What is Flashback in a Story?

Flashbacks can play pivotal roles in any story, whether it be fiction, nonfiction or a script. So what is flashback in a story? Some folks confuse it with backstory, but the time constraints of a flashback don’t allow us to share too many details. They just allow us to reveal tidbits.

Here’s a great explanation of writing flashbacks and backstory offered up by Ron Rozelle in Write Great Fiction: Description & Setting:

A flashback is a sudden, brief relocation to a previous time and then, just as suddenly, a return to the present story. Flashbacks can hint at backstories, but they aren’t backstories themselves. A backstory is a longer trip (in fact, sometimes backstories make up most of a story or even a novel).

In a flashback, a character is usually reminded of something or someone from his past. The smell of cabbage cooking might cause him to see a kitchen that he hasn’t actually seen in years and years. Or you might have a character who looks over at his wife of 50 years and, in just the right light of a nice afternoon, sees her as the teenager he married.

Flashbacks come in handy when you need to infuse a clue or two into a mystery or when some character trait needs to be enhanced or explained. Let’s say you have a fellow in your story who doesn’t like dogs. Your reader wants to know why, so you lead her along for a while and then give her a nice little flashback, in which the man recalls being bitten by a dog as a child.

Flashbacks are quick. Backstories, because they drag in the baggage of a character or a situation, are longer.

Backstory, when layered effectively, can be a good way to establish setting and provide description. Diverting your readers’ attention away from the here and now allows you to focus on times and places that give deeper insight into a character or a situation.

There you have it. And now that you know, you can focus on and improve these intricate parts of your writing. Your stories and manuscripts will be that much better because of it.

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10 thoughts on “What is Flashback in a Story?

  1. sanarose

    Oh… I am in the final stages of my first novel and I have already sent book proposals to speed up my writing. Exams and medical school had kept me away from it for 3 months and it’s too much, isn’t it? Poor me. And what, it’s now I am coming to know that what I have been calling flashback is actually a back story. Part 2 in my book from chapter 16 to 42 deals with past events that brought the characters into the present situation. So that is a back story right? Blimey..! I hope these Indian publishers aren’t so keen about it. Lol… Usually they aren’t.

  2. Scott M

    From this article, I can see what backstory does (or should do), but not what backstory actually is, other than that it’s longer than a flashback. How much longer? Days? Weeks? Pages? Chapters? I’m of the simple understanding that while a flashback is a temporary shift in the story from the present to a particular scene from the character’s past, backstory is essentially all the “stuff” that has happened to the character (or to a place) before the actual story begins. The backstory is initially unknown to the reader, but is revealed, piece by piece, throughout the main story to add depth or to provide clues to the story’s outcome.

  3. Bonnee

    Thanks for sharing this. I always thought of backstory as an explanation to something current being given in the story’s ‘present’ although it’s about the story’s ‘past’, just part of the description. So this is cool 🙂

  4. Sonny Boy

    In the memoir I’m currently working on, from a reference point back in time, I usually jump forward in time and write a paragraph or two. Then I jump back to where I was and continue forward from there. So, what is it called when the writer jumps forward like that? Is it called flash forward in the story?

  5. Marian O'Brien Paul

    The paragraph you quoted above catches my attention:
    “Backstory, when layered effectively, can be a good way to establish setting and provide description. Diverting your readers’ attention away from the here and now allows you to focus on times and places that give deeper insight into a character or a situation.”

    I’ve written a first novel that uses backstory, I hope in the way described above as effective. No agent hooked yet, just lots of nibbles and some nice comments. Waiting for that solid bite.

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