Different types of "Flashbacks"

In this question, the OP asks what the different types of flashbacks are, which of them is used the most and which is the most effective. He doesn't really get an answer to the secondary questions, which is what I'm looking for here.

But instead of asking which is the most effective, since that can be more opinion-based, I'm rather asking what kind of effect the respective alternatives produce. Also, I too wonder which is used the most.

Here are the different types of flashbacks mentioned in the answer to the post:


Third-person omniscient information dump

A true psychedelic-style flashback (usually in first person)

Dream states

Third-person limited thinking about one's past

If you know of anymore, please add, the more the merrier.

Now, I'd like to know the implications of all these types of flashbacks.

Which one is the most compelling to read (if there is an objective answer to this)?

Which one is the most informative?

Which one stays best in touch with what kind of narrative?

Does any of them take the reader out of the action?

To begin with I was planning to have my flashback be number 2, a third-person omniscient info dump, as it is the easiest. But I have this feeling that it is not a good narrative move, as if it takes the reader out of the action, and that it suffers from "telling instead of showing".

Is this option not in-line with "show don't tell"?

Also, in case that it is relevant, here is what kind of narrative my story is; Third-person with many POVs.

1 Answer 1


Third person within viewpoint is not omniscient, but limited to the viewpoint character.

I'll tackle a few of the types of flashbacks you've mentioned, but first will add in my personal favorite, which you didn't mention. Narrative weaving. I'll bold the backstory below:

"You can't be serious." Her mother had always said to beware of boys from the other side of the tracks, but she'd never taken the advice seriously until now. "You want me to dress like a stripper?"

"No. No honey, no. Not like a stripper."

But his words stood at odds with the lascivious glint in his eyes. And the tight clothing he held out--it might not technically be stripper attire, but it was close enough. She'd seen her aunt's wardrobe. What he held out to her, that was close enough to a stripper's outfit as to make no difference. "I refuse. No."

"Ah, honey, don't be like that." His words slurred. "C'mon. Make yourself pretty. "Sides, quickest way to pay your debt."

She sighed. At least stripping didn't mean sex. It just meant taking her clothes off. And he was right. It was a quick way to pay her debts. "Here. Hand them over."

In narrative, we see, in almost every snatch from the viewpoint character, some part of her past. Back story. We learn her aunt was a stripper, her mother raised her with warnings about certain types of men, and she has accrued a debt. Note that almost every single paragraph drops a clue from the past. It is woven in, and so becomes part of voice, and another way to convey back story. You can use it in every paragraph. My mind was blown when I realized this.

Incidentally, we have a clue in narrative that he has been drinking, too. And we have a clue that she values her mother's advice, simply because she brings it to mind.

  1. Dialog: Done well, and not abused, this too can be an invisible way of revealing back story. Avoid being on-the-nose. Too many people use dialog as a crutch to info dump. Don't.

  2. Third-person omniscient information dump: Best if set off, like Sanderson does with diary entries preceding chapters in Mistborn. He doesn't try to trick you into learning the back story, but instead sets it off with a bright lantern. "Here's backstory!"

  3. A true psychedelic-style flashback (usually in first person) Yeah, OK. If I'm reading first person, this is fine and an efficient way to get the point across.

  4. Dream states These seem to be frowned upon, and can easily be abused. Don't. You can mix these with the above options.

  5. Third-person limited thinking about one's past. Maybe this is the narrative weaving I am partial toward. I'd avoid italics. I think these blend most seamlessly.

I'm not certain I provided an answer. In terms of effects, some devices are more visible and some are more invisible. A visible device (omniscient info dump, for example) can be OK if done well, I mean there are successful examples out there, but most readers prefer to feel as though they are reading for enjoyment, not for learning something. Things like info dumps are more often done poorly by beginning writers and make the reader hit fatigue quickly because the information is hurled at them in a big chunk.

Hopefully this response helps you think through your choices more fully.

  • I thought what you did, which you called narrative-weaving, was telling instead of showing? Isn't the paragraph "telling" that her mother had warned her, instead of showing a thought thinking about it, in italics, or a dialogue of the mother saying the warning popping up in the character's head?
    – A. Kvåle
    Commented May 1, 2019 at 22:24
  • 1
    @A.Kvåle My opinion is that there is 'telling, showing, and other.' Also, I sort of think everything is 'telling' in one way or another. "Her mother had always said" tells that her mother always said something, and shows that her mother is important to her. Because she is sort of thinking about her mother, not her father. Are italics better? I've fallen on both sides of that debate. However, we all probably agree that "She was sad" is telling, with no showing anywhere in sight. Writing is hard, and is an art, and I am an egg. I think you have to juggle all of it.
    – SFWriter
    Commented May 1, 2019 at 22:50
  • Hmm, so there are gray areas basically? @DPT
    – A. Kvåle
    Commented May 1, 2019 at 23:22
  • @A.Kvåle I'd say definitely. Best bet is to read your favorite authors and look for telling, showing, and other. Info dumps become easy to spot. Kill them. Telling becomes easy to spot. Kill it. But you need to tell. You need to. So, find a sneaky way to do it. Best advice, see how your faves do it. How do the pros tell in a way that you don't notice? Do that. Even showing is telling, it's just telling in a way that makes a person think or feel. What it isn't, is spoon-feeding. "She was sad." that's a bad phrase, full stop.
    – SFWriter
    Commented May 1, 2019 at 23:28
  • 1
    this is my favorite style as well.... you just slip it in there...
    – ashleylee
    Commented May 2, 2019 at 17:23

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.