Manipulating Time with Flashbacks

Manipulating Time with Flashbacks

A Lesson by Kathleen Rowland

Flashbacks can turn into dreaded backstory, and too much old history bores a reader. Don't take them away from present action for too long. Were they walking along the lake? Make it short.


Flashbacks serve one purpose, and that is to present an important moment in your character’s past that has a direct bearing in the present plot of your story.  Your character’s thoughts whisk him or her to what went on before.  Although a flashback only builds tension if it’s launched at the right moment, it increases suspense by postponing the resolution of the conflict.

     Note the unclear transition (from present to past) in the example below.  Surely the reader will get lost because the hero’s POV is weak:

Rick Listened to his Favorite Song

     Rick leaned toward the radio and turned up the volume.  It was one of his favorite songs from the ‘60s, The Brown Eyed Girl.  As the cheery “sha-la-la” chorus filled the room, he sat back and listened, remembering.  Ann Marie came in and sat down beside him.  He had asked if he wanted to stay for dinner.  He was glad he accepted.

     The problem with the above is with the transition.  When did Ann Marie come in and sit down by Rick?  Was it back in the past or could it be happening now as Rick listens to The Brown Eyed Girl?

Second version, Rick Listened to his Favorite Song

     Rick dashed toward the radio and turned up the volume.  It was one of his favorite songs from the ‘60s, The Brown Eyed Girl.  It brought back the memory of one special night when Ann Marie had come in and sat beside him.  Working on a project in middle school, she had asked if he wanted to stay for dinner.  Now, as he listened to the old song, he was glad he had accepted.

     The second pass at the flashback had two changes of great significance.  The first was the use of a clear transition to alert the reader that you are about to take a trip to the past.  “It brought back a memory” served this purpose.  “He remembered” would do fine, or he could ask the question, “Was it really that long ago?”

     To bring an end to the flashback and return to the present, a simple “now” will suffice.  The other transition phrase, “long ago”, also indicates the flashback has ended.

     The second technique used to clarify the beginning and ending flashback is verb tenses.  Notice that the first example is written in past tense.  Rick turned up the volume.  When the flashback begins, you move backward in time to past perfect tense.  This makes the action more remote.  Marie had come in.  He was glad he had accepted.  When the flashback ends, the move moves to simple past tense.  Now as he listened, he was glad.

     Remember these two things to write effective flashbacks:

1.    Provide transitional words at the beginning and end of a flashback.

2.    Shift verb tenses to indicate time.


     Give your reader a clue to what lies ahead.  A hint builds suspense.  Use it just when your reader wants more information.  After a flashback, you’ve got a reader with heightened curiosity or apprehension.  If your flashback ended a chapter, you could open the next one with something about Ann Marie:

     Rick was sitting on Huntington Beach the morning after New Year’s when Ann Marie’s body washed up, half dead. 

     The average reader can’t stop there.  The author might add another detail: 

     Rick began to wish he’d never gone to see that fortune- teller.

     The reader knows it’s a story about the occult, and dark forces will be at work.  Here’s another clue, using a brief flashback:

     The last time Rick had talked with Ann Marie, she’d been in Los Angeles.  (Something foreshadowing could set the mood such as her fear that day, his rapture, a strange electrical storm, or why he thinks there was a murder attempt on Ann Marie.)

     A flashback can be a mini-cliff hanger.  But, flashbacks are not effective if overused.  Use them to include a crucial scene.  This can happen before the true action of the book begins or somewhere in the opening scene.  Romance writers most commonly use a flashback to fill in the past relationship between a hero and heroine who knew each other before the book began.  In my reunion story and romantic suspense, WINDWARD WHISPERINGS, the hero and heroine both had flashbacks.  Their past relationship colored everything happening in the present and formed the basis of the book.  Just saying that they were involved once didn’t get across the emotional impact I wanted. 

     If you are writing a reunion story or any romance, you can and should have two characters talk about their issues in the course of the book.  You won’t recount every detail because they lived through it together; it wouldn’t be natural.

     Some situations will beg for a flashback.  An appropriate point in your story might be following an encounter between the two of them.  Was it emotionally intense?  Is one of them thinking back to how things used to be or how things fell apart?  Use a flashback when it makes sense to you.  You will use the transition technique and the past perfect verb tense when you are within the flashback. 

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Kathleen Rowland
Kathleen Rowland


Kathleen Rowland writes gritty romantic suspense set on crime-infested waterfronts that are sure to keep you up reading late, turning pages well past dark. On a larger-than-life scale, her heroes and..