The Flashback: A Greatly Misunderstood Storytelling Device

From Jane Friedman:

They’re the bogeymen of publishing. Along with prologues, adverbs, and semicolons, flashbacks may be the most vilified—and most misunderstood—of storytelling devices, ones that work only if they don’t seem like devices.

Yet flashbacks are inherently artificial. Even when we are revisiting memories in life, we rarely replay an entire scene from start to finish, chronologically and in full detail. Memory doesn’t work that way; it’s slideshows and not a movie.

But one prime reason that flashbacks are a common literary convention is that, used well, they can be an effective way to present essential information and backstory. Readers have become trained, as with so many fictional devices, to accept the artificiality of flashback provided it doesn’t interrupt their experience of the story.

And there is where the trap lies that so often derails an author’s attempt to use flashback: If not woven seamlessly into the flow of the story, a flashback can draw attention to itself, reveal the author’s hand, and pull the reader out of the fictive dream.

But you don’t have to avoid this potentially potent device as long as you follow a few key guidelines in weaving flashbacks seamlessly into your story.

1. Determine whether a flashback is in fact necessary.

Before you start wielding this potent and potentially disruptive weapon, let’s examine why you want to brandish it at all. Flashback is like cayenne pepper—a little bit can add spice and depth to the stew; too much can overwhelm it.

The main misstep I see in flashbacks is using them as backstory dumps of information authors think readers need to know to understand the story or characters. That may in fact be the case, but paving in background via flashback can be like wielding a machete where you needed a scalpel.

There are three main forms of introducing backstory:

  • Context: This is information woven into the main story throughout, often so seamlessly you don’t even realize how much information you’re getting amid the forward movement of the story.
  • Memory: When characters call to mind details from their past—still within the action of the “real-time” main story.
  • Flashback: A scene from the past presented as if it’s happening “live” before readers’ eyes, which fully interrupts the main story.

It’s this last form that makes flashbacks so dangerous. Used unskillfully or too often, they lend an erratic feel and potentially compromise readers’ engagement.

A good, healthy chunk of the time (let’s say 80–85 percent, because you can’t really quantify story with math, but it sounds right), context is going to be the most fluid, seamless, and organic way to incorporate backstory. The rest of the time memory is the most effective device.

That remaining little sliver is where flashbacks come in.

So when you use them, use them judiciously—like that cayenne pepper. Ask yourself what makes flashback the strongest way to incorporate the backstory, worth its many risks. That will often be one of several reasons:

  • It’s an essential, defining element of the character’s past relevant to the current story and their arc—like their main “wound” or a formative event that dictates or materially affects the character’s journey in this story.
  • It’s a “secret” or reveal that’s finally being fully shared—one central enough to the main story to warrant a full dramatization.
  • It’s brief, woven into a “real-time” scene, and serves to heighten impact, stakes, or meaning in the main story. Often this type of flashback will be just a few paragraphs.

2. Determine the most effective placement for a flashback.

The most challenging place for a flashback is opening your story. It can disorient or confuse readers—like walking into a room looking backward—and risks feeling like a false promise of what the story is actually about. That said, an opening flashback can work if used deliberately and well, and usually kept ruthlessly short.

There are no real “rules” or systems for where to place a flashback, but a good guideline with all backstory is to ask yourself my version of the “Watergate question”: What does the reader need to know and when do they need to know it?

Overloading readers with backstory before we’re fully invested in the main story hamstrings its effectiveness. The author’s job is to find where a flashback most effectively serves and furthers the main story by offering essential backstory at the most impactful, germane time—which ties into the next guideline.

3. Move the story forward, both within the flashback and in the main story.

Imagine a friend is telling you the harrowing tale of her recent car accident when she stops suddenly to relive shopping for that car just days earlier.

That fact may be relevant to heightening stakes and impact for the wreck—dammit, it was her brand-new dream car!—but in the middle of the much more relevant action of the story it stops momentum cold.

This is when flashbacks fail, as if the author is putting the main story on ice while she takes the reader on a journey down Memory Lane.

It’s the trickiest balancing act. Authors should use flashbacks in a way that still move the main story forward, even as we are briefly glancing backward.

That means the flashback should not only encompass its own strong forward momentum within the scene it presents, but its use at its particular point in the story should also serve to move the main story forward—usually in one of the ways described above.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

6 thoughts on “The Flashback: A Greatly Misunderstood Storytelling Device”

  1. In “Techniques of the Selling Writer” Dwight Swain advises putting flashbacks during the Sequel / Reaction portion of Scene – Sequel. The scene is where the action happens, so you like Jane said you don’t want to grind to a halt with a flashback. The Sequel is where the reaction / mulling things over happens, and it’s meant to be slower.

