Time as a Literary Device: Flashbacks vs. Non-Linear Structure

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Time is one of many tools we authors can use when crafting a story. This said, bending time takes training and skill because it’s one of the toughest techniques to pull off well. Even those who bend time masterfully will have their fair share of critics because most audiences are accustomed to linear structure.

This is only natural.

We’ve all teethed on stories that have a clear beginning, middle and end. Any story that deviates from this familiar pattern can vex and confuse us.

This is why movies like Memento tend to divide into two camps: those who loved it and those who couldn’t make it through thirty minutes.

Time Has a Proper Order

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Humans take time for granted, which is why time is one of those things that will wig people out when someone starts tinkering with it. Remember this because we can twist the audience’s assumptions to our advantage (especially in certain genres).

Bending time can disorient and confuse readers, but that isn’t always a good thing.

Most audiences enjoy the traditional Aristotelian three-act structure (which is why the lion’s share of novels are written in linear time). Aristotelian structure has been around over a thousand years for good reason. It’s endured simply because it’s a story structure that reflects time as sane humans experience it.

Time is hardwired into our brains. Our world reflects linear structure.

Morning–>noon–>night. We are born–>we live–>we die.

When old age manifests where childhood should be, something is clearly WRONG (progeria) and has disturbed the natural order.

Time & the Flashback

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Whenever I’ve blogged about flashbacks being bad, inevitably commenters list a dozen books or movies where the writer (allegedly) used flashbacks all the time and it was super successful.

Clearly, I don’t know what I’m talking about 😛 .

First, I’d like to point out that, while we can learn from film, we must be careful mimicking movies in our work. Movies are visual, whereas writing is completely abstract. We’re creating people and worlds using combinations of 26 letters (and roughly four of those are pretty useless).

No one wants to play Scrabble and get Q.

Movies get a smidge more leeway because the audience can SEE changes in people, places and time and are less likely to suffer a brain cramp. Alas, even in screenwriting, flashbacks are a sign of lazy/amateurish writing for a couple of reasons.

First, most information can be relayed real-time. If I have a character who is OCD (As Good as It Gets), I don’t need to go back and explain WHY the character is trapped with a psychological disorder.

There is no need to hop into a literary DeLorean and go EXPLAIN. Audiences are smart and get that Melvin Udall has OCD by how he behaves.

That’s the whole show don’t tell thing at work.

In the original film version of Silence of the Lambs , director Jonathan Demme toyed with using a flashback for the tense moment when Hannibal Lecter demands Agent Starling part with her most traumatic memory in return for the key to locating Buffalo Bill.

***The time when young Clarice tries in vain to rescue one of the lambs from being slaughtered.

But Demme was too good of a director and Jodi Foster to great an actor. He knew the flashback would wreck the effect and so he nixed it and, instead allowed Foster to show just how incredible a performer she really was (which explains the Academy Award).

Because the story remained in the present, the memory was far more visceral. It intensified the story to nerve-shredding proportions.

Flashback FAIL

In most stories we don’t need to use flashbacks. In many new works I see the writer just about piques my interest, then slams on the brakes, throws it in reverse and takes me back to EXPLAIN WHY.

I have a mantra:

Resist the urge to explain.

Frequently, new writers jump back in time because they’re doing a good job at creating tension. Feeling the tension they’ve generated, they seek reprieve and so they explain. The problem with this is that they are killing the very element (tension) that will keep readers turning pages until 3 a.m.

Explanations are the antidote for tension.

What do we do when our kid acts up? We EXPLAIN. Sorry, he didn’t have a nap today. This serves to allay our own anxiety and relax the bystanders gathered round staring at us.

Explaining might work in life, but for fiction it spells D-E-A-T-H.

If the love interest in our novel is maddeningly evasive?  Leave it alone. Readers will keep reading to see if they find out/figure out what the heck his deal is.

If we go back and explain, “He has intimacy issues because his parents were murdered by a Mary Kay lady on bath salts,” we’ve just handed the reader a great place for a bookmark.

Hmm, question answered. I’ll get back to this later.

Let Them Wait

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Great writers keep layering on more and more questions that either are a) partially answered b) not answered until toward the end c) some not answered at all.

We can put some humdinger questions in a WIP and refuse to answer them. Seriously. Great writers are sadists. We’re ONLY required to fully answer the core story problem for THAT particular book.

Other than that? We writers are not required to tie everything up neatly with a bow. The best stories leave a smidge of unfinished business. Loose ends generate passion and conversations that linger long after readers have turned the final page.

