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What Is a Flashback and How to Use It in Your Writing Effectively!

Hi! I’m Ms Nellie Lim, a teacher at Lil’ but Mighty. One of the common creative writing techniques that students like to use is the flashback technique. In today’s post, let us delve deeper into this technique and learn how to employ it to good use in our writing.

What is a flashback?

A flashback is a short description of a past incident (sometimes known as background information) that explains and accounts for the behaviour or intended actions of the main character. For example, Gerald, the protagonist, has a phobia of water and wants to avoid attending a pool party his new classmate invited him to. The flashback in this storyline could be a traumatising episode of near drowning which Gerald had experienced in the past. Therefore, this explains why Gerald tried to avoid attending the pool party due to his traumatic past experience.

Why do writers use flashback in their writing?

Why do writers use flashback in their stories, you may ask? Well, to put it simply, inserting a flashback in the plot gives the reader an idea why the main character behaves in a particular manner or has certain predispositions. This helps the reader to empathise with the main character. Take the earlier example of Gerald. If the reader is aware that he was traumatised as a result of drowning when he was a young child, the reader would be more empathetic towards him trying to avoid the pool party.

Now that we know what a flashback is and why writers use this technique, let’s look at what we should or should not do in writing a flashback:

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To illustrate my point further about how to use flashback effectively in writing, let’s analyse a sample that has been written for a composition titled “Forgiving someone”. For this topic, the pictures given are as follows:

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Below is an overview of what the story is about:

  1. Main character Crystal is envious of twin sister Claire.
  2. Unlike Claire who is an accomplished athlete, Crystal feels neglected by her parents.
  3. She decides to get back at her twin sister by stealing her assignment that is due the next day and hides it.
  4. As a result, Claire is unable to submit her assignment and receives a severe tongue-lashing from the teacher.
  5. Crystal witnesses Claire crying and feels remorseful.
  6. She decides to confess to Claire and seeks her forgiveness.
  7. Claire forgives Crystal and their relationship improves.

When you read the sample paragraphs below, take special note of the text that has been highlighted in blue.

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Now let us analyse the paragraphs above to see how the writer effectively uses the flashback to make an impact on the reader. We will do so by using the following questions which are based on the list of Dos that I have shared earlier in the post:

Q: Where does the flashback begin?
A: In the rising action paragraph, just before the main character thinks of a way to get back at her sister.

Q: How can the reader tell that there is a flashback?
A: The sentence “Unlike her twin sister Claire, she had never once been good at anything” uses the past perfect tense. This indicates to the reader that the flashback is about to begin, differentiating it from the current timeline of events.

Q: Does the flashback help to provide sufficient background information to the reader? If so, what does it tell you about the relationship between Crystal and Claire?
A: Yes, by knowing that Claire outshone Crystal in swimming and running, the reader can understand how jealousy and envy drove Crystal to commit a dastardly act to hurt her twin sister, whom she dislikes.

Q: How are the main character’s emotions fleshed out?
A: The writer uses Crystal’s thoughts – “Why does everyone love Claire but hates me? This is so unfair!” she fumed. Additionally, the writer uses a metaphor “a maelstrom of envy, anger and jealousy roiled in her” to paint a vivid image in the reader’s mind.

In summary, notice that in the flashback (highlighted in blue), the writer:

  • keeps the flashback short and succinct
  • indicates events that happen in the past leading to the current situation
  • does not overcomplicate the storyline
  • makes use of an object (which could be a picture given in the question) to trigger the flashback but does not focus too much on it
  • does not use cliché expressions like “It all started like this…” or “Tears brimmed in my eyes as I recalled what happened that fateful day…”

All in all, the flashback is a good technique to help readers empathise with your main character in the story, especially if it is written well. Now that you know how to craft a flashback effectively, I hope you will apply it in your writing. Till the next time we meet, adios!


LilbutMightyEnglish CreativeWriting 1

Primary 5 & 6 Creative Writing

Components covered:

Paper 1

– Composition Writing (with 20 Composition Topics covered)
– Situational Writing

Class Duration

1.5 hours

Group 48 17 1
Ms. Nellie

As an educator, Ms Nellie believes that every child is unique and learns differently. As such, every classroom experience becomes an opportunity for reflection and spurs the teacher to find different ways to reach out to the child and establish a strong teacher-student relationship which helps to nurture the child holistically. During her free time, Ms Nellie also enjoys reading, watching movies and plays because there’s nothing like a piece of writing coming to life with moving pictures and sounds. A big fan of Dystopian novels and plays, she can always be seen at bookstores with her nose buried in her favourite books.

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