Understanding the Flashback—Bending Time as a Literary Device

Image vis Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Yuya Sekiguchi.

Image vis Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Yuya Sekiguchi.

Last time we talked about flashbacks and why they ruin fiction. But, because this is a blog and I don’t want it to be 20,000 words long, I can’t address everything in one post. Today, we’re going to further unpack “the flashback.” I think we tend to use broad literary terms to encompass a lot of things that aren’t precisely the same things, and in doing this, we get confused.

In my POV, the term “flashback” is far too broad.

We can mistakenly believe that any time an author shifts time, that THIS is the dreaded “flashback” I am referring to and the one I (as an editor) will cut.

Not necessarily.

We need to broaden our understanding of the “flashback” because lumping every backwards shift in time under one umbrella won’t work.

My favorite example is the term “antagonist.” I’ve even been to conferences where experts used the terms “antagonist” and “villain” interchangeably as if they were synonyms, which is not the case. A villain is only one type of antagonist. It creates a false syllogism. Yes, all oranges villains are fruits antagonists, but not all fruits antagonists are oranges villains.

Ergo, why I coined the term, Big Boss Troublemaker.

By being specific in the language, plotting becomes far simpler because we aren’t struggling to have a “villain” in every scene. This also helps us understand the structure of stories where there is no cut-and-dry “bad guy.” I.e. Jane Eyre, Joy Luck Club, The Road.

Back to “flashbacks.” Let’s try to do the same thing so we have some clarity.

I will modify what I said on Friday, since I was a tad unclear (but it was okay for the purposes of that lesson). I believe in NO flashbacks EVER…in the first pages of the book. Since the example I used was from a previous First Five Pages class, it fell under this “rule” of mine.

My reason is this. The first pages of our book are some of the most critical. We need to stick to ONE timeline long enough to hook a potential reader into the story and allow them to get grounded and care. If we bounce forward and backward, with a new time and new cast members and a new setting? Readers will get confused and likely put the book down.

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So, the NO FLASHBACKS EVER still applies for the first pages. As writers, we have the task of being magicians. We spin a fictive dream out of black letters on a white page. Once we have readers hooked, our job is to maintain that fictive dream.

Every shift in time is an opportunity to shatter that magic.

Think of writing a novel like being a figure skater in a performance. Sure, figure skating is already hard. The skater might stumble in a spin or meet a wall, but usually those aren’t the high danger spots. We can tell the trickiest parts of any ice skating performance by how they are scored. What is the make or break? Jumps. The more complicated (and dangerous) the jump, the more points.

We can add “lifts” in couples skating, but the idea the same.

But jumps are a gamble. Nail the jump and WIN! Botch the jump and maybe it costs more points than it could have gained. Or, worst-case-scenario, the jump was so dangerous, the resulting injury is a career-ender.



Every time those skates leave the ice is dangerous, because one tiny mistake can ruin the magic. When we decide to shift time (jump), our literary skates are leaving the ice, so execution becomes paramount to keep the performance seamless.

Also, what new skater is doing a routine filled with ten quadruple Lutz jumps? Probably won’t find many Olympians doing that either 😉 .

Now you see why I want you to use jumps sparingly. Also, if we are going to jump, we better know how to execute it lest we destroy a knee our story. Jumps are also blended into a fabric of a larger performance and serve the whole or we would be left with ice-jumping as a sport.

To continue with our ice skating analogy, all jumps are jumps, but they each are different types of jump and each has a varying degree of difficulty worth a corresponding amount of points. A Salchow Jump and a Flip-Jump are both jumps, but with very different execution. Within each category of jump, there are differences as well. A single-axel jump is obviously different from a quadruple-axel jump.

The same idea applies to “flashbacks.” Yes, broadly speaking, all “going back in time” is a flashback. But there are different ways of going back in time. And, within each “way” of going back in time, there is a corresponding level of difficulty (and possible payoff).

Also, some of you may have more than one time-line and more than one “protagonist” and that can and has been done, but remember that jumps now reach a new height of difficulty. Because we are balancing partners, timing must be perfect and if one partner stumbles, it brings down everyone.

Before we talk about time as a device…

The Training Wheel Flashback

The training-wheel flashbacks are the ones we should learn to nix right away. It is weak writing. This type of flashback does what training wheels do. They artificially “prop” up the weak plot and weak characterization.

