Flashbacks or Non-linear Story Telling

No excuse for this picture I just like the deserted beach and the brooding clouds.

There are several definitons of linear and non-linear story telling. If you play computer games, the player directs where the story goes (within the constraints provided by the game’s developers).

In books and films the term non-linear is used in a different way. Think of the movie ‘Momento’. That was one movie you had to watch twice, because there was a whole new layer the second time around.

In books we have the flashback and more rarely the flashforwards. (I was trying to think of a flashforwards. Isn’t there a quick flashforwards at the beginning of the movie ‘American Beauty’? I haven’t seen it since it came out. As I remember we see the main character dead. Then we see how it came to this point. Altternatively, you could argue that the majority of the movie was a flashback. Anybody seen ‘American Beauty’ recently?).

Samuel Delaney has an interesting article on Flashbacks in Psychology Today. Flashbacks mimic Memory: Samuel R Delany.  He argues all writing is only the stringing together of micro-memories from the reader’s memory, that the writer remixes, using words to trigger those memories and guide the reader through a process of constructing the story in their head, which they do using micro memories of their own.

But that is probably getting more philosophical than we need for a post on writing craft.

Traditionally, the flashback for a writer means a chunk of previous story that the writer drops into the narrative. This is non-linear narrative and we are so familiar and accepting of it, we don’t even notice, unless the writer does it badly.

We accept flashbacks. The danger with flashbacks is that if they are too interesting the reader will want to stay in the flashback and will resent it when the writer brings them back to the narrative’s present day.

Diane D says: ‘flashbacks should only be used to enhance a storyline or character, be believable, and transition smoothly. When used appropriately, the flashback will give the reader a thorough appreciation of the complete story..’ (Full article here).

Why use a flashback at all and risk losing your reader? Every scene should drive the plot forward or reveal something about the character, preferably both. So a flashback, even though it is a scene from the past, should do one or both of these things. Ask yourself, why am I putting this flashback into the narrative and why am I putting it here?

A smooth transition is really important. The reader has to know that they are going into a flashback. The simplest way is to say: He remembered the day his mother walked out …

But this is a distancing way to do it. It is more immediate, if your protagonist remembers it as he was, 9 years old, coming home from school to find her gone and his father sobbing at the kitchen table. Telling it from the point of view of that little boy will be more powerful than telling it from the POV of a cynical adult who has distanced himself from the pain. So how can you make it more immediate?

We don’t have control over our dreams and powerful events stay with us. Dream sequences can even be told in first person-present tense, if you are willing to try this. It makes it clear that this is not part of the ordinary narrative and the person experiencing it is being swept along. So your character can be the vulnerable 9 year old boy again for the purposes of the flashback.

Since we are all the sum of our life experience somewhere, deep inside your protagonist, he is still that boy, unable to understand why his mother left, unable to make it better. Using a flashback will make us like him more, now that we know why he finds it hard to commit to someone.

Flashback, a powerful took if used properly.

Can you think of books or movies which have used flashback to good effect?

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