***Additionally, if we want to write a series, it’s a good idea to NOT answer everything.

Tana French’s incredible book In The Woods does this brilliantly. She does her duty and answers the core mystery: Who killed the Knocknaree girl and why? But, there’s a lot more about Knocknaree’s dark past she withholds (likely so we’d read the rest of the series or because she is a brilliant author, a.k.a. heartless psychopath).

Readers long for catharsis—release—and the longer we (authors) can delay the reader getting what he/she wants, the better.

Flashback Apoplexy

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Flashbacks generally are a sign of weak writing. Before anyone gets their knickers in a twist, we can go back and forth in time so just be patient.

As I’ve mentioned before I’m a HUGE fan of horror and I love, love, love American Horror Story, particularly Season Four Freak Show. Elsa Mars is one of the most beautifully conflicted villains I’ve ever encountered.

She’s layered, complex, and unpredictable. Every character and storyline is pure heart-wrenching genius.

Then, in Season Five, Jessica Lange left the show and they substituted her with Lady Gaga *face palm*. For me, this is like serving me Tofurkey when I’m used a Thanksgiving turkey a la Martha Stewart. I mean no disrespect to Lady Gaga, but she’s a performer not an actor. ‘

I’m certain they cast her because she’s a huge name (draw) but she didn’t have the acting abilities to take center stage, which is why Season Five (Hotel) and Season Six (Roanoke) are painful to watch.

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Season Five is like being trapped in a car with a teenager learning to drive a stick. Just about get going forward then REVERSE. The series keeps going backwards to explain to the point that watching became more chore than fun.

In Season Six, AHS tried something different. It takes the form of a television show interviewing survivors and what happened is “reenacted.”

The HUGE problem with this is that no matter how many monsters, how much gore, how depraved the story gets, there is NO DRAMATIC TENSION. Why? Because of flashbacks. We know the people lived or they wouldn’t be sitting there being interviewed.

How can we worry about characters we KNOW are going to make it out alive? We can’t.

Time as a Literary Device

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

All this said, time CAN be used as a literary device. Progressing linearly isn’t always ideal, especially for certain genres. One surefire way to throw readers off is to mess with their sense of time. Non-linear structure is fantastic for mysteries, psychological thrillers, horror, and suspense.

If we choose to distort time, however, there needs to be a good reason for doing so. Let’s explore a handful of reasons…

Unreliable Narrator: Non-Linear Timeline

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Whenever we open a book (or start a movie) we’re programmed to trust the MC, that what he or she is relaying is truth. Non-linear plotting can use this human propensity to trust until given reason NOT to trust for advantage. Vanilla Sky, Black Swan, Shutter Island, and Fight Club are all superlative examples of twisting truth and trust.

Yet, notice the reason time is fractured in these stories.

The point is to intimate or even emulate madness. We begin trusting the MC but this trust erodes until we’re sucked into the chaos, our bearings lost, internal compass needle spinning and unable to find True North.

Past is Key to Present: Parallel Timeline

Sometimes the story shifts back and forth from past to present. Like train tracks running parallel they flow side-by-side until finally the past timeline converges with the present to solve the core story problem at hand.

We see this in Stephen King’s speculative fiction story The Green Mile. The story opens with elderly Paul Edgecomb in a retirement facility and establishes Paul’s present reality. THEN we go back in time to Louisiana State Penitentiary in the 1930s when young Paul Edgecomb worked as a prison guard in charge of Death Row.

Though we spend much of our time in the 1930s, we’re not going back in time for no reason. What happened decades ago on The Green Mile is essential for revealing a mystery in the present timeline at the retirement home.

A lot of literary works use the parallel timeline (The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan). Parallel timelines are also employed in general fiction.

The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood uses parallel timelines to resolve a feud between mother and daughter. Sidda (daughter) must understand the past from her mother’s (Vivi’s) POV in order to forgive her and heal the relationship.

Memory LIES…or Does It?

Mysteries employ this tactic as well, though many authors tend to dribble the past throughout but in the form of memories, dreams, fragments of recollections the MC doesn’t fully trust. A good example of this is James Patterson’s The Murder House.

Can We Trust Our Senses?

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Ultimately, when we deviate from traditional linear timelines, we’re jarring the readers sense of what she believes she knows. By going back and forth (I.e. In the Woods) we can throw readers off figuring everything out too easily and we make them work for the resolutions they crave.

