Pirate Codes & Writing Rules—When is a Flashback a Literary Device?

Pirate Code=Writing Rules. Clearer now? :)

Pirate Code=Writing Rules. Clearer now? 🙂

Yesterday’s post stirred quite the debate and flurry of panic attacks, so today, we will delve a bit further into Le Mystique of Le Flashback. First of all, for future reference, I need to ignore all Facebook comments that begin with, “I haven’t read your post, but completely disagree…” Er? Ok. Here’s the thing. I play dictator on my blog, because it’s my blog and it’s FUN.

I’m a realist and I KNOW there is some writer out there who has broken every rule there is. But, bringing up every last exception is a confusing way to teach and a fabulous way to make your heads explode.

It’s like the “I before E Except After C (except for when you run a feisty heist on a weird beige foreign neighbor) Rule.”

If I give you guys the BASICS and explain WHY editors, agents and readers almost always dislike flashbacks, you know what is distressing about a flashback so you can avoid the pitfalls if you choose to employ a flashback.

…but still avoid them. Ok, I’ll shut up now.

Defining a Flashback

When is a flashback a literary device? Hint: Rhymes with…NEVER.

Oh, before y’all get your panties in a bunch, let me expound.

One thing that jumped out at me yesterday is that we don’t seem to all define the flashback in the same way. I see this with the term “antagonist” ALL THE TIME, which is why I have an entire class dedicated to un-confusing you. Yes, un-confusing is a word :P.

For instance, many writers use villain and antagonist interchangeably, but they aren’t interchangeable. A villain is only ONE TYPE of many variations of antagonists. Antagonists are not always bad and often they are the protagonist’s allies.

This is like saying an orange is a fruit, thus all fruits are oranges. Logical fallacy.

Flashbacks, to me, are when a writer either breaks a scene and jumps back in time to explain (and thus alleviate tension as in yesterday’s example). OR, a flashback is when another scene serves ONLY to explain another scene (thus again, alleviating present tension).

In the first type, we have a scene, which is action. Protagonist has a goal, but then X happens. The point of the scene is to make the reader wonder if the protagonist will reach the goal or fail. The more roadblocks, the better.

To Flashback to Yesterday’s Post…

In yesterday’s example, we had this GREAT, TENSE scene where a wedding planner is trying (rather unsuccessfully) to herd hungover bridesmaids to the wedding on time. Nothing is going well for the poor planner. WE LOVE IT. We are HOOKED! Yet, with no warning or a clear scene break, suddenly *screeching of tires* we are  hurled back into an earlier conversation in a different place and time with totally different people when the bride-to-be decided to move the location from Napa to Mexico.


What this did was:

1. Break the forward timeline.

2. Make the reader have to reorient to a new time/goal.

3. Introduced a new cast of characters and dialogue that had to do with a TOTALLY different goal that had nothing to do with herding half-drunk bridesmaids to a chapel on time (and also had me floundering to keep up with 10 names).

The going back in time did nothing for the plot except break the tension by explaining and add a bunch of characters who weren’t even in the present scene. There was no information in that minor flashback that could not have been done BETTER in forward gear.

We know Mom gave in and let the bride have the wedding in Mexico, because…we began the story IN MEXICO!

In fact, putting the flashback real-time actually raises the tension through the roof. Nothing like having Mom wag a finger and say I told you so to make a nervous bride’s hangover improve :P.

Another example.

I’m working on a trilogy. Any book within a series should be able to stand alone. In series, however, it can be very tempting to explain in case someone hasn’t read the earlier book(s). Don’t.

Romi (my protagonist) is shot in the first book. In Book Two, this is page ONE when my protagonist meets with a character from Book One:

“Romi Lachlann,” he said close to my ear then leaned back, studying me. “You look different.” 

“I’d hope so.” I absently rubbed the scar on my ribs from the gunshot wound and poured myself a cup of black coffee from a large carafe.

Then, I continue the story. Sally forth!