Most of us start with training wheels. It is OKAY to be new. But eventually, we look rather silly.

When I wrote my first “novel”, I had two protagonists with parallel plots. Okay. More than a tad difficult for a first-timer, but all righty. But THEN, I kept feeling the need to go back and explain. How did they become friends? How did the one character develop such bad OCD she became agoraphobic? Etc.


Thing is, I had no plot. But, even if I did have a plot, these were elements I didn’t need to go back in time and explain. They were friends. I am Author God and if I say they are friends, the reader accepts that.

The one character was OCD. That was all I needed. She was just OCD. That’s all. There was nothing in those flashbacks that couldn’t have been related current-time in narrative or dialogue. I didn’t need to hop in a Literary DeLorean and explain by detailing her abusive childhood.

In fact, had I not explained why she was OCD and agoraphobic, I might have maintained/increased tension because the reader would have hoped I might reveal WHY.

Flipping back and forth in time added way too many characters, places and problems that had nothing to do with the current story problem in need of resolution.

When I took hostages asked friends and family to read my novel, the largest complaint was I confused everyone. They had no clue what my story was about (namely because I didn’t know either). I’d strung together a bunch of beautifully written vignettes all across time, propped up with training wheels flashbacks.

Ah, but pretty prose does not a story make.

Yes, flashbacks are a real literary device. I will add a caveat that deus ex machina is also legitimate literary device that was used by the great Greek writers. Today? Readers would rightfully toss our book across the room, because deus ex machina is viewed as a cheap trick to get out of a plot problem where we the writer have painted ourselves in a corner. So, just because something is a real literary device doesn’t mean it will work in modern commercial fiction.

But, YES, shifting in time is something that can be and is done. It might be a parallel timeline (Fried Green Tomatoes, The NotebookTrue Detective).

It can be non-linear structure (Memento, Vanilla Skies).

It can even be a true flashback that is critical to the current story problem. For instance, an event that happened earlier that directly relates to solving/conquering the real-time story problem that won’t work in a prologue.

We’ll explore all of these and ways they’ve been done well.

But, before we talk about bending time, let’s look at the inherent pitfalls to time travel (even when we do it well).

Bending Time

Back to the future, then past then future...

Back to the future, then past then future…

There are a lot of ways to bend time. But, like the quadruple axel, there are risks. Bending time is part of our author toolbox. There is nothing saying all stories MUST go from Point A to Point B in a linear, chronological fashion.

This said, we need to be careful how much we bend time and why we are bending time. Remember that every time we shift time, we can lose members of our audience. Yes, a handful of film geeks loved Memento. 

But, Memento is one of those movies that can probably only be done ONCE.

Pulp Fiction did a fabulous job of hopping all over time, but just as many people who loved the movie hated the movie and couldn’t finish. Same with The English Patient and The Hours.

We have to remember that, ultimately, stories are for the audience not for us (unless we are happy selling a book to ourselves). What experience are we giving them? Are we killing our tension and momentum because we keep jerking the reader back into a past that has no purpose other than exposition?

One of the reasons I play the Flashback Dictator, is that if I pull the training wheels away and help you learn to NOT rely on them, your writing will improve. THEN, if you do decide you must shift in time, you will be careful to do it with intention and will execute it WELL.

Instead of wobbling all over, any time shift has purpose.

A good litmus? The PAST must be related to what is going on in the PRESENT and directly impact the FUTURE (how the story is resolved).

Some questions we might ask when tempted to go back in time.

Is this something that can be explained real-time?

For instance, in the series True Detective (which we will use later), the story follows two detectives who do NOT get along. The more amiable detective is trying to get to know his tortured and gloomy partner.

Detective Marty Hart: Your mom alive?

Detective Rust Cohle: Maybe.

Just this line of dialogue speaks VOLUMES. Of course later, Cohle explains in a few lines of dialogue that his father returned from fighting in Vietnam when he was two. Mom couldn’t take it and left and he hadn’t seen her since. We didn’t need to go BACK there because Cohle’s family problems, him being abandoned as a toddler and resulting relationship with his dad, has nothing to do with the current PLOT problem…finding a brutal killer.

