How to Hack a Flashback: Secret Shortcuts of Bestselling Authors

Flashback Hack Blog

Courtesy of Drew Coffman, Flikr – modifications mine License

To Flashback like a bestselling author, you have to know the tools, tricks and “hacks” of how they translate the concept of a fuzzy literary device to the reality of words on the page. Bestselling authors know and use these hacks, and so can you – as soon as you know the secret sauce.

First, here is the  Flashback Formula explained in a previous post. Keep this formula in mind as you continue to read the specific mechanics of bestseller flashbacks.

Flashback Formula

No time to read the whole article now? No problem. Save it for later, then glance at the infographic at the bottom of the article. It’s like your personal Cheat Sheet of Flashback Hacks.

Let’s get into the meat of the article. Here are the specific hacks that show you how authors who have consistently published 14 + bestselling novels craft riveting flashbacks.

Hack #1: Follow a Strong Scene

Bestselling author’s follow the Dos Equis Rule, otherwise known as the Law of the Most Interesting Man in the World. Yes, I just made that up. This law states: I don’t use flashbacks often, but when I do, I follow a strong scene.

Strong Scene

Don’t worry, dead lifts are NOT one of the hacks 🙂

Why follow a strong scene? The answer is all about reader engagement. If you flashback too early, before the reader cares about the character or the story goal, you risk losing reader interest. Instead, time your flashbacks following strong, engaging and emotionally visceral points in the narrative. The flashback, then, will serve as a welcome respite.

Hack #2: Ignite a Craving (Make Readers Want It)

In my opinion, a writer’s job is to give readers an emotionally satisfying experience. That usually happens when a character they care about encounters an ENORMOUS, life altering problem.

Screen Shot 2015-10-09 at 2.28.07 PM

Courtesy of Sean McGrath, Flickr – click photo for license

Bestselling authors hack into the DNA of story by linking flashbacks to the central story problem.

In other words, the story cannot move forward without information in the flashback. The flashback is critical narrative real estate without which the character is forever trapped in the problem, conflict, crises, etc.

How can you apply this to your own writing? You purposely embed a clue, secret, insight or piece of information in the flashback. And you make sure that the readers know the character is going into the flashback to discover this missing piece of information that is crucial to solving the story problem.

As a quick example, take my novel series Past Lives about a man who discovers under hypnosis that he’s a reincarnated serial killer. There are several points in the story that I dig into the past lives of the main character, Eric shooter. The past life information (that is hopefully engaging by itself) is married directly with the main character’s problem – trying to break the cycle of reincarnation and stop himself from killing again. Each flashback and hypnosis session digging into his past becomes a form of interrogation by the hypnotherapist and the detective working the murder case. The flashbacks are purposeful and include meaty information that changes the course of the present day story.

Screen Shot 2015-10-09 at 2.46.52 PM

Courtesy of AK Rockefeller, Flickr – click photo for license

Hack #3: Pull a Trigger (or Symbol) 

Bestselling authors use character-revealing triggers that provoke flashbacks. Triggers can be anything – smells, sounds, sights, items, words, virtually anything. The best triggers do double duty by prompting flashbacks AND also exposing new information about the character.

In my novel, Dark Halo, watching her ex-husband bravely disappear into a  forest full of monsters pulls Lucy into a flashback of the last time she saw him – a drastically different experience of the man. The trigger is the sight of her ex-husband plunging into the forest. The sight contrasts sharply with the flashback, hence new information about both characters.

Hack #4: Be a Smooth Criminal (Transition)

Bestselling authors transition into flashbacks smoothly and subtly. They usually don’t broadcast the flashback as on-the-nose as, “Cindy remembered a time when she….”. They are more likely to write something like, “Cindy was 8 again, her pigtails flopping behind her as she ran down the dirt road behind her family farm…”

Smooth transitions avoid jarring the reader out of the story. Better to allow the story to flow seamlessly through the flashback and then back to the present day story (back to the future? 😉

Hack #5: Verb it Up

Ah, old man grammar rearing his ugly head again! Yes, indeed. Bestselling authors use a pattern of verb tense to subconsciously alert readers to the flashback. Unless you were looking for it, you may have never noticed this clever grammatical subterfuge. But it’s there.

Here is how it works: As you transition into the flashback, use past present (Kirsten had backflipped) for a sentence or two, then switch to simple past (Kirsten backflipped).

Note: If you are writing in present tense then just switch to simple past. 

To transition back to the present, just reverse the pattern: A sentence or two in past perfect, then revert to simple past. Presto! Mental tomfoolery that leverages grammar to carry readers into and out of flashbacks with minimal PTFD (post traumatic flashback disorder).

Hack #6: Orient Time and Place

At the same time, bestselling authors deftly orient readers to the time and place of the flashback. It is possible to be so “smooth” that the reader gets confused about where and when they are in the time and space of the story. Since confusion is the breeding ground of reader disinterest, bestsellers inform readers in the first line or two of the flashback. For example: “Mark had been at these stables before, the summer of his college internship…”

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Courtesy of Gareth Simpson, Flickr – Click photo for license

#7: Infuse the Flashback with Catalyst Superpowers

How did the flashback change the character & the story? This is the question asked by the final hack. If you want to quadruple the impact of flashbacks, infuse them with character-changing power.

If a flashback doesn’t radically transform the character and the story, maybe you don’t need it. Maybe there is a better technique.

Going back to my example of Lucy in Dark Halo, reliving the last conversation with her ex-husband in flashback solidifies her changed perspective and their changed relationship.

Ok, lastly but not leastly (Hey, I’m a writer, I can make up words), here is the promised infographic: 

Flashback Hacks


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

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Posted in screenwriting, writer, Writing
2 comments on “How to Hack a Flashback: Secret Shortcuts of Bestselling Authors
  1. mazeface says:

    Reblogged this on Sly Twin Tiger and commented:
    Great article on writing flashbacks by author Christopher Kokoski.

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