Tuesday, January 19, 2010


I didn't post my usual Monday post yesterday because I spent the day on a date with my husband, though I'm willing to bet our dates are a bit unusual. He had the day off work, so we spent it in the mountains with our dog and our bows, bundled against a cold wind and intermittent spit of rain, walking logging roads and shooting arrows at stray cans--and collecting them for their five cent deposit on our way out. It was my first time out since I got glasses. I'm a better shot than I'd thought I was the past few years while I was in denial about my deteriorating eyesight. I see up close just fine, but after about ten feet things start to blur now. 

But on to the topic of this post: flashbacks, the kind that happen in fiction writing. Recently I responded to a questioner on a writing loop who asked about techniques other writers used in writing flashback scenes. This is the answer I gave, listing the three main techniques I use.

1. If necessary for clarity, include a line in the narrative that indicates the POV character is about to have a flashback. Skip a line, as though beginning a new scene. Write the flashback in past tense. Skip a line. Pick up with the previous scene or move on to a new one, whichever is appropriate.

2. Do all of the above, except write the flashback scene in present tense. I've done this a few times after encountering the technique in a novel called The Bronze Horseman . I found that present tense lends immediacy to flashbacks (especially short ones), making them feel more urgent, more important to the present story.

3. Don't skip a line, but signal the transition into flashback by the use of had. You only need one or two of them. Then you can drop the usuage and write the flashback as you would any past tense scene. No need to use the word had in every sentence, the reader knows they are still in flashback. Then, when you are about to transition back into the present scene, use one or two more hads to signal that transition. Occasionally I've started a flashback like this, sliding into it with a few hads, but the transition back didn't work smoothly. In that case I ended it, skipped a line, and picked back up with the current scene.

Those are the three main techniques I use for writing flashbacks. Are any of them new to you? Have you encountered others, or used other techniques in your writing? Leave a comment. I'm always eager to learn new craft techniques, which I'm sure is true of every writer. And if I need to, I'll clarify my explanations.


  1. Lori, Your date sounds quite nice:) And I LOVE the excerpt! Very good flashback technique - it really does add immediacy and makes it seem less back story. Oh, if I just had another life to absorb all these things! I think Novel Matters had a good post recently/today about some big no-no's of writing and this fits right in. Thinking of you and hoping you're feeling entranced with those pages...

  2. Laura,

    I read that Novel Matters post you mentioned. I can always count on those ladies to share inspiring and instructional stuff.

    I hear you about needing another life. There's too much I want to learn and absorb, then translate into storytelling, or learn for the sheer enjoyment of it. There will be about fifteen books for me to pick up at the library when it's open again on Saturday. Our library closed for about a year, a few years ago, and now it's open four days a week (only four hours on Saturdays). Can you imagine trying to research a historical with no public library to access? It was The Year of Buying Too Many Books for me. *s*

  3. Great example, Lori. Thanks for the tutorial on how you do flashbacks. I really wasn't sure and that helps a lot. Great scene!

  4. Carla, Glad it helps, and thank you!