Writing Flashbacks: The Cold Mashed Potato Rule

I’m asked often about how to write effective flashbacks or back story. Student writers get scared of writing them, but a simple way to keep flashbacks from taking over is to remember the Cold Mashed Potato Rule. Nobody likes cold mashed potatoes, right?
Writing Tip for Today: Imagine a scene in which your POV character is sitting at a dining table with other people, enjoying a nice meal. Everyone’s talking and laughing and having a nice time, when something someone says or does reminds this POV character something else that happened in the past. Our POV character had scooped up a forkful of mashed potatoes when this “past occurrence” struck. The character’s fork is midway to her mouth when we the readers are catapulted, drifted, or reeled back in time.
Now we “see” another time and place as the POV character thinks about what happened back then. We assume this second time/place’s reality for as long as the flashback lasts. If the writer doesn’t properly manage us as readers, we forget all about “real time,” content to read about what happened yesterday. But in the real time of the story, the POV character’s still holding that forkful of potatoes halfway to her lips, frozen there while readers explore the alternate universe of the flashback. While this character waxes poetic about her childhood, THE MASHED POTATOES ARE GETTING COLD.
I like the Rule of 3 to help me remember not to stay long in flashback, especially if it’s early in the book. If I write 3 sentences of flashback, I remind the reader of the “real time” story or end the flashback.
Another tool for flashbacks is to use something concrete and/or sensory to get into and out of the past. So, if character sees a blue tea cup and it reminds her of the way Grandma used to take her tea, the tea cup itself can be used as a tangible marker for the reader to hang onto while moving around in time. When the flashback is going back to real time, the same cup signals the writer that the flashback is finished.
Try This! Write a scene that calls for a flashback. Use the tools listed above to help you get into and out of the flashback smoothly.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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