This said, jumping back and forth willy-nilly is a good way to simply tick readers off. Even when non-linear timelines are executed with mastery, there will always be certain people who will hate it.

I remember walking out of Vanilla Sky feeling like I’d just had a spiritual experience, but the people around me were irate because “that stupid movie was just too confusing.”

There are probably more people who hated Pulp Fiction than those who loved Pulp Fiction. BUT, those who LOVED Pulp Fiction did so with such passion it’s now an iconic movie.

We can’t please everyone. In the Woods was one of those books that made me weep and think, “What am I DOING? I can’t WRITE! Whaaaaaahhhhhh!”

Yet, go check out the one and two-star reviews from readers who “grew bored” or “got confused.”

Whenever we authors play with time, just accept that some people will hate it. But, since no one ever wrote a book that pleased everyone?


Caveat Auctor

I want to put a warning in here. Just because we are zipping back and forth in time doesn’t mean our structure is sound. Employing time as a literary device is tricky because we can lose readers very easily.

Many editors loathe ‘flashbacks’ with the power of a thousand suns, but here is a post regarding WHY.

Frequently, if a writer is going backwards and forwards in time, it is more a symptom of major story problems than an indicator of genius. The above post explains how flashbacks can be symptomatic of a flawed or nonexistent plot.

***For those who’d like training in advanced plotting, I recommend the class I’m teaching tomorrow, Beyond Planet X. USA Today best-selling author Cait Reynolds and I are doing a Speculative Fiction Saturday with three classes in a row (World-Building, Character, and Advanced Plotting). The XXXFiles Bundle is the best value. Three classes for the price of two (SIX hours of training) and recordings are FREE with purchase. 

If you want to mess with your reader’s heads, then do it with style 😉 . I’m excited to teach this much more advanced material and hope you guys will join me!

I LOVE hearing from you!

What are some of your favorite movies or books that used time to mess with your head? Which ones did you hate? Why?

What do you WIN? For the month of SEPTEMBER, for 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).

***Chris Parrett is August’s winner. Please send your 5000 word Word doc to kristen at wana intl dot com. One-inch margins and 12 point Times New Roman Font, double-spaced. Congratulations!

***FYI: The Speculative Fiction Saturday has been moved to THIS COMING SATURDAY (9/15/18).

The software that powers our virtual classrooms kept crashing our servers #NotFun. Thus, we spent all last weekend upgrading/updating all the tech and it looks fantastic!

Again, for the value, I HIGHLY recommend The XXX Files Bundle (all three classes—world-building, character, advanced plotting—for the price of two). Speculative fiction includes sci-fi, fantasy, dystopian, utopian, horror and basically all the weird stuff. Sign up and we can be weird TOGETHER!

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Upcoming Classes for September

Brand Boss: When Your Name Alone Can Sell

Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: General Admission $55.00 USD/ GOLD Level $175
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Thursday, Thursday September 27th, 2018. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST




The XXX Files: The Planet X Speculative Fiction 3-Class Bundle

Instructors: Cait Reynolds & Kristen Lamb
Price: $110.00 USD (It’s LITERALLY one class FREE!)
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 15th, 2018. 10:00 a.m.—6:00 p.m. EST.


Purchase includes FREE recording of all three classes.


Building Planet X: Out-of-This-World-Building for Speculative Fiction

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 15th, 2018. 10:00 a.m.—12:00 p.m. EST




Populating Planet X: Creating Realistic, Relatable Characters in Speculative Fiction

Instructors: Cait Reynolds & Kristen Lamb
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 15th, 2018. 1:00—3:00 p.m. EST



Beyond Planet X: Mastering Speculative Fiction

Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 15th, 2018. 4:00—6:00 p.m. EST




Pitch Perfect—How To Write a Query Letter & Synopsis that SELLS

Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: $45 USD Standard
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Thursday, September 7:00 PM E.S.T. to 9:00 P.M. EST

You’ve written a novel and now are faced with the two most terrifying challenges all writers face. The query and the synopsis.

Query letters can be daunting. How do you sell yourself? Your work? How can you stand apart without including glitter in your letter?


Good question. We will cover that and more!

But sometimes the query is not enough.

Most writers would rather cut their wrists with a spork than be forced to write the dreaded…synopsis. Yet, this is a valuable skills all writers should learn. Synopses are often requested by agents and editors and it is tough not to feel the need to include every last little detail. Synopses are great for not only keeping your writing on track, but also for pitching your next book and your next to that agent of your choice.