    I’ve been re-watching “Person of Interest” on Amazon’s FreeVee, and I recommend watching it to study the use of flashbacks to build mystery and suspense. I gather non-linear storytelling is a trademark of Jonathan Nolan, the creator, but probably seek out any of his other works if you can’t catch PoI. If you prefer books, “The Great North Road” by Peter Hamilton is a sci-fi mystery / thriller that uses flashbacks the same way: to build intrigue, reveal backstory, and create suspense for future events. I love non-linear storytelling when it’s used like this.

    There’s also the flash-forwards, too, which YA author Christopher Pike liked to deploy in his horror novels (that’s where I first saw them). Like the one where you start with the teen photographer tied up, with his classmate holding a gun on him. As the story unfolds you learn he photographed proof she was a murderer, and she’s determined his meddling won’t stop her from getting away with it.

    • I’ve never been able to understand Dwight Swain. His book is filled with “sales patter”. Each time I try to read his book, I keep saying out loud, “Tell me what I need to know. Don’t ‘sell’ me on it.”

      He came from a different era where everybody was trying to “sell” stuff to people around them.

      I watched as a little kid at church socials, the 50s, that people were trying to sell something, and people were “buying” it. Basically I was surrounded by “Con men and Believers”. I did not have the words when I saw that, but once I learned the terms, everything clicked into place.

  2. The clearest example of a story based on flashbacks is:

    Good Morning Miss Dove 1955 Jennifer Jones & Robert Stack

    You are basically telling the Story “now” with the flashbacks reaching into the past to illuminate current events.

    – The Story could not be told in a linear fashion.

    The main story occurs, and “bing” they drop into flashback to illuminate that moment, then move along until “bing” the next flashback occurs.

    – Miss Dove uses a bell in class to call “pay attention” to the kids.

    So notice how the bell sounds before each flashback.

    King follows the same pattern, but each flashback was a cascade of related moments, before he moved on to the next.

    Lisey’s Story: A Novel

    • Thank you! I saw “Good Morning, Miss Dove” years ago, and I couldn’t remember the name of the movie, the character, nor that Robert Stack was in it (which would have made it easy to search for). That was a sweet movie and I’ve always remembered certain scenes. But yes, it’s a good example, because first the action happens (scene) and then in the sequel (reaction) they get to the flashbacks.

      As far as Dwight Swain, I’ve assumed that for that book he was paid by the word. The Scene-Sequel, Motivation Reaction Units, and Incidents & Happenings were useful, though. I’ve seen them explained well (and more succinctly) elsewhere, like the site I linked. The I&H is what I always called a bridge moment. For instance, a detective will have scenes where they investigate a where the body was found, or interview suspects. And sequels where they ruminate on the evidence. But the “bridge” is the part where the CSI tells them, “we have a DNA match,” or “your chief suspect’s fingerprints weren’t on the knife, but someone else’s were.” Stuff that has to happen, and may even be summarized, but you don’t need more than a paragraph or two, and they naturally lead to actual Scene – Sequels.

      Elizabeth George in “Write Away” mentioned setting up plot dominoes like that for her mysteries. You know if there’s a murder there will be forensic results or important details concerning the weapon / victim / setting, which will naturally create other scenes because Inspector Lynley has to act on the information he gets.

      • Been watching the CB Strike series on MAX and that is exactly how Rowling plays it, though light on the flashbacks, not like COLD CASE which was built on flashbacks.
        Interview/discovery/analysis as a cycle so that a case that looks without suspects leads to a variety of suspects and then the one discovery points at the culprit.

        What makes it watchable is the characters and their interactions. It’s not just a procedural.

      • “As far as Dwight Swain, I’ve assumed that for that book he was paid by the word. The Scene-Sequel, Motivation Reaction Units, and Incidents & Happenings were useful, though.”

        That is just how people used to talk, and I can’t understand the “sales patter”. Randy Ingermanson, the guy who does the “Snowflake” method, uses the same “sales patter” in his writing books and it is incomprehensible to me.

        Swain ran the Professional Writers’ Program at the University of Oklahoma, so the book is the official text. Jack Bickham took over from him, then Deborah Chester took over from him. Chester taught Jim Butcher. Randy Ingermanson is teaching the same stuff.

        – All of it started with John Gallishaw over a century ago.

        John Gallishaw

        I have all of their books on writing, from Gallishaw, up through Chester and Randy Ingermanson, and I can’t understand the Scene-Sequel, MRU stuff. For Gallishaw starting all this, I literally can’t understand his books.

        The old phrase from Beetlejuice comes to mind:

        Beetlejuice — “Handbook for the Recently Deceased”

        I’ll keep trying to understand, but it is interesting to me that there is an entire school of writing that I simply cannot understand despite having all the books that have been written about it.

        BTW, I tried to explain all of this stuff last year, but the posts were way too long for TPV to process. I’ll have to expand on it when I get around to publishing the obligatory book “On Writing” that every author finally ends up committing. I might as well share my confusion.

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