Flashbacks and Time-hops: What to do and not do

By Vincent B. Davis II, @vbdavisii


They have been one of the most loved storytelling tools in every writer’s arsenal for centuries. As consumers, we see various media forms like televisions and movies utilize flashbacks as a legitimate form of storytelling. We see the value in its use, and want to bring it to our novels. The desire is valid, and it’s aim is useful, but is it actually helping our narrative?

Many experts would argue that it doesn’t.

“Flashbacks disrupt the flow of novels” says the master of organic writing Steven James. He goes on to liken flashbacks to stopping a car as it moves forward to take several detours only to end up at the same place before it moves forward.

Regardless of growing caution concerning flashbacks and time-hops, many authors love to utilize them. I include myself in this category. I think it is a fantastic way to develop stories, to reveal information, and ask new questions. One of my favorite examples of this is NBC’s new hit drama “This is Us”. Without the narrative device of flashbacks and time hopping, the narrative would not be nearly as captivating. With these tools in it’s arsenal, however, the hit series has created gold.

But what about us? What about novel writers? Is there a way for us to use this tool to the benefit of our narrative?

The answer is yes and no.

Steven James says that there are 5 things every flashback scene should contain (in his excellent “Story Trumps Structure”.

  1. inject more conflict and tension.
  2. provide essential information that readers need to know at that specific point in the story.
  3. answer a nagging question.
  4. bringing to light a hidden secret at just the right time.
  5. provide vital information that helps tie the story together.

If your story isn’t doing one (or more) of these five things, than you are likely wasting your time (and your readers’ time) using a flashback. I would argue that another that could be added to #3 would be, asking an important question. Flashbacks, if used strategically, can ask questions that dig at your reader like a knife, and beg them to read on. Robert Dugoni, in “My Sister’s Grave”, gives a wonderful example of this throughout the story.

For example, I am telling a story about a combat veteran. As he stands his ground and prepares for the oncoming enemy, I describe his scars and the pains he has been dealt.

Then I stop and venture into a flashback.

I begin to tell the reader about how he received those scars, and how he became so battle-hardened.

But what does this bring the reader? I might have some excellent scenes in this part of the story. These scenes might contain some excellent character and setting descriptions, but what do they bring to the reader that compels them to read on?

When they first read the description of this veteran, they see that he has scares. They know he is battle-hardened. Therefore, what does this detour give the author?

And the answer is, if it doesn’t answer one of these five questions… it brings them nothing.

I believe that flashbacks and time-hopping is a powerful narrative tool. It should only be used with the utmost caution, and respect, because if it is used whimsically, the reader will catch on quickly and put the book down and forget about not only the character’s backstory, but also his present.

However, if you can answer one of these five questions (preferably more than one), with a flashback scene, than I say go for it. Before you do, simply ask if it is driving the story forward, or if it is pulling back the reins and asking that your reader enjoy a different story for a time before returning to the main one. Because, chances are, they won’t.

Vincent B. Davis II is an entrepreneur, soldier, and freelance writer. In December 2016, he founded Thirteenth Press, LLC. His first novel, “The Man with Two Names” is available on Amazon now. You can connect with him on Facebook, Twitter, or on his website at vincentbdavisii.comHe loves hearing from other authors! If you would like to be featured on Blueridgeconference.com, e-mail him at vincent@thirteenthpress.com with the subject line “Blog Query”.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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