If I cut the flashback, does it really harm the story?

If you have beta readers, critique partners or an editor, try removing any scenes that “go back” and often they aren’t as critical as we believe. Maybe one or two we need to keep, but I guarantee most can be weeded out (unless this is non-linear plotting).

Have I started in the wrong spot? Am I telling the “right” story?

Sometimes when we get writing, our subconscious knows that the more interesting story actually happened earlier, which is why we keep going back. Often, changing WHEN the story begins helps.

Have I unintentionally smooshed TWO separate stories together?

IF we keep flipping back and forth, we might also be muddying two separate stories together. It might be we need to separate the timelines and give each story a separate stage.

Remember, the PAST must be related to what is going on in the PRESENT and directly impact the FUTURE (how the story is resolved).  From Pulp Fiction to The English Patient to The Hours past and present are tethered and eventually the timelines converge and empty into the same gulf.

If we look and realize one timeline is going one way and another is going a different way and end in different places? A good time to cut in half and have two books 😉 .

I hope this helps you guys understand the difference between the “bad” flashback and simply using time as a literary device. We will explore the ways we can bend time some more and I will work to give you tips for how to land that quadruple-axel without taking out a small village.

What are your thoughts? Do you struggle with movies or novels that bounce all over time? Have you struggled with shifting in time and maybe you were telling the wrong story or beginning in the wrong spot? Have any questions?


Before we go, y’all asked for it so here goes. I have two classes coming up. The class on log-lines Your Story in a Sentence—Crafting Your Log-Line is $35 and as a BONUS, the first ten sign-ups get to be victims. IF YOU ARE QUERYING AN AGENT, YOU NEED A PITCH. I will pull apart and torture your log-line until it is agent-ready for FREE. 

Beyond the first ten folks? We will work out something super affordable as a bonus for being in the class so don’t fret. I’ll take good care of you. AND, it is two hours and on a Saturday (June 27th) and recorded so no excuses 😛 .

I am also running Hooking the Reader–Your First Five Pages.  Class is on June 30th so let’s make Tuesdays interesting. General Admission is $40 and Gold Level is $55 but with Gold Level, you get the class, the recording and I look at your first five and give detailed edit.

Our first five pages are essential for trying to attract an agent or even selling BOOKS. Readers give us a page…maybe five. Can we hook them enough to part with cold hard CASH? Also, I can generally tell all bad habits in 5 pages so probably can save you a ton in content edit.

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JUNE, 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).

Remember, for MORE chances to win and better ODDS, also comment over at Dojo Diva. I am blogging for my home dojo and it will help the blog gain traction.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook


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  1. Reblogged this on xdayschocolate.

  2. Reblogged this on Mystery and Romance and commented:
    More on flashbacks from the awesome Kristen Lamb

  3. My current WIP is a science fiction mystery set in the near future in which my protagonist is working on solving a serial killing spree that he slowly realizes has ties to his past employment. I’ve used flashbacks as spice in this story–a line of dialogue here, a stray thought there–to slowly paint a picture of how past events have a bearing on the current mystery. But I haven’t done one big flashback/infodump scene and I won’t, either. For me as a reader, this is how I like to see relevant events revealed. As you say, it draws you in, keeps you interested, and even forms a subplot when done correctly. You not only want to know what’s happening NOW, you want to know what happened then that’s having an effect on now. Not all stories lend themselves to this structure, but when they do and it’s done right, you come away feeling you’ve known the character for years.

    1. But see in THIS instance there is information in the past RELEVANT to the present and to resolving the future. Thus, if done well I wouldn’t consider that something I would cut. Good example 🙂 .

      1. Thanks. I’ve learned some hard lessons about old vs new ways of writing. I don’t claim to have them all learned, but I’m always paying attention.

  4. After trolling through the net I find your blogs wiser than our oracles, thank you! My novel doesn’t suffer so much from flashbacks but more from a very low esteemed synopsis. But try and try again, I will prevail.

  5. Thanks, Kristen! I recently did a revision where I cut out a lot of backstory and flashbacks. This is a helpful tool for me as I go over it once more….I like the distinction between time as a literary device vs. flashback.Needing to keep your reader in the moment, especially if your’e writing YA (hey! that’s me) is so important. Being sure that any flashback directly impacts the future and resolution of the story is an excellent tip, since some flashbacks are truly necessary. Thanks!

