'd had of you walking down the hallway on the last day of sixth grade carrying those bags of wet clothes and crying movie the final one I'd ever have Benjamin continues to use foreshadowing throughout the novel to keep the reader invested and interested in knowing what happened between these two girls before Franny's death things that ended between me and Franny in the worst way if I'd known I'd have said sorry for the way things happened I'd have at least sent goodbye but a person doesn't always know the difference between a new beginning and a forever sort of ending now it was too late to fix any of it but maybe I could still do something maybe I could prove that there was an actual villain in Franny story a villain worse than me so all this work shadowing gets us really interested and invested in what happened between these two girls foreshadowing a flashback that will come down the road later on in the novel can be a very effective technique in getting the reader hooked into the story and keeping them invested if you're considering including a flashback in your novel it's important to make sure that the event that you're flashing back to is truly an important event in your character's life and one that really impacts their behavior and how they interact with other characters or the decisions that they make throughout the novel I will be back on Wednesday with a video about backstory and how you can use backstory to actually enhance your scenes I will continue to make new videos Monday Wednesday Friday throughout August so make sure to subscribe so you don't miss any future videos and I'm also hosting a free first page critique on my blog if you want to submit your work to that the link is in the description happy writing guys

45 thoughts on “Flashbacks: When and How to Use Them in Your Novel

  1. I should probably start watching all your videos! I’m another person who wants to become an author so this’ll really help!

  2. Great tips on flashbacks! But I have a question: Does the flashback scene contains narrative alone, or may also have dialogue?

  3. In one of my books (sadly yet to be published but one day..) I had a flashback near the end to explain events from another characters POV during the same time as the M.C.'s timeline. I think it also works in this case because of how I use it, but I agree, there are times to use it & time's it's best not to. I generally try not to unless it's necessary to the story. In my case, it was. Loved your video on the subject, not many have done this. Keep it up. You're awesome!!!

  4. Can I use flashbacks about things that have to do with subplots and not the main arc? For example, a character may be terrified of spiders and this fear(even though seen throughout the book, yet not main conflict) is explained much later through a flashback when he comes into contact with them or something.

  5. Thoughts on how to use Character arcs where the character goes from good to bad? Or bad at least in that Character's world view? Also, how dark is too dark to go if you're aiming at a teenage audience?

  6. What's your take on flashbacks used near the end of the story? My villain acts like the protagonist's ally until the 80% mark, then betrays the protagonist and explains why via a (brief) flashback. This scene sets up the climax, which happens directly after. Can you see any structural problems here?

  7. I get it. Something impactful and purpose-driven for the flashbacks…

    Tommy Gains shook as he faced with his end. For that whole day felt he a certain dark looming, such as one as the hand of the reaper of death over a man's soul. And it came to him, as flashes from the past, as each drop of sweat splashed, another memory drew itself up out of the sea. This was all his fault, and he was finally caught for it; many times before had he escaped, but he knew him in his heart that this time, there would be no escape.
    (#)
    Tommy struggled as his stomach panged–it was diarrhea again. Taco Bell came on strong with a vengence, and this time it left him rent and his stomach was weak. Weak and torn from his hours of labour, he wanted nothing more than to die; how could he face the drug deal tomorrow.
    (#)
    Bang! as the echoes of the gunshot cleared from the air, soon the peace faded into chaos as sirens flooded the air. In a few moments, a new body was loaded on a stretcher and hauled away post-haste…

  8. Posted mine. It looks like I'm the first to post on your site for this workshop. How many have posted so far?

  9. Ma'am, your channel is, hands down, the best writing series on YouTube. There are hundreds of authors, all touting their own method of writing as the path to success. Your channel is better because it is a distillation of all the authors you have worked with. They preach based on writing techniques that have worked for them. You educate, based on the fundamental principles behind those techniques. I want you to know that I am applying these lessons. If my writing doesn't suck, it will be due in large part to you. Your efforts are truly appreciated.

  10. Excellent video in a series of excellent videos. Each day, before I continue my revision, I make it a point to check out your videos. It's a little like plowing a field: I keep one eye on the spot just in front of the plow and the other eye on a landmark in the distance to guide me in plowing a straight furrow.

  11. this is really interesting, especially the foreshadowing one, it really explains why i think all modern netflix specials are poorly written, they always just end without any connection to what happens next.

  12. Very helpful advice on flashbacks. Perfect example, I just finished rereading The Hunger Games and watched the movie again…so good. I hadn't realized how much that one scene impacts the plot.

  13. Oh, this is brand new! I'm glad you're still putting out these episodes.
    This one is especially useful. I'm so tempted to start in the past, then flash forward to the story's present (which is 1975).

    BTW I miss your short hairdo, like in your thumbnail.

    <3

  14. Wow, thank you. I was in need of some of that advice. Also, so good to see you doing videos again!!!!!!!

  15. Great video. This is making me look back at a flashback I planned to include in the novel I'm writing to decide if it's really relevant, or if it should be saved for a later book.

  16. These are great tips! Thank you for spending the time to make this video. Do you have any advice for flashbacks that are NOT the protagonist's memories? i.e. The flashback is someone else's memory, but it still affects the protagonist even though s/he didn't experience it.

  17. I had a writing teacher that said you should NEVER use flashbacks because they destroy the forward momentum of the plot. He criticized flashbacks where the narrator suddenly recalls a long, vivid, detailed memory, & said that was unrealistic. What do you think?

  18. I definitely prefer flashbacks that offer some kind of context or useful information, rather than ones that tease the reader by playing on their lack of understanding. If you’re going to pull me away from the present day storyline then it better be worth it haha. I switch off almost as fast as I do with dream sequences ^_^

  19. Flashbacks and foreshadowing can be great devices in books once done properly. Thanks for discussing this Ellen.

  20. Perfect timing bcz I was just developing a HUGE flashback that’s meant to bring my whole book together✨

  21. have been following Ellen’s video blogs for quite some time. practical and motivational are the words that come to mind. any other words she inspires I keep for my own writing. thank you for these insightful videos.

  22. I'm concerned about something. I have a flashback near the beginning of my novel about my main character's lost of her dad and how it kind of affected her mother. Someone told me not to include it in because we're just getting to know the characters and they aren't attached to them to feel bad for her. But I think it's important, as it explains how her mother is and the daughter's relationship with the mother now. What do you think?

  23. Thanks for posting this! I'm currently working on both foreshadowing and adding backstory through flashbacks in my novel so this video is perfect timing!

  24. I am so grateful for this video on flashbacks. In my dystopian fantasy novel I have several flashbacks. If I took them out the book would, in the main, be the same, but the flashbacks are, I hope, interesting, and anticipate the disaster that's to come. (Submitted first page and signed up for the blog! Thanks as always, Ellen!)

  25. I LOVE your videos. I wish you would post more often during the rest of the year! Your channel would grow so much, your videos are SO GOOD! Thanks for existing ): You have no idea how much you help us.

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