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September 25, 2018

The last time I addressed flashbacks (as in backstory) in detail was in 2011, around the time I first started this web site on writing advice. I bring it back up (though I’ve mentioned it within the subject matter of other articles) because of a book I just read.

I’m going to take parts of the original 2011 article and integrate them into my latest thoughts.


First off, what are flashbacks? Flashbacks are a way of jumping to the past to bring relevant information into the present. They’re great tools for giving the reader background on why things are happening in the present. They set the scene, justify why certain things happen, and give relevant what, where, when, why, and how information. Examples are prologues, or, when a character recalls something from their past.

I just finished another book that relied heavily on flashbacks, which bogged down the story. Not only that, but some of these flashbacks severely violated point of view. In other words, they weren’t told by any of the current point of view characters. The way they integrated into the story, none of the characters could possibly know the actions, yet they did.


There’s nothing wrong with a flashback. Backstory (another word for it) is a great way to give the reader relevant information. However, it’s best to do it in small doses, and in a way that doesn’t bring the action to a screeching halt.


Prologues are the epitome of backstory. They’re background, something that’s taken place in the past to set up the present story. Some grand poohbahs in the publishing world have decided that most people don’t read prologues. I have my doubts about that, especially given the popularity of certain genres where the prologue is standard fare.

On the other hand, why not just make the prologue chapter one, with a caveat? Title it Chapter One – Subtitle – Such-and-such a date in the past?

Then have Chapter Two – Subtitle – Present day, then drop the subtitles?

Problem solved.

Your backstory is now part of the timeline, in sequence, so there’s no issue. You aren’t halfway through the story, have to jerk the reader out of the present, and take them into the past.


It’s okay to have the character reminisce, or recall something relevant to the story. The key is to maintain story momentum.

How to do that?

Keep the flashbacks short!

That means you – Mister, Miss, or Missus long-on-the-blabber story telling! Cut to the chase and get to the point. Give the reader the down and dirty in a few paragraphs. Don’t bring the action to a screeching halt by inserting half, or a full chapter or three to explain why your character hated their mother. Geez, sneak it in with a little bit here and there as you go along.

Small doses keeps the action flowing.


First, the story I just read was about half flashback. There was a little action, then a LOT of flashback. Like I said above, especially toward the end of the story, the author violated point of view when the flashbacks shifted to characters that weren’t even in the story.

In another story, the prologue was fifty-seven pages.

In my own case, I used to write prologues to every story. I’ve since changed them to chapter 1 with a sub-title. I never had many flashbacks within the stories, just small snippets, especially after reading so many bad flashbacks in other books!


Don’t torture your readers with unnecessary drivel. Let them use their own imaginations. A lot of the time, those flashbacks end up being irrelevant, anyway. Sounds cruel, but from my own reading experience, I never saw that much justification in a lot of them. Motivation? Meh.

On the other hand, why is the bad guy bad? That’s a good reason for a flashback, right?

Well…maybe an asshole is just an asshole. Ever thought of that?

How about replacing the why of the bad guy being bad with more action from the good guy chasing the bad guy? Then give a condensed version of why the bad guy is bad. That should be a lot more fun.

Happy writing!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 26, 2018 3:17 am

    Great advice. A lot of the most interesting stuff is what is not said!

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