Are Flashbacks Fizzling Your Fiction? Time as a Literary Device

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One of the most common blunders I see with new authors is they botch the “flashback.” Why? Well, for starters I don’t think subjects/techniques like these get talked about in depth very often (though I could write an entire book on just flashbacks alone). This is part of why I created this Friday’s class, So You Want to Write a Novel. All the lovely stuff English class never taught you😉 .

Additionally, many writers are mimicking what they are writing off what they “see” in movies. Problem is? Movies are a completely different medium. Film is concrete. Black letters on a white page? ABSTRACT.

But another problem with flashbacks? 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.

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Seems legit.

I will add a caveat. While shifting in time can make for EXCELLENT fiction, we have to make sure we are doing it in the right spots. Most of the time, one of the worst places to have a flashback is in the first five pages of the work.

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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Can it work? Sure, anything can work. But if we break the rule, better have a good reason for doing so.

The Trouble with Jumping

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.

Um
OUCH!

Um
OUCH!

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/strategically. 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.

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

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The training-wheel flashbacks are the ones we should learn to nix right away (and the one I see most commonly with new writers). 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.

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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.

Shifting in time is something that can be and is done. It might be a parallel timeline (The Green Mile, The Notebook, True Detective).

It can be non-linear structure (Memento, Vanilla Skies, Pulp Fiction, The Murder House by James Patterson).

It can even be using true flashbacks for places in time that are critical to the unraveling current story problem (I call these Easter Egg Flashbacks). 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 (Love You More, by Lisa Gardner—and one of the BEST BOOKS I have EVER read).

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 (both the books and the movies).

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.

FLASHBACK TEST QUESTIONS

Is this something that can be explained real-time?

For instance, in the series True Detective which I explored in this post, 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?

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).

Check out classes below and Battle of the Pages is almost full, so get your seat while you can!

Upcoming Classes

All W.A.N.A. classes are on-line and all you need is an internet connection. Recordings are included in the class price.

Again, I am trying something new and offering an open and interactive workshop. Is your first page strong enough to withstand the fire?

Battle of the First Pages TOMORROW!!!!! ONLY A FEW SEATS LEFT!

June 16th, 7-9 EST. Cost $25

This is an interactive experience similar to a gong show. We will upload the first page and I will “gong” when I would have stopped reading and explain why. We will explore what each writer has done right or even wrong or how the page could be better. This workshop is two hours long and limited seats available so get your spot as soon as you can!

So You Want to Write a Novel 

June 17th, 7-9 EST. Cost is $35

Just because we made As in high school or college English does not instantly qualify us to be great novelists. Writing a work that can span anywhere from 60,000 to 120,000+ words requires training. This class is for the person who is either considering writing a novel or who has written a novel(s) and is struggling.

We will cover the essentials of genre, plot, character, dialogue and prose. This class will provide you with the tools necessary to write lean and clean and keep revisions to a minimum.

Character & Plotting (NEW CLASS!)

June 24th, 2015 7:00-9:00 P.M. EST. Cost is $35

All great plots are birthed from character. The core plot problem should be the crucible that eventually reveals a hero in Act III. This means that characterization and plot are inextricably linked. Weak plot, weak character. Blasé character, blasé plot.

This class will teach you how to create dimensional characters and then how to plot from inner demons and flaws. Get inside the heads and hearts of your characters in a way that drives and tightens dramatic tension.

This is an excellent class for anyone who wants to learn how to plot faster and to add layers to their characters.

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. #1 by saralynrichard on June 15, 2016 - 10:53 am

    Having trouble with this very thing in a mystery, where the detective wouldn’t enter the picture until after the murder, unless I bend the time. Thanks for the timely advice.

  2. #2 by Lanette Kauten on June 15, 2016 - 10:57 am

    I studied Tana French’s “In The Woods” for how to effectively weave in flashbacks. She’s a master at it.

  3. #3 by vrushali21 on June 15, 2016 - 11:01 am

    Haha…is it only me or everyone thinks you are AWESOME. You give these ‘teaching lessons’ so easily through jokes and through those funny images, that I find it very helpful. I will love to recommend you to all my ‘want-to-be-writer’ friends!
    YOU. ARE. GREAT.