Romi’s goal is to find out why, after 18 months of silence, someone from her past suddenly needs to see her. Yes, there is this teasing of the past, but I don’t stop and explain who shot her. I don’t lurch back to the final Big Boss Battle in Book One when she is on the floor begging for her life. I let the reader wonder.

Er? Gunshot wound? WTH happened?

If I stop mid-scene to explain, I confuse the reader and dilute the wondering. If I indulge in another scene back from when Romi was shot, I shoot myself in the foot.

Why would anyone 1) bother reading the first book or 2) keep turning pages to figure out what happened and how/why she was shot?

Additionally, my Book Two Romi is so paranoid she’s three steps away from wearing a tin-foil hat. If I go back and tell WHY, the story fizzles. Yet, by revealing details from what happened earlier in real-time (and when relevant to the current story problem), the reader eventually comes to understand the full depth of what Romi survived.

In fact, if I do my job properly, part of what will keep the new reader engaged is finding out what on earth transpired that tipped Romi off the deep end. For those who (hopefully) read Book One, her behavior is just an organic growth of the character/story they already know.

Also, if some people have read the first book, then I’m not trapping myself in an “As You Know, Bob Syndrome” when I withhold information. Why repeat details some readers already know and that would ruin tension for those who don’t yet have answers?

Flashbacks and Parallel Timelines are TWO Different Creatures

Flashbacks disorient, diffuse tension and can be cut without harming the story. All the information in the flashback can be explained in narrative or dialogue at a later point. No need to hit the “Reverse.” Your protagonist’s conflict isn’t in the past, but the present and future. The past has already happened, so readers CAN’T WORRY.

In my book, the reader knows Romi survives being shot. She’s drinking coffee and NOT a ghost. Flashing back to a bunch of pain, suffering, betrayal is self-indulgent melodrama.  Her conflict is in the current problem—the large bounty for her head (literally).

A Parallel Timeline is NOT a Flashback

Image via "The Joy Luck Club."

Image via Amy Tan’s, “The Joy Luck Club.”

Just because some scenes are set in an earlier time, doesn’t mean they are flashbacks. If we pull past and present apart then set the scenes side-by-side, we will see they exhibit three-act structure and eventually converge with the present in the final scenes of the story. Some examples are Fried Green TomatoesThe Joy Luck Club, The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, The Notebook and The Green Mile. 

For instance, I love the example of Stephen King’s The Green Mile not only because it is a great story and superb example of what we are discussing, but the book and movie are very close. This movie would be a great study if you are so bold as to try parallel timelines. They are tricky and I am not so brave.

The Green Mile begins in 1999 with Paul Edgecomb in a Louisiana nursing home. Paul begins to cry while watching the movie Top Hat. When his elderly friend Elaine shows concern, he confesses the movie reminded him of his time as a prison guard in charge of the death row inmates at Cold Mountain Penitentiary during the summer of 1935.

Old Paul Edgecombe.

Old Paul Edgecomb.

Young Paul Edgecombe

Young Paul Edgecomb.

One timeline follows Young Paul as a prison guard and his miraculous encounter with John Coffee. The other timeline follows Old Paul and his trials in the nursing home. It isn’t until the end that anyone bothers doing the math and sees HOW these two timelines converge. In fact, the timelines converging is essential to the core of the story. What happened to Young Paul has altered Old Paul forever.

Also, note that Young Paul Edgecomb was a jailer who held the power over the powerless, yet used his authority for good. As an elderly man in a home, Paul comes to experience what the inmates in his care might have felt like under the sociopath Percy Wetmore. Old Paul is no longer in a position of power and is at the mercy of a sadistic care giver (a present-day ghost of Percy Wetmore).

Or is he? 😉

Screen Shot 2014-04-28 at 7.17.46 PM

Percy Wetmore in “The Green Mile.”

