Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Writer's Wednesday: Writing Flashbacks

Presents Author Sabrina Philips discusses writing flashbacks

I adore reunion stories, both to read and to write. My keeper shelf is full of them and of the four books I’ve written to date, three have fallen into that category. I love that before the hero and heroine have even said a word to one another, there’s a whole bunch of emotions already bubbling away below the surface. I love watching them discover that the feelings they thought they’d laid to rest are stronger than ever. And I love that when they finally resolve their issues, their happy-ever-afters have an added sense of meant to be.
I also love it that at some point in the story there is likely to be a flashback giving a glimpse of what happened between them in the past. It’s not essential of course – backstory can be revealed through dialogue (and I think it should be, in addition to flashbacks), and flashbacks don’t only occur in romances where the hero and heroine have met before, but personally I have a soft spot for seeing characters together ‘back then’.
Like the Friends episode where we see how crazy Ross was about Rachel even in college. It makes us better understand his motivation in the present, and gives his feelings added depth.

But do I love writing flashback scenes? Yes and no. It is a joy to explore what happened between a hero and heroine previously, but technically I think it’s also very difficult to get right….

A flashback immediately slows the pace by jumping out of the present, something which I ordinarily spend my time trying to avoid – but put in the right place it can also up the tension. Given that the most logical way of going into a flashback is by having the hero or heroine remember the past, it also needs to come at a time when they’d have chance to reflect, and when their memory would naturally be stirred.

Then there’s whether to choose the hero or the heroine’s perspective, and once that’s decided, how to reveal the other person’s (inevitably very different) take on that event. I often find myself thinking the way romance authors of the past who didn’t write from the hero’s point of view must have done, trying to reveal motivation through body language, which requires a different skill set altogether.

Add to that the question of how much to reveal at once - one chunk to get it over with and allow a speedy return to the present and the all-important pace, or slowly in little bits like a treasure hunt of clues, and it becomes a giant jigsaw puzzle. Not to mention how soon in the story to get to it – too early on and it might be a lost opportunity for keeping the reader guessing what happened, too late and they might get bored waiting to find out.

The right way of approaching flashbacks, I suspect, is to ask those questions anew of every story, because it’s going to differ every time. But I’d love to know how other people feel about flashbacks on the whole. When you’re reading, do you prefer they’re kept to a minimum before the author quickly gets back to the story, or do you like wondering about all the juicy details and having them lovingly revealed? And writers, how do you tackle them?

Sabrina’s current release, The Desert King’s Bejewelled Bride is a reunion story which features a drop-dead gorgeous sheikh, a glamorous modelling assignment, an erotic fruit scene, a spontaneous game of tennis…and a couple of flashbacks!

Pink Heart Society gave it a fabulous five hearts ‘an amazing and spectacular love story’ whilst Romantic Times called it ‘a royal delight’. It’s now on sale in the UK and will appear as part of the ‘Royal and Ruthless’ Presents Extra mini-series in North America next month.

Sabrina will give away a signed copy to one lucky commenter today.


  1. I'm not really a fan of flashbacks. I've seen too many awkward flashback chapters by *good* writers to be comfortable with them.

    I tend to get jolted out of the story and start making judgements about the writing rather than what's supposed to be going on. Not only that, but somehow 'show don't tell' seems to go out the window during flashback scenes and lots of unnecessary details end up being related.

    I much prefer backstory being related along with 'the present' because I don't get taken out of the story.

  2. I don't mind flashbacks at all and I agree it helps the story many times.
    You got me at 'an erotic fruit scene' being in the book. I must find out about this, lol.

  3. The problem I have with flashbacks as a writer as I am very aware that certain readers, particularly those with dyslexia have trouble when the book isn't linear. It was one of the reasons why it was postulated that Harry Potter became so popular with people suffering from dyslexia -- it is linear.
    Thus, even when I am doing a reunion story, the action is kept in the present because after all it is how the conflict affects the present that is important. And you can show various different emotions such as devotion through the keeping of objects, the fact he takes the time and trouble to recreate a date or simply that he remembers she hates ice cream sundaes. In others words sometimes flashbacks are an unnecessary crutch.

  4. Thanks for sharing anonymous, I agree that jolting a reader out of the story is always a risk...definitely not easy to pull off!

    Robyn - pleased you're ok with them! Glad you like the sound of the erotic fruit scene too ;) Adored writing that one.

    That's a really interesting point about dyslexic readers Michelle, and one I hadn't considered, so thanks for raising it. I agree you can definitely show devotion in other ways, and your suggestions are fab.

    I wonder if it also depends how much past history they shared? I've just written a story where the h&h are already married, separated, then the present is them reuniting. I wonder if it would have been possible to get across all that happened in their pasts without one? Sounds like a challenge for me for a future book :)

  5. Sabrina -- the short answer is yes, it is possible. I managed Viking Warrior, Unwilling Wife without a single extended flashback, even though it was essentially a divorced couple with hidden baby reuniting. What was important was the how they reacted to each other in the present, and how each percieved the past. The shared past was hinted at, but I never had to show it real time as it were. It is the present conflict that is always important and not the conflict in the past. It is the King Lear precept. The gouging of eyes is always more horrific when done off stage.

  6. I think there is a time and place for flashbacks. Sometimes it is essential to help the story, other times it's unnecassary and jolts the reader from the present action.
    I've just written my first novel - unpublished as of yet(fingers crossed!) - and i used the heroine having dreams/nightmares which showed the past. People who have read it have said it was done well, so i'm not too critical of it.
    The past has it's uses and it's how we as the writer use it that affects the story.

  7. Personally I love flashbacks - even the ones where the chapter headings give no clue to the date lol. It gives us an insight into the characters involved and provides clues as to their motivations.

  8. The right way of approaching flashbacks, I suspect, is to ask those questions anew of every story, because it’s going to differ every time.

    Excellent line and a great post. Loved it. :)

  9. I love stories where the H/h have known one another forever -- especially to write, because there's so much already there, rather an instant fire sort of thing. I flashbacked a lot in my second book -- mostly because my editor asked me to move the wedding from chapter three to the opening scene. And I did one later in the book, too, that she liked a lot -- largely because it was short!

    If you think it doesn't work, read The Shell Seekers. Each time RP launched on another piece of the past I screamed noooo... I want to know what's happening now. But each time she pulled me right in. Magic writing.

  10. I like flashbacks in some of the stories. It kind of gives you an ideal of what happened in a story where the hero and hroine got together years or months later.

  11. I don't mind flashbacks. I think that it can give you insight into the characters' history and help you understand their present situation.

  12. Will have to read your Viking Warrior Michelle! Great point about King Lear.

    It's really interesting to hear the cross section of opinions, I'm glad some people enjoy them / don't mind them as well as those who aren't so keen.

    Liz - I've been meaning to read The Shell Seekers for years, you've inspired me to get a copy now! I've heard great things about it but hadn't realised flashbacks were a central part of it.
    Stories where the H/h have known one another forever are great aren't they? Mine have always been lovers reunited to date but I'd love to write a friends to lovers book.

    Thanks for all the comments so far, I'll pop back in the morning and choose a winner!

  13. And the first name out of the hat was...Sarah Kay! Congratulations Sarah, please email your postal address to and I will send you your signed copy of The Desert King's Bejewelled Bride.

    Thanks again everyone for your comments.