  6. Yes, I think it’s very easy to get flashbacks mixed up with devices that play with time. I apparently have a fetish for screwing with timelines. I have two books that use dual timelines. And my novella that comes out tomorrow has a “bookended” structure, basically a frame device. First 3 chapters in the present, middle six chapters is 4 years in the past of how these two characters ended up where they start in the book, and then the last two chapters present again to see what happens now. It’s never a plan, but stories sometimes come to me in weird structure and I go with it. When I wrote this last one, I was emailing my writer friends like–I don’t know WTF this story is trying to do. But I trusted the process. My editor likes the alternative structures, so that works out. But it’s definitely a more complicated way to write a book. So I’d say–rules are meant to be broken, but…they’re rules for a reason. You can get yourself all twisted up and lose the story by trying to be too clever or alternative. So trust your process (my first book that sold was a dual timeline) but have lots of trusted, experienced crit partners and beta readers who can tell you if something is working or not. My two cents. 😉

    1. But even then, we could snip your scenes apart and then paste them together linearly. That’s what I will go over when we talk about “unorthodox” plotting, which I don’t consider the same as the dreaded “flashback.”

      And I have READ your work and enjoyed it and am THRILLED you have graced me. Great to hear from you!

  7. Reblogged this on WI L ANDERSON and commented:
    Sound advice!

    • Vicky McHenry on June 15, 2015 at 4:28 pm
    • Reply

    It seems to me that the non-linear plot has taken over Hollywood, the HBO-type series and a lot of fiction. Random puzzle pieces at the start and heading toward the middle that slowly come together until it all relates at the end. This can either be extremely well done and satisfying or frustrating as hell. I don’t know if this qualifies as flash back so much as flash back, flash forward and flash sideways with a bunch of different people. Very difficult to do as you say. Why is the straightforward linear plot so out of style? By the way, I loved True Detective and am glad you’re using it. I remember that dialogue exchange and I think I swooned at how good it was. But even this series is confusing unless you are concentrating every second and taking notes.

  8. I have two short (less than one page) “flashbacks” in my first 80 pages but they are both more “inner thoughts” occuring to my protagonist as she struggles in her own mind with whether to look for her birth mother. One is dramatic (death of her adopted mother by drunk driver). Again, I’m not sure they would qualify as flashbacks as I’m not taking the reader all the way back for a significant period of time, it’s just my heroine’s thoughts. Is this the same – I didn’t want to dwell on these two events (when she found out she was adopted – which informs her search now) and when she lost her adopted mother and began to shut down emotionally from becoming close to people. Thoughts, anyone?

    1. That just sounds like exposition in narrative. If it is short and salient, it should be fine.

  9. Very useful and clearly expressed! A nitpick: in your figure skating analogies, I think you use “axis” when you mean “axel.”

    1. I thought I fixed that earlier. I was wrestling with WP’s auto-correct “helping” me so I hope I got it 😉 .

  10. Reblogged this on Kentucky Mountain Girl News.

  11. like

    • christicorbett on June 15, 2015 at 5:44 pm
    • Reply

    Literary DeLorean is my new favorite writing phrase!

    1. LOL. Yeah, I was really proud of that 😀 .

  12. Hi Kristen: In my story, the antagonist is a cruel individual who is a Union officer during the Civil War. Whipping ex-slaves is against army regulations. The promise of no whipping is a tool used by the Army to recruit ex-slaves. When the officer whips two black soldiers for a minor offense, all hell breaks loose on the parade grounds of Ft. Jackson, Louisiana.

    I want to use a flashback to show how the officer come to be the way he is. He was twelve, living in South Carolina. A slave revolt occurred and the town’s arms depot was overrun and weapons taken. He was caught in the middle of a firefight and a rifle was pointed at him. If the militia has not shown up, he would have been shot. There’s more to the flashback but my question is: Would a flashback move the story forward?

    1. Nope. I would put that somehow in present narrative. It’s exposition to build the character and nothing you can’t do real-time. And sometimes letting people wonder is good for them. No one really ever answers HOW Joker (Heath Ledger) really became the way he is. We get some manipulative dialogue from the Joker, himself, but is it the truth? The wondering actually makes him more interesting.