This class will help you learn the fundamentals of writing a query letter and a synopsis. What you must include and what doesn’t belong.

So make your writing pitch perfect with these two skills!








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    • Michael Charton on September 14, 2018 at 9:10 am
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    Very good and thorough

  1. Thank you so much for a really clear, articulate explanation of why flashbacks should be handled with great care…

  2. Leon Uris used flashbacks in many stories, and they always engaged me by putting me into another aspect of unfamiliar worlds. But I was very young when I read his books – not sure what I’d think today.
    As for my favorite book that twists the calendar: The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. What an incredible tale of love torn asunder but still holding beating hearts.
    I avoid FB in my own stories but let characters tell their experiences in local time.
    Thank you for an articulate explanation about FB failure.

  3. I agree about not using flashbacks to explain ‘why’ something’s happened (or is about to happen) but they can be used to show the reader more about a character’s traits than any amount of description.

    I needed to show how an elderly lady would be able to carry out actions she’s later shown doing. The character needed credibility… other clues appear through the book… so an early flashback served to show where her specialist knowledge and training had come from, even before we’re introduced to her in the main plot.

    The scene starts in the time the book’s set (2012) then becomes a reminiscence on the part of the character. It seemed more dramatic to show it this way than by simply telling the reader. It also gives the reader a sense of her determined and tenacious nature, though this is also shown later, when she enters the story in ‘real time’. (She has already appeared as a very tiny ‘bit part’ character in the previous novel – which this is a sequel to – but little is shown of her. She simply answers a door and lets someone in.)

    It’s not the only flashback in the novel, however, as the the book opens with a prelude, taken verbatim from the end of the previous book which takes place three years earlier. (This is a device I’ve used since, though in the later book the prelude isn’t a ‘spoiler’ to the earlier book if the reader hasn’t yet read it.)

    One thing worth remembering, if your flashback is from a considerable time ago, is to do your research to the time and situation. It’s no good having today’s world written perfectly, then failing to get the details of the past right – in this case the activities of the SOE in WW2 occupied France, along with the differing resistance groups they worked alongside, and the settings. – Get the facts right, and your reader will believe the fiction.

    This is from:

    ‘COINCIDENCES’ – “I don’t know what it is, but something isn’t quite right about this” (https://www.ex-l-ence.com/c

    * * *

    The old woman knelt in front of the small memorial to one side of La Place de l’Église. She muttered quietly to herself, appearing to be oblivious to the passing traffic in this busy Normandy village square. She seemed to be unaffected by the petrol and diesel fumes and oily smoke from the morning’s rush of cars, vans, and mopeds, as they went about their business or madly careered off to either employment or education.

    She took a single lily from her bag. It looked no different to any others that might be seen growing locally, but it was a Welsh lily. She’d carefully wrapped the bloom to protect it, during its journey with her from her garden in Cardiff. Taking a small brass vase, appropriately made out of a second world war shell case, she filled it with Welsh spring water from a bottle before placing the flower into it. She stood the vase and lily carefully on the ledge above the memorial’s plate that bore the name of ‘Thiérry le Vaillant’. Bending forward, she tenderly kissed the bronze plaque, then spoke very quietly as if nobody else was meant to hear,

    “Peace to you, my dearest Thiérry… never was a man’s name more fitting… You saved my life, I’m only sorry that I couldn’t have returned the favour, I loved you so much… Au reviour Thiérry… Je t’aime, mon cœur, je t’aime.”

    French resistance fighter, Thierry Le Vaillant, had been executed by the Germans in nineteen forty four after being unsuccessfully interrogated. He’d been captured after a resistance operation to mine the tracks to destroy a military train. It was said that his last words had been,

    “Au reviour Lilliane, ma chérie… Je t’aime… Vive La France!”

    They’d been shouted out loudly just a split second before the firing squad’s shots rang out and were heard clearly from outside the walled yard of the Gestapo headquarters. This may be nothing more than local legend, but the village had erected a monument to their wartime resistance hero for his courage before his capture, and his silence during it.

    * * *

    It had been one of the few fine moonlit nights before the weather had turned nasty prior to D day. A young Welsh woman, really little more than a girl, who had been living as a local French villager was hiding behind a tree holding a gun. A voice behind her broke the silence.

    “Jetez l’arme!” It was spoken in poorly pronounced French with a heavy, gutteral, German accent, and was followed by, “And turn around… slowly.” Again, it was with a German accent, but this time it was spoken in English.

