What ‘How to Get Away with Murder’ Can Teach You About Flashbacks in Storytelling

To hold you over until tonight’s season finale …

How to Get Away with Murder’s writing has always impressed me. It somehow always manages to correct its flaws about as quickly as they appear, surprise me even when I’m convinced I know what’s going to happen next, and keep my full attention every second of each episode, season after season.

I won’t spoil anything for you if you’re behind or haven’t even gotten around to watching from the beginning yet (it’s worth it, I promise). Each season begins with an intense scene (usually in which someone is dead or close to it) in which only a few small details are revealed. The episodes that follow backtrack to the “present,” showing the events that lead up to the season finale, in which all the pieces revealed throughout the season eventually come together to loop back to the very first scene.

It’s not an unheard of storytelling method by any means, but the way in which it’s executed never ceases to astound me. Whether or not you’re a fan of the show, there’s a lot we can learn from the way it tells a very complicated story. Whether you’re a screenwriter, novelist or you write a little bit of everything fictional, here are some key things to keep in mind when incorporating flashbacks into a story.

One or more of your characters is most definitely hiding something.

Or, at the very least, there’s a lot about a character’s past or past events that the reader doesn’t know, and isn’t supposed to find out about right away. There’s a way to withhold information about a character’s dark past – and create a dark past – without falling prey to cliches. It doesn’t even have to be dark, I suppose. It can be funny, it can be whatever you want it to be, as long as it matches the overall tone of your story. If your story requires flashbacks, it’s a good way to help readers slowly piece together the past.

You should never reveal every piece of background at once.

Never. Storytelling gets complicated when you weave together elements like foreshadowing, backstory and a whole lot of shady dialogue. But that’s what makes it fun … most of the time, anyway. What you don’t want to do is leave everything until the second to last chapter, or reveal too much at once and kill the momentum. This strategy literally baits the reader into reading/watching/listening more because they want to find out what happened. They want to uncover all the pieces. Don’t give them too many pieces, or they’ll lose interest.

Storytelling shouldn’t always be linear.

I tend to overuse memories and flashbacks, but that’s because my fiction tends to be (extremely borderline) psychological thriller. I like messing with people’s heads, characters included. I think it’s fun to make a story jump around in time, as long as it makes logical sense. There are plenty of stories in which a story starts at the beginning and continues on, forward in time, until the end. In those stories, it works. There are stories where time is always jumping back and forward and back again – as long as it works as a device to move the plot forward, you can’t go wrong. Usually.

Who’s ready for tonight’s season finale? I’m not. Spend some time writing today, in anticipation of whatever awful things are in store to wreck all of our minds and hearts forever.

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and an eight-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

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