Not All Story Timelines Have to Be Completely Linear

Some stories will begin with a tragic event in the beginning, then we see something like TWO DAYS EARLIER. This is not a flashback. This is merely a different way of plotting and a solid literary device. Though these types of stories might begin in a future moment, once the timeline goes back, it often stays there. Time then keeps pressing forward until the two points in time meet. There is no back-and-forth psychic whiplash.

Can these rules be broken? Sure. Pulp Fiction.

From the Quentin Tarantino film, "Pulp Fiction."

From the Quentin Tarantino film, “Pulp Fiction.”

But, I might add that Pulp Fiction ticked off as many people as who loved it (and this was a movie and visual so easier on the gray matter). Yet, even in Pulp Fiction (or The English Patient) eventually the jaunty timelines converged for those of us who’d gutted through being tossed all over the place.

***Note: I wanted to set The English Patient ON FIRE….but someone beat me.

But let me point out something interesting. If we snipped the scenes in either of these stories apart, we could set them side-by-side into a completely linear story with no spare parts.

Tomorrow, we will discuss why misused flashbacks can be a symptom of bigger issues/problems. But, I hope this helps you guys understand what I mean when referring to “a flashback” and the difference between a flashback versus parallel or non-linear timelines. Unorthodox plotting can be a literary device that enhances tension. Flashbacks, however, diffuse tension…and this is why they should be killed without pity.

I’m right.

It’s science :P.

What are your thoughts? Unless your thoughts are, but “But Kristen! Rules can be broken! Such-and-Scuh used flashbacks every page and now bathes in diamonds!” I know. And everyone hates her so I hope her money makes her happy. All rules can be broken and broken well.

Other thoughts than that? Did this help you guys see the difference in the “flashback” that irritates readers, editors and agents versus a parallel timeline or non-traditional plot structure?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

If you want more help with plot problems, antagonists, structure, beginnings, then I have a FANTASTIC class coming up to help you!


Understanding the Antagonist

If you are struggling with plot or have a book that seems to be in the Never-Ending Hole of Chasing Your Tail or maybe you’d like to learn how to plot a series, I am also teaching my ever-popular Understanding the Antagonist Class on May 10th from NOON to 2:00 P.M. (A SATURDAY). This is a fabulous class for understanding all the different types of antagonists and how to use them to maintain and increase story tension.

Remember, a story is only as strong as its problem 😉 . This is a GREAT class for streamlining a story and making it pitch-ready.

Additionally, why pay thousands for an editor or hundreds for a book doctor? This is a VERY affordable way to make sure your entire story is clear and interesting. Also, it will help you learn to plot far faster and cleaner in the future.

Again, use WANA10 for $10 off.

I’ll be running the First Five Pages again at the end of May, so stay tuned.

And, if you need help building a brand, social media platform, please check out my latest best-selling book, Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World.



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  1. Arrrrr! It makes so much more sense in Pirate! No flashbacks; aye aye, Cap’n, shiver me timbers!

  2. You do such an excellent job defining, explaining, and illustrating concepts. Thanks for taking the time to unpack things like this. I thought your last post identifying the tension-alleviating problem of flashbacks was spot on. And this is a good clarifying post.

  3. His is a good post. I added a flashback in my screenplay, but I see why they may not work.

  4. You scared me yesterday, but now I understand that my two TIMELINES do not mean that I am using flashbacks. THANK YOU!

  5. So… When John Coffee tells the story of how he tried helping the two children, but was then wrongfully arrested, that was NOT a flashback? Sorry if this sounds dumb, but I thought that was what a flashback constituted?
    Kudos for using one of the best movies in forever as an example though…

    1. Remember movies are visual, but the book delineated the scene so we knew we had shifted. It was a parallel/shifted timeline…not screech on the brakes whiplash if that makes sense. And if a character is forced to finally tell something that happened, we KNOW he/she is relaying something from the past, so we aren’t jarred. Either there will be a clear scene break or exposition in the current timeline narrative.

