Here’s Why Using Flashbacks in Your Thriller Writing Will Up the Suspense

Photo by Felipe P. Lima Rizo on Unsplash

Editor's Note:

The Last Time I Lied is the second thriller from Riley Sager, the pseudonym of an author who lives in Princeton, New Jersey. Riley’s first novel, Final Girls, was a national and international bestseller that has been published in more than two-dozen countries.

Flashbacks aren’t the most original storytelling device. In fact, they’ve been used since mankind first started putting ink to paper. But you wouldn’t throw away a hammer just because they’ve been used for centuries. A flashback is an equally sturdy tool that writers can use to relay vital information, ramp up suspense, and reveal character.

You may ask yourself, why focus on the past at all? I’m writing a thriller. Isn’t the present action enough?

It could be. I love a present-day, pedal-to-the-floor thriller as much as anyone. But I also know that we don’t live in a vacuum. We are shaped by prior experiences and people we’ve encountered. We are who we are — and where we are — because of moments from our past.

Thirty-two years ago

I gently closed the library copy of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, awed by what I had just read.

I whispered into the darkness of my bedroom: “I think I want to be a writer.

The same is true of our characters. They have lives beyond what’s chronicled on the page. And sometimes it’s necessary for an author to provide a glimpse into those pasts.

The standard way of doing this is to have a character recall something while engaged in a moment of downtime. Sipping coffee, for example. Or riding a train. The character will often stare out the window at a slate-gray sky and ruminate on certain moments from her life that led to her current predicament.

Many writers excel at this, mingling the past and the present in a way that’s organic and seamless. Anne Tyler springs to mind, as does Megan Abbott. But in other hands, it can be clunky — definitely more telling than showing. No writer wants that, especially in the thriller genre, where plot and pacing are key. Spend too much time on a character’s thoughts and you run the risk of slowing down the action or, worse, boring the reader.

Rather than go the traditional expository route, I suggest hopping into a literary DeLorean and traveling back in time. Try turning that memory into a flashback. You might like the results. When done right, otherwise routine exposition transforms into action that bolsters both pacing and plot.

One week ago

My phone let out a tell-tale ping. An email had arrived.

I glanced at the screen, not expecting much. Spam, probably. The typical Nigerian princes or Russian mail-order brides looking for love.

What I received was worse. On the surface, it looked like a friendly invitation to write about flashbacks. But I saw the drooling wolf lurking under that sheep’s clothing. In truth, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

You could, for instance, have a character hint in the present that something terrible happened in her past. Instead of the character flat-out saying what occurred, you could make the reader wait until you reveal it in a flashback. The result is instant suspense. The reader knows something is coming. What they don’t know is what it could be or when it will arrive.

On the flip side, you could offer a flashback in which a character is confronted with a life-changing decision in her past, but not reveal her choice until later, in the present. The result is the same — giving the reader something to anticipate.

Two days ago

I still didn’t understand why they wanted me, of all people, to offer advice about building suspense through flashbacks. I’m just a hack, I thought. I don’t know how to do this.

Then it hit me — a way to write about flashbacks that wouldn’t put people to sleep. The concept was risky — borderline crazy. But was it a risk worth taking? With my deadline galloping ever closer, I needed to make a decision.

The thriller genre is particularly well-suited for flashbacks, especially in this golden age of the unreliable narrator. When you’re writing about untrustworthy people doing shady things, a glimpse into their pasts is a great way of revealing what they’re hiding.

For example, my first two thrillers — Final Girls and The Last Time I Lied — both featured unreliable narrators. One couldn’t remember the past. The other couldn’t forget it. Both did things they later came to regret, which were revealed over time in flashbacks. It turns out that neither one was quite telling the truth.

Because of this, it’s been suggested in some of the snarkier corners of online book criticism that I overuse the device. Not that I care. I pay no attention to those critics.

Two weeks ago

I scoured the internet for early reviews, desperately searching for the one thing all writers seek — validation. They need to love me, I thought. They must. And there was love present in many of those reviews. Enough to warm my frigid heart. Yet one review stood out from all the others.

“Sager’s constant use of flashbacks is really just a smokescreen to cover up the fact that he doesn’t know how to tell a story.”

My heart sank. Tears stung my eyes.

Obviously, there are no hard and fast rules regarding flashbacks. You can use them. Or not. You can have just one or two, or you can weave them throughout your book. But I encourage writers to at least give flashbacks a fair shot, even if you’re not a fan of the device. Try one on. See how it fits. Experiment.

If it doesn’t work, you can keep your action in the present. Or, if you’re feeling daring, you can attempt a flashforward. But that’s a topic for another day.

Two years from now

I sit at my laptop, fingers flying across the keyboard, the words flowing like water from a tap.

“I knew they’d ask me to write about flashforwards,” I tell my robot maid. “My plan worked!”