JJ Barnes – Writing Advice

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By - JJBarnes

How To Write Flashbacks

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I’ll be writing about the video Non-Linear #2 – How To Write Flashbacks – writing advice for writing a book or a film, from the writing advice series I’m doing on YouTube with Jonathan McKinney.

In a previous blog I wrote about writing a non linear story, but in this blog I’ll be looking specifically at the use of flashbacks.

Using flashbacks is when you have two time lines, your main story line, and then a back story line in the past.

I talked previously about how disrupting the flow of your main story to show sequences in a non linear style can boot your audience out of the story. It can easily break the tension you’ve been building in one timeline, because you have to go elsewhere.

The way to avoid breaking the tension is to make the scenes in the past, the flashback sequences, somewhere they want to go. To do this, you have to withhold certain key information from your reader, information they want to learn, and promise that the answers will be found in the flashbacks.

By using the flashbacks in this way, to support and boost the present day storyline by providing interesting answers, it builds up the excitement of the present day timeline rather than distracting from it.

If you just go into the past to show events that you find interesting, but that don’t support and enhance your main storyline, you just happen to enjoy writing that time, you’re focusing on what you want and ignoring what your audience wants. And they will feel that.

To promise your audience an exciting thread of information in the flashbacks, you need to tease your audience, build questions in their mind, about a mysterious past or significant events, that they want to go and find out about.

I enjoy a flashback. I wrote flashbacks as a key part of my third novel Emerald Wren And The Coven Of Seven. I found that teasing the audience with the past of Emerald and Maram’s life, and how they got to where they are in the present day story, worked well. I’m also a fan of how flashbacks are used in the TV series LOST. The flashbacks build intrigue about the characters, who they are and what their secrets are, in a way that works really well.

The drip feeding of information through these flashbacks is what keeps the audience wanting to go back there. It’s just enough information each time that you’re satisfied and it contributes to the main story, but not so much that you’ve done it all and have no reason to flashback again. If you run out of information to give in the past, your audience won’t want to bother going back there, and if you audience doesn’t want to go back there you shouldn’t bother writing back there.

For instance, in Arrow, they kept doing flashbacks to the island where Oliver Queen was stranded and they distracted from the main storyline, and because they had established the format of flashbacks but soon ran out of storyline for the island, they had to make it increasingly ridiculous to try and justify going back. Linking it to the present day timeline wasn’t very well done and I found present day Arrow was the story I wanted, the flashbacks were what I had to endure. And ultimately, that’s why I fell off and stopped watching. The show is still very popular and successful, but I feel that’s despite the use of flashbacks, rather than because of them. Whereas for Lost, I feel the flashbacks were as massive factor in it’s success.

If you want to write flashbacks, as I have, remember to keep your audience interested in the past timeline but using it to boost the intrigue of the present day storyline with little pieces of information that add to the character and the plot rather than distracting from it.

You can find more writing advice on our YouTube channel where we’ll be releasing a piece of writing advice every day to help you become a better and more confident writer. If you have any writing questions, comment below and we will try to do a video for every question we get!

Click the picture to find details about all the books written by JJ Barnes and where to buy them.

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