Writing Memories / Flashbacks

by Mitch
(Los Angeles, CA)

Question: What is the proper way write memories or flashbacks in a novel?


While I am unsure of how to integrate a flashback into a story, I am more unsure about my choice to use a flashback over a prologue. As a reader, I have always had an aversion to prologues (particularly those that depict an event from the MC's childhood, regardless of its future significance) because I am eager to meet the MC as he will be for the duration of the novel. So naturally, as I attempt to write a novel, I find myself with a plot that hinges on an event from the MC's past and face the difficult choice of how to present this crucial event to readers. Unfortunately, this is an event that has been forgotten (via trauma) and won't (more like 'can't') be remembered by the MC until a couple chapters into the novel. Do I use the dreaded prologue so I can tease readers with the information well before its significance can be understood, or do I use a one-time flashback only when its insight becomes absolutely necessary to the plot?

Do you recommend the use of a memory/flashback over a prologue? Can it be used even if you are writing in the 3rd person?

Answer: The kind of event you are describing is often the inciting incident for the story, which is why it's important for the reader to learn about it. (If it's not important, why include it at all?)

This event is the first in the story, chronologically. Dramatica would call it the first driver, because the first act of the story is a reaction to the inciting incident.

Putting the inciting incident into a prologue is often done when there is a significant gap in time between it and the start of the main character's throughline.

The flashback option is often used to create a little mystery. In this case, the story opens after the inciting incident, so the reader wonders what happened that everyone is reacting to in the first act. Only at a later point in the story does the reader discover what the inciting incident was.

Of course, the flashback is not the only technique you can use to reveal the inciting incident. In a murder mystery, the detective might deduce what happened near the story's crisis. In other stories, the main character is told what happened by another character. You could also use a device such as a diary or video footage to expose the truth - or, as in your story, a recovered memory.

One thing you have to ask yourself is whether you want to create a mystery about what the inciting incident was. For instance, you could start off showing the reader a woman who is screwed up for some mysterious reason and then later have her recover the memory of the trauma that affected her.

With a prologue, there is no mystery about what happened - although you could hide the connection between the inciting incident and the main character until later. (i.e. Who was the baby girl who was traumatized? Was it the main character or woman X?). But generally, the prologue is designed to make the reader anticipate what will happen rather than wonder what did happen.

You may have to try writing it both ways to see which is more effective for the story you want to tell.

P.S. It shouldn't matter whether you're writing in first or third person

Click here to post comments

Join in and submit your own question/topic! It's easy to do. How? Simply click here to return to Questions About Novel Writing.


 Step-by-Step Novel Planning Workbook


NEW! Make Money Writing Nonfiction Articles


"I've read more than fifty books on writing, writing novels, etc., but your website has the most useful and practical guidance. Now that I understand how a novel is structured, I will rewrite mine, confident that it will be a more interesting novel." - Lloyd Edwards



"Thanks to your "Create a Plot Outline in 8 Easy Steps," I was able to take a story that I simply just fooled around with and went willy nilly all over, into a clearly defined, intriguing battle where two characters fight to keep their relationship intact, and try to find a balance in control of themselves and their lives. Thanks to you, I'm not ashamed of the poor organization of my writing." - Nommanic Ragus

"I am so glad I found your site. It has helped me in so many ways, and has given me more confidence about myself and my work. Thank you for making this valuable resource, for me and my fellow writers. Perhaps you'll hear about me someday...I'll owe it to you." - Ruth, Milton, U.S.A.

"I never knew what to do with all the characters in my head, but since discovering Dramatica I am writing again in my spare time. Thank you for making this available. Yes, it is a bit complex, and it does take time, but I love it because it works." - Colin Shoeman

"I came across your website by chance. It is a plethora of knowledge, written in a simplistic way to help aspiring writers. I truly appreciate all of the information you have provided to help me successfully (relative term) write my novel. Thank you very much!" - Leo T. Rollins

"I can honestly say that this is the first website that is really helpful. You manage to answer complex questions in relatively short articles and with really intelligent answers. Thank you for taking the time to write these articles and sharing them so generously." - Chrystelle Nash

"...had no idea that a simple click would give me such a wealth of valuable information. The site not only offered extremely clear and helpful instructions but was a very enjoyable read as well. The education from your wonderful site has made me a better writer and your words have inspired me to get back to work on my novel. I wish to give you a heartfelt thanks for How to Write a Book Now, sir." -- Mike Chiero