      1. A-ha! Thank you. Now that makes sense.

  6. You may also want to clarify if you include psychological flashbacks as flashbacks, since it’s a technical term yet different from literary flashbacks. As in, a character walks through a lunchroom when a bag of chips pops, and then for two or three lines he’s somewhere else, being shot at/tortured/etc, and then is huddled on the kitchen floor wielding a stolen plastic spork in self-defense. Then he gets up, brushes off his pants and shoves his hands in his pockets to hide the shaking, plasters on a fake grin, utters some joke about the horrible lunchroom food that gets the students laughing, and continues to talk the evil principal whom he suspects may be growing aliens in the school basement–and now knows one of the hero’s weaknesses.

    1. Was going to, but post was getting too long. Will talk more on those in the next post. Thanks! 😀

  7. I’ll be honest, if the information is THAT important, then I’d rather start with it and then skip forward to the events I want to be talking about than stick it in halfway through the story. If it’s not that important then I prefer to drip feed it throughout the story until its content becomes relevant and the reader goes “Ah!!”

    1. Yep. Ditto on that.

  8. An antagonist is the yin to the protagonist’s yang.
    Some of my readers thought of my antagonist as being the true protagonist, because he goes through the journey of redemption (ie Darth back to Anakin), whereas my protagonist is a hero from beginning to end.
    A true villain would never be interpreted as such.

  9. Reblogged this on Daven Anderson's Blog and commented:
    Concerning flashbacks, you nailed the two key faults, Kristen Lamb:
    1. Break the forward timeline.
    2. Make the reader have to reorient to a new time/goal.
    A flashback that’s not gulity of these two should be reasonably successful.

    An antagonist is the yin to the protagonist’s yang.
    Some of my readers thought of my antagonist as being the true protagonist, because he goes through the journey of redemption (ie Darth back to Anakin), whereas my protagonist is a hero from beginning to end.
    A true villain would never be interpreted as an alternate protagonist.

    • Martha Carr on April 29, 2014 at 8:58 am
    • Reply

    Kristen you got it right and of course, where there are rules, there are exceptions. They just don’t happen often. That’s why they’re not the rule. Flashbacks should be saved for when we feel passionate about them, when they feel organic to the story and we get excited as writers about how they would unfold. That’s rare. I’ve also been an editor for a lot of manuscripts over the years and the usual cause was trying to correct a hitch in the story line. Better to pause and reconstruct than throw in a gimmick.

    • Vivian on April 29, 2014 at 9:01 am
    • Reply

    Thanks, Kristian, I agree wholeheartedly with you. Flashbacks are a waste of time and irritate the heck out of me. One in particular was the in the Hunger Games (I know it’s sacrilegious to make negative comments about Collin’s books, but I found them trite and full of tropes – like most YA). The flashback of Katniss remembering the baker’s family throwing bread away when she was starving, and a younger Peeta relenting and giving her some, totally took me out of the story. It was clumsy. I thought it was lazy and demeaning to the reader, telling them, “Now you know there is tension between these two characters and Peeta isn’t all bad.”
    I remember thinking how much better this point could have been handled though dialogue between the characters or between the adults as they were saying goodbye to their children.
    I felt insulted.

  10. I appreciate your thoughts on flashbacks. I’m struggling with that as well because I want to give more background, but like you say, maybe it is not necessary to achieve the goals at that time. Thank you very much.

  11. Reblogged this on ugiridharaprasad.

  12. Reblogged this on Writing Under Fire and commented:
    A great continuation of yesterday’s post by Kristen Lamb on Falshbacks

  13. Thanks for the clarification. I was going to post a comment asking for this very thing. You read my mind.

  14. Thanks for spilling your genius in a way that is entertaining and educational. I’m looking forward to having you rip my first five pages to shreds at the end of May. Although, I do plan to pore over them for several hours prior to that moment.There are NO flashbacks. I learned to avoid that (“It’s a trap!”) long ago.

  15. So,if my protagonist is explaining something to another character and that particular something happened in the past, it’s not a flashback because she’s explaining it in current time? I hope.

