How to Tell–Flashback or Memory?

What is a flashback?

A flashback is an interruption in a narrative to present a scene that occurred at a previous time.

Flashbacks are used to move back in time and show an event relevant to the current moment in time. The difference between a flashback and a simple memory is, the flashback is presented as action–as a live scene. A memory is a recollection portrayed that way.

For example, a memory would be:

Richard got out of the truck, remembering the last time he and Simon dove into the swimming hole. Thirty years ago. They were eleven. No, he was eleven, Simon was ten. He always rubbed Simon’s nose in the six months he had on him.

But not that day. That day, Simon had been crying, again, and Richard pretended he didn’t notice, again. He also pretended not to notice the fresh swelling on Simon’s cheek. He just threw an old towel at him and said it was too hot to work, even though his dad had told him the hay had to be lofted that day, before the next rain. It was the last time they skipped out on chores, because Simon was taken away by Child Services the next day.

A memory is told. The transition word above is remembering. This is backstory because it happened in the past and is being presented as a factual experience, if you will, not a live scene shown blow-by-blow as it happened.

This moment is important to the story. It belongs in this spot, and it tells the reader important information necessary to fully understand the dynamics between Richard and Simon.

Now let’s look at the same scene as a flashback.

Richard stood at the edge of the swimming hole and remembered the last time he and Simon had come here. They were both eleven. No–he was eleven. Simon was still ten. He never missed a chance to rag on Simon about the six months he had on him.

 “Here,” he’d said when Simon showed up red-faced and panting at the barn. Richard looked away when the sun hit the red mark swelling fast on Simon’s cheek. He threw a towel at Simon. “Come on, it’s too hot to pitch hay.”

Simon grabbed the towel and bent backwards to peek out the barn door. “Your dad’s not around? He won’t get mad?”

Richard tossed the pitchfork against the pile of hay bales. “Nah,” he said. “He won’t care.”

A lie. Later, when he came home, his dad was in the barn, pitching the hay up into the loft.

“Dad,” Richard said from the door of the barn. From behind, the sun prickled the back of his neck. His shoulders already felt tender. Tomorrow he’d pay for this sunburn.

Dad whipped around. His face was a red as Simon’s had been. “Where the hell have you been?” he demanded. “Didn’t I tell you the hay had to be put up today?”

“I know, I know.” Richard held his hands up like he was surrendering. He walked into the coolness of the barn, and because he didn’t want Mom to hear if she was around.

“I’m sorry. Simon came after I got started. He was running, and his face was all…you know. I was afraid his dad would come after him, so we went swimming. I’m sorry. I thought it…” He trailed off.

Dad’s face changed, from angry at him to a different kind of angry. He stared at Richard a moment and then nodded at the other pitchfork hanging on the wall.  “Come on then. Help me finish.”

When they were done, Dad stopped him at the back porch and put a hand on his shoulder. Richard winced, but he felt relieved too.

“Next time, son, just tell your mom or me before you take off,” Dad said. “But you did the right thing. Simon needs a good friend. That’s more important than getting the hay in, I reckon.”

A good friend. The words came back to Richard now. How good a friend was he, when it was his telling Dad about Simon’s face that led to the Child Services visit? 

As you see, a flashback is written as a proper scene, albeit a sparse one. This one uses “later” as a transition to skip over the part where Richard and Simon swim. That’s not important, or the goal of the scene. The scene goal is to show Richard’s guilt at causing Simon to be taken from his home by Child Services.  The reader gets to experience more of Richard’s feelings first hand, and to better understand why Simon can manipulate him now.

Some tips on writing flashbacks:

~ Use a simple transition, like remembered, recalled, thought back.

~ Avoid melodramatic phrases like “A wave of memories washed over me” or “I was overcome with reminisces” or “The memory of the last time threatened to drown me.” Waves, floods, emotional responses—these are too purple prosey. Keep it simple and direct.

~ Watch for tense. Here’s the tense rule in writing a flashback: In the first line of the flashback, use the past perfect: he had, she had, I had. Only the first time. After you’ve set the moment in the past perfect, the rest of the flashback is written in the simple past tense. In other words, one “had” sets the time. Beyond that, you need no more “hads.”

~ End the flashback clearly by using a time reference, like “now” or “long time ago.”

~ Give a reason for the flashback when it is over.  Why did you digress? Why are you telling me the reader about this event? Show its relevancy to the big picture of the story, and connect it to the scene happening now.

Like any scene, a flashback only belongs in the story if it’s important to the Story Question and moves the plot forward, even if it has to take a trip back in chronological time to do so.

Do you have a favorite author who does good flashbacks?


4 thoughts on “How to Tell–Flashback or Memory?

  1. I’ve been trying to remember how my favorite authors use flashbacks, and I’ve come to the conclusion that another tip is “seamless”. If you can make the transitions so seamless that the reader has trouble picking them out later, you’ve done a good job!


  2. Super helpful. I’m trying to write a story and there are A LOT of flashbacks and memories. I think I’ve actually mended the two (flashback and memories) in one so that they are a bit of both…(Trouble? I think so…) A comment by Eugenia A Parrish says that if the transitions are seamless and the reader can’t tell if it’s a memory or the present, it’s done well. Is that true though?


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