    • #4 by Author Kristen Lamb on June 15, 2016 - 11:12 am

      Thank you! ((HUGS))

      • #5 by vrushali21 on June 16, 2016 - 6:13 am

        *Returns hugs!*
        I’ll be very excited to read all your posts with EXTRA attention.
        (I promise I’m not a stalker.)

  4. #7 by IchBinMeisterin on June 15, 2016 - 12:02 pm

    EXCELLENT post. Everything laid out simply and the figure-skating analogy was great- I hadn’t thought of that.

    Ever since I decided to start studying technique seriously at the beginning of last year, I’ve become a big fan of real-time narrative, whilst admiring writers who can do the time-warp without losing my train of thought. Both times I have used flashbacks, they added nothing to the story and actually just repeated things I had already said in real-time. In “The First Five Pages”, by Noah Lukeman, he has a great chapter on subtlety and how it allows the reader to use their imagination which I think is kind of limited when you have to keep hopping back to explain.

    I’ve realized a lot of what I am currently working on needs to start earlier than planned because that will explain the later occurrences. It’s been a lot easier drafting straight without having to go back and explain everything.

  5. #8 by allensrepositoryofstuff on June 15, 2016 - 1:22 pm

    Time is a difficult thing to write well because it can be so abstract yet absolute as well. As an author of a long-running serial story, time has bitten me in the writer’s butt more than once.

  6. #9 by Ontyre Passages on June 15, 2016 - 2:18 pm

    “And then, the most astounding thing happened—but first, let me take you back to the really bad birthday party I had when I was six. I know it’s a bloated chapter, but it explains why I don’t like vanilla frosting.”

    Yeah, I’ve come to dislike 98% of flashbacks, and thanks to you, Kristen, I’ve realized how much better a story flows without them. Too often they bring the tale to a complete stop and are a clever way to spew backstory. Besides, the painful past is today’s tension. The minute it’s explained *poof* goes the tension.

  7. #10 by Rebecca Vance on June 15, 2016 - 2:40 pm

    I tried writing a parallel timeline as well, combining two time periods into one. I couldn’t get it to work. I then realized that it needed to be two stories. This is my debut novel as well. I still plan to write this as a series, but I think an epic saga like it would turn out to be would have been too much for my first novel. It would end up to be something crazy, like 800 pages or something like that. I would also have been lost in too many flashbacks and that wouldn’t work. Each story needs to be in its own present time. Thanks for such a teaching post. It is very helpful. 🙂

  8. #11 by Elizabeth Rose on June 15, 2016 - 3:10 pm

    Am I allowed to just hate flashbacks? I have yet to read a book where I feel they’re needed. I have read lots where they’re confusing.

    Perhaps they aren’t a figure skating jump or lift6, both basically required to do well. Perhaps more like …. I don’t know. I am figure skating analogied out.

    I would just say to maybe think really carefully about flashbacks. Do you really need them? Is there another way to get the same information across.? Does that information even need to be conveyed?

  9. #12 by Suzanne Lucero (@S_Lucero) on June 15, 2016 - 4:12 pm

    May I suggest the tv series Once Upon A Time as an example of your dictum “The PAST must be related to the PRESENT and directly impact the FUTURE (how the story is resolved)”? Every episode has a present story-line that has some link with the various characters’ pasts; and the future , or story resolution, generally shows how that past helps the characters resolve this week’s plot.

  10. #13 by Sheila M. Good, Author on June 15, 2016 - 6:36 pm

    Excellent and timely post, Kristen. You’ve given me a lot to think about. @sheilamgood at Cow Pasture Chronicles

  11. #14 by rmlenzi on June 15, 2016 - 9:42 pm

    I’m going through this right now with yet another revision – to get to the root of tension between two characters, I have to go back five years to explain a certain confrontation, or to explain why the MC is a certain way, it requires going back to something that happened years earlier.
    This gives some clarity as to how to approach it, and if these are truly important or can be boiled down to 1-2 sentences.