    1. Not a flashback. That is simply relaying a past occurrence in present narrative.

  16. if you lose a flashlight, then find it, do you have a flashback?

  17. Think I have it now. I think. A crucial element seems to be in how it’s presented…NOT interrupting action, clear scene break. I used to find them fascinating as a literary tool until Lost came along and every episode was a flashback-fest. After two seasons I couldn’t handle it anymore. Once Upon a Time is another one.

  18. Well, this is embarrassing.
    I sent you five pages which would appear to break two of your rules. I use a journal and I use a sort of flashback by having the writer read from her journal. My manuscript is a post-apocalyptic fantasy. Having picked that genre I am not a fan of the usual Mel Gibson, Mad Max et al. I needed to get to the destruction of the world rather quickly, and on with my story, so I had it happen in the first page and then use a few more pages to allow the reader to catch up. Chapter two, ten pages in, gets to the meat of the story.

    1. You can rework them before I look if you want 🙂 .

  19. Great way to explain it, Kristen! I love the parallel story example. Tried it in a short story but my editor hated it. LOL! We’ll see what the readers think. 🙂

  20. Oh, joy. I don’t think any of my “flashbacks” are flashbacks under your definition. Still, I am going to double check to make sure. Muchas gracias.

  21. P.S.: Had to reblog this. Even though, according to the directions in your book, not all my followers are writers, some of them still are.

  22. Whether it is done in flashback or a present time info-dump, giving too much background and information that we “think” is important to the story, often doesn’t work. I liked your comment, Kristen, about letting the reader wonder about the scar from the gunshot wound.

    That doesn’t mean, however, that flashbacks never work. I think some do when they are used judiciously and sparingly. The problem occurs when there are too many too often, as was the case with with Pulp Fiction, The English Patient, and Lost. Moving from present to past flashbacks is also a technique used in a lot of TV shows such as Revolution, Person of Interest and Continuum and viewers could get lost if they look away from the screen and miss the transition. Whether on screen or on the page, we don’t ever want people to get lost.

  23. Reblogged this on From Dreams and commented:
    For my followers who are writers and readers who may find this interesting. Kristen Lamb is a marvelous maven and teacher.

  24. Reblogged this on Scribing English and commented:
    I have always struggled with the writing rule to never use flash backs. Sometimes I have found them to be useful in my writing. However, flashbacks are defined – and defined well here, and I recommend anyone who wants to dabble in the world of jumping through literary time in their story to give this a read.
    It certainly gave me a sigh of relief for some instances of my story.

    • firsttimewriter on April 29, 2014 at 10:53 am
    • Reply

    Brilliant post, thanks. I’ve enjoyed reading your blog. And that’s high praise indeed, as I have the attention span of a gna…

  25. Wow!! What an interesting two days of discussion around flashback and parallel story lines. To me, your specific examples are a blueprint for what occurs in a piece of fiction. But perhaps what you do better than anyone else is pinpoint a problem–in this case, defining the difference between flashback and parallel story lines–and carefully label each piece of the problem so it becomes a blueprint or problem solved. In that regard, you have no equal. Brava, Kristen.

    • Roger H Panton on April 29, 2014 at 11:30 am
    • Reply

    Well, I didn’t have any problems with the earlier explanation, especially with the example of the wedding situation.

    • Lisanne Cooper on April 29, 2014 at 11:41 am
    • Reply

    As always, thought provoking and informative. Not only do you know your stuff but you are one of those rare people who are able to teach writing without making the student feel stupid and in fact, I feel highly encouraged after reading your blog. Thanks!

  26. I started reading “The Goldfinch” a couple of days ago and could not help but recall your recent posts. I kept telling myself, “It’s won a Pulitzer, Tartt must have done something stupendous.” So far, I’m not impressed. Today’s post has helped me give the book another shot, mainly because you reference one of my favorite stories and movies: “The Green Mile,” and “Pulp Fiction,” as well. I hadn’t given a lot of thought to the parallel and non-linear plotting of those works because, well, it just works. I’m kind of shamefaced to admit it because I studied filmmaking at one time, now I have delusions of writing and editing… I can’t say enough how your blog has helped me grow in my writing and assist others in my writing circle.