  13. It is very useful information for me.

    • Shelby on June 15, 2015 at 6:42 pm
    • Reply

    I have a flashback at the end of the story, It is more her reliving the past so that she can find some closure and move on with her life. This is the conflict in the story of my character blaming herself for an accident that happened and trying to avoid confronting the reality of the accident. I think I am good on that one, maybe it is because it is her thinking about the past and realizing that the accident was just that, and it wasn’t her fault.

  14. “A good litmus? The PAST must be related to what is going on in the PRESENT and directly impact the FUTURE (how the story is resolved).”

    Perfect. 🙂 Enjoyed the article.

  15. All round, good advice. 🙂 The ice skating meme resonated with me. We go to Busch Gardens Tampa all the time and they have a fantastic ice show there. There is one stunt they do (3-5 shows a day!) that always makes me cringe. I’m so sure he’s going to drop her too far sometime. He swings her around by her feet so that her head is flung inches from the ice on every revolution. They execute it perfectly every time. Talk about being pros! I bet she wore a helmet when they first got started with that stunt.

    I’m pushing to the point in my writing when I can take my helmet off. 😉

  16. I was just thinking about this exact post on the way home tonight. Good work! I hadn’t even read it yet.

    Much of what I write involves a good portion of the above, both time travel, flashbacks, and deus ex machina. I was thinking about this the entire drive. My one book series is an entire Mobius strip wound together as it overlaps, but it is more time traveling that is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    I feel like this whole concept is more complex than the experts give credit. We’ll use my one book, Fall From Paradise, for example. Right before it breaks to the second part, a group of (unknown characters) are sent by a (existing supporting character) to the aid of the (unexpecting lead character). If it broke away with the fact that they saved her and there were no other mentions of why other than happily-ever-after, I could see DEM. I could even see if it RESOLVED the plot scene.

    But this whole incident plays out with the fact that she denies the aid of the rescuers (in a half-Stockholm syndrome/half-Taken-revenge style). It had to happen that way. There was no other choice, but not because she couldn’t get out of it. But because there had to be a character realization, both within herself and with the reader. When there is a greater plot developing around the why/how/when/details, is it still Deus Ex Machina?

    I’d really love to know. Thanks.

  17. I’m probably breaking a couple of rules. First, I’ve heard agents say, “If it starts with a dream, I’m tossing it.” Also, I have it starting with a dream from the MCs past. Is a nightmare from someone’s past considered a flashback? I’ve looked at different starting points in this story and I keep coming back to this one.

    It’s crime fiction, a psycho thriller/suspense novel. The title is “The Conduit”.

    I wrote a couple of sentences…not really a log-line, but a sentence explaining the conflict:

    “Jillian wants to be free from the torment of her nightmares, but she may have to give up someone important to her to get there.”

    I don’t want to be tossed for opening with a four hundred word dream. But for so many reasons, I can’t let it go. It explains why she’s back to seeing a therapist. Because of another clairvoyant nightmare, her therapist introduces her to a psychic medium. It connects Jillian to the GBI Liaison and former crime scene detective (protagonist) through the psychic medium. Her psychiatrist adjusts her meds. This makes her vulnerable, and so on…

    I’m seriously considering your classes, Hooking the Reader–Your First Five Pages, gold level, but I need to know if this is one Tuesday, or several Tuesdays. I also would like to know how many words you consider the first five pages.

    1. It is one Tuesday, but even if you can’t make class real-time, you get any notes and the recording. First five pages is about 1250 words. I let you cut it off at a reasonable number if it goes higher, just don’t get crazy :D.

      This might be a situation that calls for a prologue, which thrillers employ a lot. I would have to see your scenes to give you better feedback.

  18. Reblogged this on Sunflowers for Moira.

  19. Oh, how timely this is! I have read all the stuff… don’t start with the setting why and how we got there… don’t do the “Now Bob….” where one characters explains everything to Bob so you can fill in the background info. In fact… don’t have any background info bogging down your story….

    This is great! We all have some background we need to get in the story. Thanks!