    The girl dropped her gun and almost started to turn, before realising that the English was being used to try to trap any unwary British agent. She stood motionless, her heart beating like a steam hammer.

    “Tournez!… Maintenant!… Immédiatement!” His French pronunciation was still appalling but she turned around to face a soldier, wearing feldwebel tabs on his field grey uniform, and pointing a machine gun at her.

    She sensed, rather than actually saw, a movement in the darkness behind the man and to this day will swear that, in the seemingly instant moment in time between the sound of a shot and her being splattered with blood as the man’s face appeared to explode outwards, she saw a look of surprise in his expression.

    His gun loosed off a short burst of fire as he crumpled. Fortunately for her, the recoil caused it to fire upwards so the worst that she received was a torn sleeve to her jacket, and a very small graze to her upper arm that nonetheless hurt like hell.

    Thiérry shouted at her, “Allez!… Vite!…”

    She needed no more encouragement than that. They both ran blindly through the woods, away from the village, but in different directions as they tried to make good their escape.

    They could hear the sound of shots and confused shouting in French and German behind them, as their comrades fled as best they could from the German patrol that had stumbled upon them. It was every man for himself.

    The following day, after laying low in a farm building overnight and through a good part of the day, the girl stole some clean clothes from a washing line, then buried her own blood stained clothing and made her way carefully back to her home.

    Thiérry Le Vaillant wasn’t so lucky. He was picked up by a patrol the following morning after being wounded during an exchange of fire as he tried to get away.
    * * *

    The old woman stood up. She saluted the memorial, then crossed the traffic to the café. Her taxi driver was waiting there, seated at an outside table watching her as he drank his coffee.

    They returned to his cab for the journey back to the railway station where she would catch the local train to take her back to rendezvous with the rest of her coach party. The taxi driver asked her, in poor English, if the man had been family. She answered him in perfect, if dated, French that they’d been comrades in arms.

    Upon arrival at the station the driver refused to take her money, insisting that he owed her a debt of gratitude as his grandfather had been with Cavaillès and the Libération-Nord during the occupation. He’d been assisted by agents from Britain and had himself survived the war.

    She thanked the man, then air kissed his cheeks in the French manner before running, surprisingly nimbly for someone of her age, into the station to catch the approaching train. It would be carrying her over the same section of track that she and her French comrades from La Résistance had been attempting to blow up all those long years ago when this part of France had been very different.
    * * *

  4. One brilliant film that manipulated time was The Last Wave by Peter Weir. He played with anti-linear structure by using the Aboriginal sense of time. Found this quote by W. Gallois on, of all places, the Australian Salvation Army site: Unlike the dualistic Greek thinking which separates temporality from the eternal, in the Aboriginal worldview “It is not… simply the case that the individual is a fixed point in a temporal flux or continuum, for one’s self is, was and will be in the Dreaming” [1].

    Director Peter Weir challenges the audience’s sense of linear time and deepens the foreboding in the plot; the white protagonist learns to question western time constructs all the while solving the murder of an Aboriginal man. A brilliant, mind-bending film.

  5. I am one of the people that don’t much like it when you mess with time. It’ll be interesting to see how Westworld does.

    I find it all the more interesting that an editor I had review my current WIP wanted me to add flashbacks. I was very surprised at the advice (and ultimately chose not to take it).

    • Sara on September 14, 2018 at 12:00 pm
    • Reply

    One show that did flashbacks/dual timelines is the French show The Chalet. However, I had to watch the first episode twice before I felt like I knew what was going on. It was not a show you half watch either. You have to fully commit and give it all your attention. While the pay-out was well worth it, I was very grateful it wasn’t a very long show. I couldn’t keep up with that for a second season.
    I love Sliding Doors as well but that is a movie that took some time to feel like you had a hang of which timeline is which.
    It just goes to show that when done right it creates something magical. But like all magical things, there are a lot of failed attempts for every successful one.

    • Leah on September 14, 2018 at 12:06 pm
    • Reply

    Inception. I’m still geeking out about that movie.

  6. I’m not crazy about flashbacks in novels – they often interrupt the flow. And if they are explanations say of someone’s odd behavior, they can be repetitious or even redundant.

    That said, I have plans for a novel with parallel storylines that will have several long flashbacks, then the parallels converge for the final third. Don’t know if it’ll work till I try.

    About movies with flashbacks: some are great, some are confusing. Earlier this year I watched a Tarantino film – The Hateful Eight. Flashbacks started in the latter part of the movie. And they worked so well – I thought the show was brilliant!