    I’ll definitely be reblogging!

  27. I think what you said in yesterday’s post makes sense: put the flashback toward the resolution to merge the past with the present and not interrupt the timeline.

  28. Reblogged this on Daphodill's Garden and commented:
    Anytime there’s a “Pirates of the Caribbean” quote used, I’m compelled to take a closer look. I love pirates, and Hector Barbosa is my favorite. I also love writing tips, with Kristen Lamb’s blog being one of my favorites. This week she’s been explaining flashbacks, and like all her posts, this is a timely topic for me. I’ve been doing a lot of fiction reading these past couple of weeks in between my writing projects, and my current read is spending a lot of time in the past. I keep asking why? When will the story begin? What is the point? This flashback is pretty long (to me), that I’m failing to see the point of continuing the book (I’m only in the first chapter)–but it’s won the Pulitzer for Fiction, so the author must have done something right. Kristen’s post today, which explains about different plot structures (parallel timelines and non-linear ones), has renewed my resolve to see this book through to the end. Perhaps you will find a fresh way to convey past events in your stories, as well.
    Happy writing!!

  29. Hmm, that makes sense. But your definition (not jarring the reader out of something) lead me to ponder if flashbacks could work if introduced properly?
    My work in progress has at least one of those, but I’ll have to take a closer look once I’m done with my draft…

    1. ALL literary tools have weaknesses. Theme is AWESOME. Employed poorly? It becomes preaching/lecturing. Symbolism. AWESOME. But can get irritating. Shifting in time is great IF we know the weakness. Put it in as seamless as possible and if the beta readers all tell you they got lost? Remove or rework.

      1. Good point. Will tread with caution, thank you! 🙂

  30. Flashback/parallel timelines. Got it. Something I knew w/o having the words to express, and a technique (parallel timelines) I’m using in current WIP — carefully. Thanks.

    • J.D. Brown on April 29, 2014 at 2:32 pm
    • Reply

    Kristen, I would love if you could write a post about dreams (showing a MC dreaming in a scene, seeing the dream as they see it). I feel dreams are akin to flashbacks in that most are done badly. I know as a reader I often groan when I see a dream scene. But I’m working on a YA in which the MC’s dreams are important and I’d like to know how to write them well (or at least understand why they often don’t work…)

    Thanks. 🙂

    1. Sure. I can do that.

    2. I use a dream, too, but at the beginning of a chapter. Does it feel different if the reader does not know he/she is in a dream until the MC awakes and then the reader finds out?

  31. Reblogged this on Lenora's Culture Center and Foray into History.

  32. Your post is brilliant, as usual. Thank you for sharing your genius with us, Kristen. ?

  33. This is SO helpful. I’ve been thinking in terms of flashbacks with the novel I’m working on, but parallel timeline makes much more sense. It’s very difficult to work out, but once I realized that this was the structure the novel needed and I figured out how to manage it, a mess of a novel began to come together. One timeline is the present; the other goes back to the beginning and works its way forward until they meet. It’s probably the most difficult thing I’ve tried to do, but I’m enjoying it so much.

  34. Love this quote!!

  35. Years ago, my brother shared an example from a visual art class he took. The professor held up a very realistic sketch of a forest and said “This is by Picasso! He was able to break the rules BECAUSE HE KNEW THEM. And after you demonstrate that you know the rules and can follow them, I’ll let you break them, too.” I’d call the “no flashback” rule something you should know before you break it, as a writer.

    1. Bob Mayer uses the same technique in his classes. It’s part of what humbled me enough to really start digging and understanding the craft.

