Sunday, June 6, 2010


Flashbacks are touchy.  They are easy to overuse.  They whisper in your ear while you're sleeping, "Use me for your backstory.  I'm available.  I'm easy."

And cheap.  Tawdry cheap.

But sometimes a flashback is just the thing.  Well done, in the right place and in the right way, a flashback can be stronger than any of the alternatives.

Last post I talked about memories.  Memories and flashbacks are different things (to me, anyway) though they serve the same purposes.

In a memory, the character becomes the narrator, or the narrator relays to the reader what the character recalls.  The point is that the recollection is colored by the character's subsequent experience.  An adult's memory of an event when that took place when they were six years old is an adult's memory, not a six-year-old's memory.  They'd use adult language, they'd be able to see into the future because they know how the event they're remembering turned out.

In a true flashback, story-time shifts to the past.  The narration doesn't change.  The reader is transported to a different time from that of the main part of the story.  If the narration all along has been third person limited, for instance, it stays the same, but the viewpoint is no longer in the present looking over the main character's shoulder and into their mind:  it's in the past looking over and into a younger version of the same main character.  The thoughts and feelings of that younger main character are those they had at that time -- not the over-analyzed, looking-back-on-it-now thoughts and feelings they might have in a memory of the same event in real story-time.

Some people consider memories to be a type of flashback (like Jessica Page Morrell in her excellent book "Between the Lines").  I take exception to lumping them together (I can be the king of the subtle differentiation), but their similarities -- uses, entrances and exits, pitfalls, usage patterns, affect on pacing and mood -- outweigh their differences -- story-time shift, and factual vs colored-by-experience.

When I first thought about flashbacks for this post, the book that leapt to my mind was "Slaughterhouse Five".  At first blush the book is made up entirely of flashbacks (don't try this at home, kids!), but those are not flashbacks at all.  Billy Pilgrim is slipping in time, so what might appear to be flashbacks are just Billy living his life in the sequence he really went through it.  Out of order.  They look like flashbacks, but only seem to function like them -- they don't, really.  It amazes me that Vonnegut could pull that off, but then again: he was a master.

Other than those non-flashbacks, I can't think of any flashbacks from literature that stuck in my mind.  Maybe that's a good thing -- they're part of the craft and should quietly do their job without leaving skid marks.  Have you come across any flashbacks that  made an impression on you?


  1. I've read books where one chapter occurs in the present, the next in the past. Can't say I enjoyed an entire book of it, but I have no problem with the occasional flashback.

  2. "Between the Lines" considers those dual time-line stories to be 50% flashback. I beg to differ. But the parallel story lines, past and present, can be very effective for the right kind of story. The trick is to never leave the reader uncertain of which time they're in.