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How Do I Avoid Repetition with Flashbacks in
My Novel?

Flashbacks can create a problem in novel writing when it’s necessary for a character to be told something that the reader already knows. We often hear the expression ‘Show, don’t tell’ in relation to writing fiction. While there’s a lot of truth in that, this is an occasion when telling is the better option.

No matter how dramatic the incident being related, the reader, having experienced it once, is unlikely to want a lengthy replaying of it.

It’s much better in this case for us to be aware that the character has recounted the experience – without having to be reshown it. To ensure that the narrative retains its emotional resonance, the impact of the information on both the person recounting the incident and those who are hearing it can be shown.

In the example below, the readers have seen Jill have a furious row with her fiancé, Greg, which has led to them calling off their engagement. She is now with her mother, Sue, and about to tell her everything that happened.

Reshowing the row through Jill’s eyes would simply be re-treading old ground. There would be little drama because we know what’s going to happen.


The drama now centres on what Sue’s reaction is going to be. 


‘Oh, love, what’s wrong?’ said Sue.

Through the tears and sobs, Jill told her mother everything.

Sue sat for moment with a look of total shock on her face. Then she stood and walked over to Jill, hugging her tightly as her daughter struggled to fight back the tears.


Sue now knows everything – without the need for a lengthy recap which would have simply slowed everything down. At the same time, the devastating nature of the row is reiterated through the references to Jill’s tears and sobs, and Sue’s shocked expression.  


Different authors will approach the task in different ways – it’s all a question of personal style. For example, rather than simply referring to Jill telling her mother everything, some writers might want to re-emphasise just how traumatic the incident was in the form of ‘edited highlights’:


‘Just tell me everything that happened,’ said Sue.

And so Jill told her about the things they’d said that couldn’t be unsaid, about the ring thrown at Greg’s feet, about the door slamming behind her and about how the person she loved more than anyone in the world couldn’t bear to look at her.  

Then she wiped away the tears and smiled weakly at her mother.

‘Well, you did ask.’


Another approach would be to flashback to incidents which the reader has not seen in order to put the recent event into context and make apparent the emotional impact it is having:


As Jill slowly forced the words out, a kaleidoscope of images flashed through her mind. The chance meeting with Greg at the coffee machine, being late for their first date when the bus broke down, the holiday in Bali last year when he’d presented her with the ring on a moonlit beach … the ring that she’d last seen lying at Greg’s feet an hour ago.

Jill realised that she’d finished speaking.


In this example, we gain a greater empathy for Jill as we share various events that led up to the engagement – now given added poignancy by the knowledge that there is not going to be a happy ending.

Sue now knows all about the row (something that is necessary for the narrative), but the fact that Jill was talking almost on auto-pilot while thinking back to happier times gives us a vivid insight into her mind. The present is so painful that she has retreated to the past as a coping strategy.


The exception

One case where it would be imperative to show Jill telling the story again is where she is an unreliable narrator. Suppose that, rather than admitting it was a row where both said things they shouldn’t have, Jill decides to put the blame squarely on Greg with a heavily revised version of events.

In this case we would need to see everything in full. First, because it would have a major impact on the plot and second because of the way it affects our view of Jill and Sue. Does deceiving her mother come easily to Jill, or is she awkward and ill at ease? Does Sue believe everything she is told without question or give little indications that she thinks she is only getting half the story? 


Using flashbacks in your novel: summing up

There’s generally no need to go over old ground. Only if the viewpoint character is adapting the truth for their own purposes do we need to see a dramatic incident play out again. Other than that, once you’ve shown the incident, it’s time to focus on the reaction of those who hear about it.  

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