  36. I used to flashback almost constantly. I’ve gotten better since I’ve become more aware of what I was doing; this is the next building block to help me root out the trickier and more subversive of the little critters. =)

    Thanks for doing what you do, and sharing it with us, Kristen! =)

  37. What about the MC having hypnotherapy to deal with trauma and at each session there is some flashback, but just enough to keep reader guessing? I’m thinking that might fit in with parallel timelines?

  38. Thank you for clarifying that parallel timelines are not the same things as flashbacks. For a second I was getting worried. I try not to do them a lot, but there is one instance in my novel where Scene A and Scene B are running side by side, but Scene A begins partially before Scene B, while scene B catches up to Scene A. I couldn’t break into Scene A to show sections of Scene B, because that would have broken the tension of Scene A, so I ended up having to go back maybe ten minutes (time as in the world of the book) where Scene B presumably begins in the middle of Scene A in order to get that one character in Scene B up to speed. His presence is important when Scene A continues.

    I hope that wasn’t too confusing of an explanation, heh. You end up seeing Scene A twice, but the second time is considerably shorter.

  39. In my current novel (my first) I have a heroine who’s afraid of her own shadow at the beginning. Further into the book I have a scene where what one of the heros does combined with their surroundings and the smell of the eucalyptus trees cause her to relive a rape experience she had buried below the level of memory. Is this a flashback? Or is it a legitimate use of something that happened in the past?

    1. Only if the rape is salient to the plot problem in my POV.

    • Del Cain on April 29, 2014 at 8:41 pm
    • Reply

    I read all of this and mostly agree but I did have a little trouble with her pouring a cup of “black” coffee from that large carafe. Coffee from the pot is almost always “black.” So, once again, the nit gets picked, 🙂

    1. Eh, it’s my first draft, but thanks for the catch, 🙂 .

  40. Wow, this is such a timely post for me. I am just at the point where a new set of beta readers are getting to the one flashback (not a parallel timeline) in my book. A previous beta reader thought it was unnecessary and the others did not mention it. However, even if the new beta readers don’t take exception to it, like Fagin said, “I think I’d better think it out again”. What’s more, I just finished the first draft of the sequel and wondered how much of Book One to explain. Apparently, the answer is “not much”. Thanks for pointing out these two pitfalls just when I needed the advice!

  41. Your example with the gunshot wound clarified things from yesterday. It kept the action going and yet gave a snippet of information to fill the blanks and keep the reader guessing. I’ll keep this in mind for my second book that I should be writing the first page of now, but I’m reading your blog instead.

    My favorite series of books uses the same flashbacks when introducing characters in every consecutive book. It’s also an exception because its a ridiculously popular series. As a reader from book 1 I do distinctly remember it annoying me a few times. I will watch out for doing the same to my characters. Thanks for the advice.

  42. I’m in the middle of reading First Fifty Pages by Jeff Gerke. He states that flashbacks aren’t a good idea because, as you said, you end up giving too much away too soon. Two of my favorite books though do the flashback — the one you mentioned, The Green Mile, and The Notebook. Could it be because the bulk of the story is in the flashback?

    1. It isn’t truly a flashback. It’s a parallel timeline. It moves forward and arcs and has three-act structure.

  43. Very skillfully introduced concept of flashback to provoke discussion. There is nothing wrong in interruption of chronological sequence (as in a film or literary work) by interjection of events of earlier occurrence, but explaining is a nono.

  44. Great follow-up post, thanks. I’m going to have to re-think my interpretation of The Green Mile. I saw that as bookending, but I like the parallel you drew between the prison and the nursing home. I tweeted about this post, too!

    • Jen on April 30, 2014 at 6:33 pm
    • Reply

    Super helpful! Thanks for clarifying 🙂

  45. THANK YOU! This was a great post. I’ve had so many people tell me that I’m writing flashbacks in my film script, but I’m not. I start at one point in time, and then jump back and move the story forward, meeting up with the beginning point, and continuing on. It’s non-linear.

