The Flashback Formula: 5 Surprising Things Bestselling Authors Do Differently

Flashback Formula

Bestselling authors approach flashbacks in five surprising ways that keep readers glued to the page, riveted by story. These five strategies infuse flashbacks with *magic* and, combined, make up what I call the Flashback Formula.

In my last post, The $10,000 Flashback, I encouraged you to treat flashbacks like zombies — avoid if possible, confront only as a last resort. I also promised to spill the beans on how bestselling authors do flashbacks . So, as promised…

The Flashback Formula: 5 Surprising Things Bestselling Authors Do Differently

Flashback Late: Avoid flashbacks in the first 50 pages. I know, I know. You will be tempted. Seduced, even. Your story will look at you with its pleading, wordy eyes and demand a flashback in the first chapter or on the first page.

And, honestly, your story might be right. Every story is different.

“There are good reasons to leave the reading present: by flashing back we can deepen characterization, create suspense, or introduce other characters and events that will eventually matter a great deal to our outcome.”    – Stuart Horwitz

Before you employ that enticing flashback in the first sentence, consider that bestselling authors rarely start with flashbacks. Why? Early flashbacks usually stop the narrative; worse, they reverse momentum, sending the story backwards in time.

In other words, flashbacks snatch readers out of the present moment action. This, fellow word-slingers, can quickly poison reader interest. Therefore, whenever possibly, insert flashbacks later, after readers are already hooked with the present story.

Flashback Short: Long, unwieldy flashbacks trap readers in the past, removed from immediate threat. Most readers (including yours truly) want to get back to the present moment action as quickly as possible. Long flashbacks often bore readers, siphoning off suspense. Readers know the characters survive whatever happened in the past — i.e. they are alive in the “now”. Readers want to know how the character struggles toward the present day goal not endless backstory. So keep flashbacks brief, to the point. Then get back to the present. Your readers will thank you.

Flashback Fast: Speed, by which I mean pacing. If you must go into the past, at least keep the pace at a steady clip. Is there a place for a slow, leisurely flashback. Almost certainly. Especially if you follow the other four flashback strategies. However, you are likely following a stronger design if you increase the pace of actions, description and dialogue.

Flashback Frequently: Ok, I realize this sounds incredibly hypocritical. Hear me out. One way to craft short, fast-paced flashbacks is to sprinkle them into the present day story a little at a time. A flashback moment instead of a prolonged flashback event. A flashback paragraph instead of a flashback scene or chapter.

Sometimes these types of flashbacks are referred to as episodic flashbacks. A certain sound or sight or smell snaps a character back into a memory. For example, a female cop smells gasoline and flashes back to her grandfather kneeling beside an old lawn mower.

Frequent flashbacks allow you to remain mostly in the present, jumping quickly back and forth through time over the course of several pages, scenes or chapters. You can flashback to different memories or to one, ongoing memory. Frequent flashbacks keep flashbacks short as you layer in story information in easily digestible chunks.

Flashback Fun: Flashbacks are notoriously boring. They lay there lifeless on the page in all their un-glorious dullness. Like I said in my earlier post, I hate flashbacks. Unless….an author turns flashbacks on their head and makes them fun.

Fun?! Yes, actually rollicking good time. How do bestsellers do it? You already know 4 ways – late, short, fast and frequent. Consider also the following sub-strategies:

  • Give the flashback a story purpose. Example: A cop plunges into past memories to solve a present day murder case. Give the character and the reader a reason to go back.
  • Inject drama into the flashback. Conflict. Conflict. Conflict. Just because you go into the past, doesn’t mean the rules of good storytelling don’t apply.
  • Add something unusual, weird or different. A literary Purple Cow (if you don’t get the reference, google Seth Godin and get the book – it is fabulous).
  • Infuse the flashback with emotion – fear, greed, lust, romance. Give the reader a visceral experience. Let them feel.

You may have already figured out that by “fun” I mean anything that enlivens the flashback. Anything that gives it meaning and significance to the present day goal or conflict. Make flashbacks fun and readers will not only forgive the flashback, they might just fiend for it.


Christopher Kokoski is a speaker, trainer and author of Wicker Hollow and the Past Lives novel series.

Posted in Writing

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