Writing Flashbacks: Don’t Let Your Potatoes Grow Cold

Novelists and memoirists both struggle with flashbacks (aka back story) in their work. As interesting as the back story is to the author, most readers would rather get on with the real time action.

Writing Tip for Today:  Some psychology major should do a study on why writers are so drawn to writing flashbacks. There’s something about beginning a novel that demands we start with the character’s life so far–when the reader is bored and wishing for something–anything–to happen. Here are some tips on writing flashbacks or back story:

  • Use it on a Need to Know Basis. When you feel the need to insert back story, make it pass the “Need to Know Now” test. Ask yourself if the reader absolutely MUST know this detail right here, right now. Beware of chasing rabbits (where one detail leads to the next and so on).
  • Be Brief. When you draft, if you’re “junking it through,” you’ll likely end up with flashback chunks. Separate them according to Rule #1 above and then weave them into the real time scene. Maybe a sentence here, a reference there. Leave out the stuff that has little or no bearing on the story.
  • Cold Mashed Potatoes Test. Novels rely on pacing to sustain reader interest. Think of your real time scene as one of your character dining at a fancy spread. Character takes a forkful of the delicious mashed potatoes, smothered in butter and gravy. Then HER MIND REELS BACK! While she’s “gone” in the back story, her forkful of mashed potatoes hovers in mid air. She’s frozen in real time. If your flashback is too long. your character’s mashed potatoes will be stone cold too when you go back to the action. Hardly anybody likes cold mashed potatoes, so you can use this test to keep your readers from forgetting where they were before the back story began.

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.

8 comments on “Writing Flashbacks: Don’t Let Your Potatoes Grow Cold

  1. Presently I am editing my novel. In this the story switches between past and present (ie. one chapter past, the next chapter present). Will that be okay? Please advice me.

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  4. This was a wonderful/educational article. Thanks for sharing it with us. BTW, cold potatoes give me gas. I hope that doesn’t happen to my readers with my back stories.

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