    • Rachel on May 1, 2014 at 10:48 am
    • Reply

    Hmm, I kind of disagree with that idea. Flashbacks can be great if you know what you’re doing. But there are some rules.
    – Flashbacks should be used far more for emotional set ups than for plot set ups. By that I mean you should NOT be using flashbacks to fill in a ton of extra plot points, at least not often. It should be to get into the emotions of a character.
    – You should be able to seamlessly transition into and out of flashbacks, and they should be short. By this I mean you could be in the head of a character remembering an emotional part of their past, then have a quick scene actually in that past, then have them reflect on that scene and come back to the present time. It’s a good way to get the emotional side of a character without just having them reflect on it the whole time. We SEE what caused the emotional response.
    – They should have a minimum amount of dialogue. We don’t remember conversations perfectly. Neither will your characters.
    – Most of it should be emotional response from the flashbacker You’re not writing a flashback to fill in a plot point that you missed. You’re writing a flashback to have a character remember something key to their current emotional responses. We do that in real life too, even if we don’t actually revisit that scene from our past.

    If you follow those rules, flashbacks can be a great way to get into the head of a character.

    1. We don’t disagree. I refer to that as working a past point into present narrative. It’s short, not jarring and adds depth.

    2. Excellent pointers on how to do it!

  46. If there were no flashbacks in my novel, it would end up 300K words in length instead of 90K. It is an epic story told in a minimalist style. If there’s a flashback, it lasts for a short chapter of its own, leaving the previous chapter on a cliffhanger, which adds rather than detracts from the tension. Breaking the rules? Probably, but my beta readers haven’t complained.

    1. But you are placing the past point in its own section, so it is not what I would probably cut. Flashbacks to me are when we are having forward momentum in a curet scene then STOP, GO BACK and the reader is ER? Wait, I thought we were here doing X.

      1. I think it can be done mid-scene if it’s a seamless slipping backwards and forwards in someone’s mind, as that’s what people do anyway, except when they’re totally focused on a particular task or activity. But it’s when the cut, mid-scene, is too abrupt and akin to someone skidding to a halt and then reversing at high speed back down a road they’ve just driven along.

  47. I have a frame setting for my story written in Danish.
    Starts out in a mad house in Germany where an ambitious psychologist meets his new subject: a girl who thinks she’s looping in time.
    And then I go back in time and follow the girl.
    It’s not until the epilogue that I get back to this frame story.
    I’m wondering if there’s a better way of doing it.
    I originally just started without it but it seemed the story needed this little teaser, a promise of what might happen, without giving everything away.

    Btw, Kristen, omg, SPOILER ALERTS much? 😀 You need to stop spoiling your books XD

    1. LOL. Well, if there is a trilogy, I think it’s fair to assume she survives Book One, 😀 .

      1. Nah, that one’s a closed deal 😛

  48. Thanks for a great post, Kristen… am about to go and slice out all my flashbacks and figure out how to get them into the action.

  49. Hi Kristen, Had a few snickers reading your wonderfully funny blog! I have to admit though I was getting worried that my WIP was filled with flashbacks but now realize that they are actually parallel storylines which end up converging in the present – whew! Thanks for clearing it up for me.

  50. Thank you for clearing that up. I was a little confused about the difference between flashbacks and non-linear plot progression. I use the later a lot in my work because – much like you said – rather than diffuse the tension with a flashback, i prefer to keep it moving forward but sometimes i like explain events later while still moving forward…. yeah now that I’m typing this all out I can see why its confusing to explain. I guess you just have to do it to learn it.

    You did a much better job explaining it with your examples than me.

  51. Reblogged this on remnantscc and commented:
    Great explaination of the differences between flashbacks and non-linear plot progression.

  52. Oh God you’d set Me on fire if you could read my MS… luckily I’m rewriting it…

  53. Great post. Appreciate the help you offer so many writers, including my clients! That line from Pirates of the Caribbean is one of my favorites. The code is more like guidelines…Argh!

  1. […] Kristen Lamb discusses what flashbacks are – and are not […]

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