  12. #15 by 1authorcygnetbrown on June 16, 2016 - 6:32 am

    Excellent explanation of flashbacks, great advice on why they may not be necessary, but at the same time how to make them work!

  13. #16 by Don Massenzio on June 16, 2016 - 7:41 am

    Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog.

  14. #17 by PTLPerrin on June 16, 2016 - 1:54 pm

    In the process of writing my first fiction novel, I realized that the ‘flashbacks’ were really backstory, and the whole thing went more smoothly when I changed the point where the story actually began. Thank you for this, and for all the advice in your blog posts. I’m reblogging this at http://www.PTLPerrinWrites.com.

  15. #18 by PTLPerrin on June 16, 2016 - 1:55 pm

    Reblogged this on PTL Perrin Writes… and commented:
    Kristen Lamb’s blog is a great resource for writers in any genre. Here’s a great one about flashbacks….

  16. #19 by Nikki Brock on June 16, 2016 - 10:18 pm

    This post is so timely. I am editing a book now that starts with a flashback, something you said was a no-no. It’s a romantic suspense, and the heroine hates the hero for something that happened nine years before. The circumstances were complicated, and I used the flashback as an easy way to explain her hatred, at least in the first draft. As I edit further I will try to figure out how to tell the backstory without using it. It’s harder…:)

  17. #20 by Susie Murphy on June 17, 2016 - 3:55 am

    I used to think flashbacks were okay and included several in the series I’m writing. Then I read Dragonfly in Amber, the second book in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, and realised just how much I don’t like flashbacks! In retrospect, I can understand why she constructed it the way she did but for a while I found it tormenting to read…! Now I’m working on getting rid of all the flashbacks in my own work because I don’t want to inflict that torment on my future readers (here’s hoping they will exist someday🙂 ). It wasn’t until I was on the receiving end of the device that I had the revelation that it’s a device I shouldn’t use so often. Thanks for another great post!

  18. #21 by Diane Kasulis on June 17, 2016 - 10:55 am

    Very helpful. I have a few distinct places I go back but my story relates to a crime commit rd in the past that gets resolved in the future. I also started with a prologue (which I since labeled as chapter one) and tagged it with a date of 20 years ago etc. I started with a tease of the crime being commited. Chapter 2 started with the protagonist in present day.

    Been wondering if this was a good idea. Any thoughts?

    Thankyou.

  19. #22 by E.A. Bucchianeri on June 17, 2016 - 3:30 pm

    Very helpful article, thanks for the reminder on how annoying flashbacks can be. OMGosh, working on my second novel, a sequel to my first, and now after reading this, hoping I’m not using ‘flashbacks’ too much. The crux of the matter is, my first novel was basically told from one character’s point of view in a linear fashion, but the second now features individuals from the first book whose stories we didn’t get to hear, one other person in particular is also coming into focus and needs some ‘backstory’ to a point, so maybe ‘flashback’ techniques might work to show more of all their characters and their past ‘unseen’ development, which couldn’t be done in the first book. I’m not switching ‘time’ per se, but going back into past memories, etc. where appropriate, like when a character has a lot of time on their hands and bad memeories or good ones spring forward and it helps them to deal with whatever situation they’re facing in the present. That sort of ‘flashback’. I hope it works….fingers crossed! I won’t really know until the whole draft is done and I can see how it works overall before deciding to cut anything. 🙂

  20. #23 by Inkhorn on June 18, 2016 - 7:34 am

    this was so helpful i am writing a historical fiction presently and i am using flashbacks. Your posts are so relevant thanks again!

  21. #24 by Jeannie Hall on June 18, 2016 - 12:25 pm

    Reblogged this on Jeannie Hall Suspense and commented:
    Flashbacks: To Do or Bot To Do

  22. #25 by Dan Frost on June 25, 2016 - 2:50 pm

    Use Hateful Eight written and directed by Quentin Tarantino as an example of a bad flashback. When a block of type literally appears saying:

    “Now we’ll show you what happened before so you’ll understand what’s going to happen next.”

    That is bad writing, and it’s a brilliant showcase Tarantino’s skill for unsurpassed bad movie making.

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