  20. Reblogged this on Swamp Sass and commented:
    Reblogged from Kristen Lamb’s amazing informational blog!

  21. Ok, now I’m all calm about this whole flashback business again. 😉 Your descriptions of your training wheel flashbacks remind me of one of my first stories which would have lines such as, “He hadn’t eaten all day, so he went to get a sandwich because he was very hungry.” Cut the explanation! XD
    Also, I was wondering if you’re planning (since you’re on a flashback/multiple timeline roll) on writing a post with advice on how to write a synopsis for a novel with lots of time jumps?

  22. Great post and v useful. I do hope I win as you are like a legend in the writing / blogging world and I have more flashbacks in my novels then hot dinners – sigh!

  23. Thank you. This particular blog came at just the right time. I was trying to be creative by being nonlinear. But you’ve shown me that I’ve killed suspense and gut-wrenching empathy instead. So incredibly helpful. I owe you!

  24. So I’ve been wondering for a while . . . in my current story, it starts off fast-paced with my protagonist being kidnapped and being taken across her world to find an elusive magical object. She, of course, tries to escape a few times, but eventually decided to stay for her own reasons.

    I use flashbacks scattered throughout the story to convey parts of her past that tie into her motive to stay. I guess they’re more for characterization than need-to-know urgent information, which is why I’ve been wondering if I should cut them. However, I feel like merely writing her motives into the narrative through exposition or dialogue or something takes something away — the flashbacks contain more detail, emotion.

    Your posts are really helpful and informative. Thanks so much for writing them!

    1. Actually a story like that might work real well with a parallel timeline structure (story modified to accommodate, of course).

  25. Would these same cautions be beneficial to those writing memoir and nonfiction? I think yes, but I also think there needs to be some flashback/backstory in memoir. Thoughts?

    1. Memoir sometimes, NF sometimes. Regular NF is just an outline structure but Narrative NF would follow these constraints. And, how is the memoir done? Is it a narrative of a certain epoch of life or is it a collection of essentially essays? Anything narrative in structure has to be careful with handling time. Yes we can bend it but we just have to do it well so we don’t lose people.

  26. Reblogged this on American Writers Exposed and commented:
    OMG, did I forget to mention my first (2nd&possibly3rd) drafts of my manuscript also contain a “few” flashbacks? Kristen you are killing me here and I love it! ?? Lets here it for #4! I can do this! Write on! ? Jessica

  27. I personally love flashbacks but only when they are well done which they aren’t oh pretty much most of the time.

  28. Agreed that not every time shift is a flashback, buy that’s an especially good thought about Memento. If anybody else does it, they’ll just be accused of ripping off Memento. Any time somebody does a story where every scene takes place earlier in time, people will compare it to Betrayal (which is certainly not an series of flashbacks 🙂 ).

    Agreed to about villains and antagonists. The movie Prometheus is basically the story of Moby Dick told from the POV of Ahab. You can make Ahab your protagonist, but you can’t make him a hero.

  29. OMG, Hitting the ginger ale after reading this! I’m 20,000 words into a time travel with hero in present time with concussion and remembering past life that led him to present situation. As this is a sequel, heroine–who slipped time and came back to present–thinks he is the love she left a few years ago and followed her back. He is not who she thought, but is related to her love. She is not who he remembers of his past life love, but vaguely resembles her. Pulling this off is making me “queasy,” but historicals and time travel are my RUSH!

    1. But time-travel novels by definition are just non-linear structure. They are a BEAR to write, though. Good luck! 😀

  30. Reblogged this on Macjoyful's Minimal Musings and commented:
    Karen Lamb further discusses the use of flashback (time shifting) as a literary device – or not.

