Flashbacks and flash forwards are both techniques that writers use to manipulate time in their storytelling.
Flashbacks are scenes or events that occur earlier in the story’s timeline than the present moment of the narrative. They are used to provide backstory or additional information about a character or event that is relevant to the story. Flashbacks can be used to reveal secrets, build suspense, or add emotional depth to a character. The fact that the flashback can be so easily triggered also lets the reader know that its content is important. For example, a character might have a flashback to their childhood to explain why they have a fear of dogs or why they have a strained relationship with their father.
Flash forwards are scenes or events that occur later in the story’s timeline than the present moment of the narrative. They are used to foreshadow events, build suspense, or provide a glimpse into the future of the story. Flash forwards can be used to hint at a character’s fate, create a sense of mystery, or show the consequences of the characters’ actions. For example, a story might open with a flash forward of a character standing at a grave, and then cut back to the present to show how they got there.
Overall, both techniques of nonlinear narrative can be powerful tools in a writer’s toolbox, but it’s important to use them judiciously and with purpose, since overuse can disrupt the flow of the narrative and confuse readers. Many of today’s movies and serial programs abuse flashbacks way too often as a crutch to create quick backstories.
As a matter of course, flash forwards are less often seen in literature. The reason may be because of the difficulty in not giving away the ending. There’s a fine line between telling the future and prematurely exposing the ending. Arguably the most famous use comes in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. As a result, Let’s focus the rest of this blog on flashbacks. There are a few tips that I’ve found helpful in building creative flashback scenes.
Use a trigger to ignite a flashback – Use an external stimulus to push your character’s consciousness into the past. Something made the character think back. What was it? Be sure your reader is aware of the reason.
Usa a trigger to return to the present - Your character should be pulled back to the present for a reason as well. As I mentioned above, movies simply use “fade to black” as their transition, but flashback transitions are more difficult on the written page. For example, the sound of a slamming door in the present may be used to mirror a slamming door at the end of the flashback scene.
Keep your flashback brief - There is probably only one important point you want to get across with your flashback, so cut it down to its key moments. If readers have to go through pages and pages of backstory, they may lose where they are in the larger storyline.
A flashback should advance the story - Think of it this way: a reader gets to know a character much like you would get to know someone you’ve just met. A flashback should always serve as a tool to advance what is happening in the present.
Use flashbacks sparingly - A flashback should be used only when there is no other effective way to get an important piece of information across.
If you are looking for examples of the best use in flashbacks and flash forwards through the use of nonlinear narrative by authors, look no further than these:
William Faulkner - The Sound and the Fury
Kurt Vonnegut - Slaughterhouse 5
Joseph Heller - Catch-22
Virginia Woolf - Mrs. Dalloway
Gabriel Garcia Marquez - One Hundred Years of Solitude
Toni Morrison - Beloved
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Flashbacks & Flash Forward
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