    1. I enjoy how Clive Cussler and other thriller writers write a prelude from the deep past to set up the story and provide what you’ll need to understand later which eliminates the need for flashbacks while creating it’s own kind of interest and story questions. A good, focused prelude crushes the need for flashback.

  7. Often, if a detailed scene set in the past seems unavoidable, it’s worth seeing if it would work better placed in chronological order rather than being given as a flashback.

    A while ago, wearing my editor’s hat, I edited another writer’s sci-fi novel (since published – Amazon B0769VT6XJ) which had a long flashback in the plot. I suggested he took it out, and put it at the beginning, as a prelude before chapter one.

    Instead, as it was quite a long ‘flashback’, we decided to make it the first chapter in its own right.

    In doing so, it intrigued the reader (the chapter was an interesting and entertaining story in itself) and would sit in the back of their mind until its relevance became obvious later in the story. This worked a lot better than having it as an inserted flashback (the action took place a few generations before the timescale of the main plot, and served to explain why a certain group of people were where they were on an uncharted planet.)

    Interestingly, as we’re discussing time, the next book in his series, ‘Timeslip’ (Amazon B07DSCXVKX) uses time travel as its major theme, and deals with all the problems disturbing the time continuum entails. However, that’s a complete new discussion, as where time is concerned in novel writing, time travel throws up a whole new set of problems to be solved. I’ve edited a couple of time travel novels, and from the author’s point of view, getting it right is far from easy if real believability is to be achieved.

    For other examples of time travel stories that are believable, try ‘The Time Ship’ by David Lawrence Morris (Amazon B07H1Y4GCC) or ‘The Pocohontas Moratorium’ by Rob James (Amazon B07GGY3C25).

  8. Most interesting. Although I don’t think I could ever use time successfully.

    1. Surely we all do… use time, that is… every time we write. It’s how successfully we manage that time that really matters.

      Even if we write in the present, and in a completely linear way (as most of us do), then we’re still using time… whether it’s our own time, our characters’ time, or ultimately our readers’ time. Isn’t that what story tellers have always done?

  9. My #1 favorite book ever is IT by Stephen King, and one reason is the parallel timelines.

    • Angela Randak on September 17, 2018 at 3:44 pm
    • Reply


    I’m curious what you think of flashbacks in romance when the core story focuses about the reuniting of old lovers.

    1. I think flashbacks are lazy writing for the most part. If it is reuniting lovers then I would use a parallel timeline structure.

        • Angela Randak on September 19, 2018 at 11:17 am
        • Reply

        What is the difference between flashbacks and a parallel timeline structure?

        • Angela Randak on September 19, 2018 at 11:19 am
        • Reply

        Sorry. Nevermind my last quesition about the difference is. I was having trouble wrapping my head around the difference, but I just went and reread you blog. I think I’m doing a parallel structure.

  10. Aaah, someone mentioned Inception, it was fantastic!

    Book-wise, I really enjoyed The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, and recently I read The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid – similar structure (a journalist/writer working on a biography of a mysterious lady with stories to tell), both delicious. The Thirteenth Tale was confusing at times, but The Seven Husbands was a delight from start to end. I actually can’t think of a book that didn’t work for me, because in all probability I got too frustrated to read further and moved to something else.

    I’m working on a novel of my own that goes back and forth in time in a similar way to those two (that was very pleasant research to do), so this post is going into my endless list of bookmarks. Thank you!

  11. I hate flashbacks. I only used a flashback once in three novels and it was only a few short paragraphs; and it was more tense than the tense scene the character was in. I hate when I read page after page of flashback,especially when it’s at the start or within the first 1/3 of a novel. Rarely can it work and it better pump up the tension. If it takes away tension, drop it.

  1. […] much goes into even the shortest story. Kristen Lamb looks at time as a literary device, Lee McKenzie shares what photographer Annie Lebovitz taught her about writing, and Jami Gold […]

  2. […] for the record, flashbacks are not the same as non-linear plotting. Also, the flashbacks I loathe are what I call ‘Training Wheel Flashbacks’ (since the […]

  3. […] for the record, flashbacks are not the same as non-linear plotting. Also, the flashbacks I loathe are what I call ‘Training Wheel Flashbacks’ (since […]

  4. […] Time as a Literary Device: Flashbacks vs. Non-Linear Structure by Kristen Lamb, authorkristenlamb.com […]

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