  31. DEAR KRISTEN, as much as I LOVE reading your blog posts (and also your newest book that I bought on amazon) I have to say that I disagree with you about ‘bending time’ with flashbacks…in the beginning of a novel or at ANY point in a novel, for that matter. One of my FAVORITE novels is littered with flashbacks and I’m apparently not the only one who enjoyed reading it (“The Expats” by Chris Pavone) – because it became a New York Times Bestseller and the author won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American author and also won the Anthony Award. I have heard this same advice over and over and over again: that flashbacks are a ‘no-no’ — and yet some of the BEST STORIES are built around flashbacks, or at least the concept of flashbacks. For instance, not only “The Expats,” but also the screenplay (and movie) “Michael Clayton,” which starred George Clooney and was written by Tony Gilroy. A GREAT STORY and a page-turning read! (The screenplay.) My WIP (a mystery) begins at a point in time 5 years ago and then jumps to present day after just a few pages. But guess what? Every single solitary person who has read my first 5 pages (or even just my logline) goes NUTS with excitement and wants me to hurry up and finish it because they can’t wait to read the entire story — and I am talking about a LOT of people, not just family and friends…every one of them on the proverbial edge of their seats after reading this ‘no no’ beginning. Personally, Kristen, I think a GOOD STORY is a GOOD STORY and if it WORKS telling it with flashbacks, or bending time or whatever you want to call it, then let us writers tell our stories the way we want to tell them, flashbacks and all. I love your blog and MOST of your advice, but I take all of it with a few grains of salt because some people are just natural-born writers who don’t need instructions on how to craft their story. (Same with getting ‘instruction’ in art school. I will never forget the day that one of my highly educated art instructors told me that my painting was ‘just awful’ and had ‘no balance or depth’ and that I could do much better. Hmm…funny how that very painting won the top prize in an international art contest after my mother submitted it.) I still love your blog and your books! Thanks for sharing so much of your knowledge! Sincerely, Caprezia

    1. See, and I don’t agree wholly, which is why I wrote this post. We use the term “Flashback” to include EVERY instance of bending of time and that isn’t the case. New writers don’t know how to do it and it doesn’t serve the story, which is why I was trying to differentiate a “training wheel flashback.” For me, semantics and specific language helps. As long as every writing instructor kept using the term “antagonist” and then using “villain” as a synonym? I had a brain cramp. Because yes, every scene MUST have an antagonist, but a VILLAIN? HUH?

      Flashbacks are another term that gave me a brain cramp. Great authors go back in time all the time and do it WELL. What is the difference?

      We can use a quick test to see if that flashback is serving the story, or acting as literary Bond-O. THAT is the sucker I am choosing to label the “training wheel flashback” for sake of clarity.

      And while we may have books or movies we love that go back in time, remember that those are the pieces that MADE it past the slush, meaning they bent time WELL. I have edited THOUSANDS of writers and most had NO CLUE how to bend time. And while it is great to be natural at a skill, that isn’t given for all of us.

      For instance, I naturally write GREAT dialogue. Don’t really need instruction. Other areas? I was really weak and needed a good teacher.

      We CAN go back in time, but some of us need to learn how to do it well.

      And I ALWAYS try to say that we CAN do everything. There really are no hard and fast rules. But we DO need to know why a rule is there so we can break it with intention. If I just say, “No flashbacks in the first pages because it will ruin your hook”, then one of four things will happen. 1) The writer will wait at least 10-15 pages to give us time to get grounded and then shift 2) cut the shift 3) not get feelings hurt when the shift is cut because they know WHY 4) somehow write the time shift SO well that they successfully break the rule because they KNEW they had to work extra hard on that area.

      Oh, and by the way, I am just offering help and guidance and y’all can disagree with me. Often you will find we really don’t disagree, but I never take it personally 😀 .

  32. Hi Kristen!
    I know it’s been eons since I’ve visited. Two jobs, bills, stress has kept me from my favorite blogger (HUGE CONGRATS on your award!!!!) and from my own writing. I haven’t typed a word in months and months 🙁
    But I have a new job. I’m working from home (yay) and I will have time to visit, learn and write again. (double yay!)
    I think your iceskating analogy with the jumps was spot on. Great teaching tool.
    And, yes, I do get thrown out of a story with lots of flashbacks. I’ll probably be stoned for this, but The Notebook upset me a little bit. I loved the flashbacks. I wanted that to be the whole story. When the book jumped forward…well, I kinda lost interest.

    Thank you for your wisdom!

  33. My WIP is a case just made for this post– I had begun it in current time, flashed ahead too soon, and confused my critique group. They told me pretty much what you said– hey, I’m lost here, it’s too soon, etc. And I was so sure it felt right, but no– not right at all. TY, Mari

    • Nicole on June 18, 2015 at 12:51 am
    • Reply

    This was a great article – I’m plugging away on my first book and will have one flashbacks scene in it – right at this moment, after reading this article, I of course see no reason to get rid/change the scene because of the amount of info it gives concerning the growth of the protagonist. Having said that, I have never thought about flashbacks as described in this article. I have new ideas to chew on this summer. Also, I’m bookmarking this this blog.

