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(C) 2000 BK Reeves/BASIC FICTION/Advanced

There are two general types of flashbacks, and the differences between them are subtle.

(1) This is a flashback with the protagonist thinking through some problem. H/she will be alone, usually, and fall into a type of reflection. That is, he will reflect upon what is or has been happening. These scenes will follow a path of quandary, summarization, decision and action.

A. The character will be in trouble, or something is troubling her. She is in a quandary, a state of perplexity. The situation she finds herself in is difficult, and she needs to think about it.

B. As she begins to think, she sorts the facts as she knows or imagines them to be. These “facts” are this character’s truths, what she believes. So she summarizes.

C. As this rumination continues, she ponders and comes to a decision. She decides what to think about the situation or do about it, probably both.

D. To do is to act, and this leads her to action.

(2) The other main type of flashback (and the most common) is a little different. This is a flashback in which a character thinks and relives a scene. This scene will consist of something important that happened in the recent past or further back in time. Through the character’s thoughts, we-the-readers are transported back to live that scene with the character. Watch POV in flashback scenes; be very careful of past tense and past perfect tense.

In flashbacks, the character is thinking, showing the reader h/her opinions or perceived truths. Henry James said that a “character’s opinions are a confession of who and what they are.”

A flashback will be a character’s limited stream-of-conscious excursion into his past. You will plan a flashback for many reasons. Perhaps you need to give some of the backstory. But always, you will plan such a scene to reveal your character. That is the most important reason for writing a flashback. That, and story progression. Flashbacks also serve exposition.


Using the character’s name or a version of her name as opposed to using a pronoun is tricky. You can’t consistently use the name, and a pronoun must always agree with its antecedent. Practice will teach you. Use the name at least once in each paragraph, preferably at the beginning. Then use pronouns until your writer’s ear tells you it’s time to throw in the character’s name again. By the time you’ve written half a million words, flashbacks (and pronouns) will no longer be a problem.
Whatever you do, make certain your reader knows who is thinking, talking or acting, as well as where and when they are. These “markers” are the least we can do for our readers. (Don’t forget stage business in flashbacks.) #

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