Monday, July 28, 2008


I’m currently at work on a short story that is a strong candidate for flashbacks. I usually avoid flashbacks, perhaps because the types of stories I tend to write do not require them. I have a few thoughts on how flashbacks/non-sequential stories can be effective.

One example of good flashbacks, in movie form, is Batman Begins. (Yes, I’ve still got Batman on my mind.) The story begins with Bruce Wayne as an adult in prison in a foreign country. The main timeline continues from that point, but periodically, we are shown flashbacks of his childhood and also a time when he was old enough for college. Had the movie started with his childhood and progressed sequentially, it would have lacked a strong hook for the opening and killed the pacing of the overall plot. Takeaway #1 – good flashbacks improve the pacing of a story and allow you to start at a more interesting point that will keep readers interested.

An example of a well-done non-sequential movie is Memento. (Yes, another film by Christopher Nolan, but the Nolan brothers are really talented writers.) The entire movie comes in short spurts, without sequence. As soon as a scene blends into one that was previously shown, it cuts. I think this was done to correlate with the protagonist’s condition: he has no short-term memory. He remembers things from long ago, but no new memories are formed; after a few minutes he forgets anything he’s just learned. Takeaway #2 – if the protagonist does not think in normal patterns, it might make sense if the story’s timeline is irregular to further draw readers into the protagonist’s mentality.

Looking back at the takeaway points, bad flashbacks get in the way of the story by interfering with the pacing (almost always by slowing it to a crawl). There should also be an identifiable main timeline (in most cases), but if the flashbacks are constant, it makes it difficult for readers to anchor themselves to the story at all. A confused or bored reader will often stop reading.

I think flashbacks can be challenging but are well worth the investment for the right story. I’m ready to give them a shot.

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