  34. I’m surprised that no one else noticed the semantic problem with both these posts on flashbacks. Neither post is actually about flashback. It’s “literary digression” that you seem to have a problem with, you know, when the plot is moving in one direction and then the character stops to explain something in his or her past. If he or she is explaining, it is NOT a flashback. It’s a DIGRESSION. These are most common in first person narratives. Remember reading Catcher in the Rye? In that Novel, the Narrator even mentions his tendency to DIGRESS. If this happens in a third person narrative, it can occur through dialogue like the example mentioned above. In both types of narrative there is a third term that can also be used, it is called “authorial sovereignty”. This is more direct. In this case the narrator says explicitly why he is explaining something either in the past or future.

    Now look, I’m not disagreeing with the advice given here. Honestly, I think DIGRESSIONS are exceptionally boring in most commercial fiction that I read and review. However, I think that anyone giving advice on how to write fiction should at least know the accepted terminology, so that instead of scaring potential authors away from using one of the most prevalent literary devices in CONTEMPORARY FICTION, he or she can guide writers towards more artistic or commercially viable options.

    By the way, it was ARISTOTLE, a GREEK that first warned against traveling back in time in fiction. Ever read Poetics? That is why he praised Tragedy and denounced Epic poetry. YOU ARE NOT THE FIRST PERSON TO DO THIS. Interesting that CONTEMPORARY audiences flocked to the movie TROY, based off of the ILIAD, AN EPIC THAT USED FLASHBACK and PARALLEL STRUCTURE, but only know about Oedipus because of Freud. (Feel free to google Oedipus. Yes, it was a Greek Tragedy before it was a complex).

    While boning up on your literary devices, I’d also recommend reading Lodovico Castelvetro . You might get some ideas from him. He went so far as to say that time limits should be given to fiction (He actually said this about drama, but it’s all the same really). Look up the term UNITY OF TIME. Maybe contemporary audiences only have the intelligence for fiction that transpires within a 24 hour period, or twelve depending on how you DEFINE a day. I doubt you get the joke. No biggie. Just look up the term.

    1. I am using the standard vocabulary that is used today outside of an MFA program. When you read screenwriting books or take classes or read writing guides, frequently any deviation in time gets called a flashback. I’ve been doing this many years and taught at countless conferences. New writers lump everything into “flashback” (and editors can be guilty, too) so as a teacher I meet them where they are. I know they have different literary names, but I make my own terms because I like making the language clearer. I find it fun. It is a creative way of communicating an IDEA. I.e. “Digression” to me is too amorphous. When I learned plotting, I ran into the same issue. FOR ME, the standard terminology was too nonspecific. For instance, antagonist and villain were used interchangeably. That is why, as a teacher, I come up with colorful names and definitions because they make the concepts clearer. Teaching, like anything evolves. I can simply regurgitate the same terms or I can seek new and interesting ways to get the job done. Why CARES what it is called if the student understands the idea?

      For instance, I tutored Chemistry for many years. I got all the hopeless students and quickly turned failing students into A students. Why? I tossed out the “standard” and “accepted” way of relaying the information and made it fun. At the end of the day, who cared HOW the students learned, just that they learned.

      And if you don’t care for the way I teach, that is your prerogative. I will say, however, that being condescending is unnecessary to make a point. It is unkind and not needed.

    • Sarah on July 4, 2015 at 2:43 am
    • Reply

    Maybe since the term “flashback” is too broad, someone needs to come up with specific names for each kind of flashback that is universally recognized. That would be so nice.
    And while it has nothing to do with writing, I love your mention of Memento! I guess i’m one of the film geeks that thinks Memento was executed rather brilliantly. It was so confusing, but so fun.

    1. That is pretty much what I have been trying to do with this series because one lone flashback that serves as a future clue is NOT the same as a looping timeline or a parallel timeline. And Memento WAS awesome, but it probably a movie we can get away with about once 🙂 .

  1. […] « Understanding the Flashback—Bending Time as a Literary Device […]

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