Six impossible things

Flashbacks and Flashforwards

Flashbacks and flashforwards are essentially the same technique. They take a reader from the current moment of the story to a different time (the past, for a flashback; the future, for a flashforward) and then return to the current story moment. Flashbacks are the most commonly used, as it is much easier to justify a viewpoint character’s brief trip down memory lane than it is to explain how that viewpoint character comes to have a vision of the future.

Omniscient narrators, of course, can skip around time as much as they like. In some books, an encounter with a walk-on character immediately leads to a two-page flashforward summary of that character’s entire life for the next fifty years, often ending with “…but he/she never forgot the desperate woman she’d directed to the correct bus stop, and wondered from time to time why they’d been in such a hurry, though he/she never met that woman again.” And then they vanish from the story.

Most of the time, flashbacks are used to provide really important pieces of backstory, stuff that is vital to understanding the characters or the plot, but that happened too far in the past to make starting the story there a reasonable choice, or that would reveal far too much too soon if the story were told in strictly chronological order.

When both the reader and the main character have been wondering for chapters what really happened on that rainy night ten years before, when the Queen’s necklace was stolen and the Minister’s son vanished, it is often a better dramatic choice to have the tormented bodyguard finally say, “Yes, I was there. What happened was …” and then flash back to show the scene from that character’s viewpoint, rather than to have the bodyguard simply tell the story as dialog to the other characters currently present. Another example is the type of detective novel in which the murder scene is shown as a flashback near the end, giving the reader a dramatized version of events rather than just the detective’s summing-up.

Flashbacks are usually presumed by the reader to be as true as everything else in the story that they have been shown. A flashback scene therefore has more credibility than a narration in dialog, even if the conceit in the story is that a character is recounting the scene, rather than remembering it or reliving it mentally. Flashforwards, on the other hand, are a little more iffy from the reader’s point of view. The future hasn’t happened yet, so a vision of the future can be treated as an inevitable prophecy, as a warning of what will happen if the characters don’t prevent it, or as the viewpoint character’s passionately imagined and hoped-for future, rather than a true and accurate vision of what is to come.

If the characters experience the flashforward (usually as a vision or a dream), they may not know themselves whether what they have seen is inevitable, avoidable, or simply an unlikely result of their own hopes or insecurities. This frequently results in either a self-fulfilling prophecy or else a futile struggle to avoid disaster. Very occasionally, the character guesses right and manages to generate a favorable outcome from what appeared to be a horrible-but-inevitable future event.

Some time-travel stories include flash-forwards in which the current characters move forward in time; these are almost always treated as “true” (that is, they eventually happen exactly the way the characters experienced, though quite often knowing what happens just before or just after the future event completely changes everyone’s understanding of what is going on). Most of the time, though, a time-travel story is told according to the way the characters experience it – when they move forward or backward in time, it isn’t considered a flashback or flashforward, because even though they are watching the Battle of Waterloo in the past, this is the first time they have seen and experienced it.

There are a lot of really interesting things one can do with flashbacks and flashforwards. In the martial-arts movie Hero, the majority of the story is told in a series of nested flashbacks that contradict one another. One character tells the story of a prior event, which is shown as a flashback; then the next character says “I don’t believe you. I think it happened this way” and the scene will be re-shown with key elements changed (and sometimes the outcome significantly altered). Sometimes a third character will then say, “No, that doesn’t account for X; it must have actually happened this other way.” Every time, the revised possible version illuminates different aspects of each character, and it isn’t until the end of the film that the viewer can be fairly sure that they know what happened.

Roger Zelazny’s Doorways in the Sand played with flashbacks and flashforwards as a structural element; he began each chapter with a flashforward to the most exciting cliffhanger part, then spent the rest of the chapter showing how the characters got from the previous chapter’s opening cliffhanger to the current chapter’s cliffhanger. Steven Brust’s Taltos also uses flashforwards as structural elements; each chapter begins with a flashforward to a ritual that the viewpoint character does in the final chapter.

Usually, the writer wants the reader to know that a flashback or flashforward is happening at a different time and place from the current storyline, unless the viewpoint character is confused about where/when they are (in which case, the POV’s confusion lets the reader know that things have gone weird, and it’s OK to wait to figure out what is going on). If the flashbacks are a structural element, as in Taltos and Doorways, above, the repetition of the structure means that after a few chapters, the reader starts expecting the time-change, so it doesn’t need any special treatment. Otherwise, the writer usually wants the transitions from story-present to story-past/future and back to be particularly clear, so that the reader can keep things straight.

  1. The title of this post keeps making me think of Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett, in which one of the characters (a vampire in the throes of severe coffee withdrawal) has flashsides, i.e. “flashbacks” that don’t belong to him, but come from a parallel dimension.

  2. It seems to be the fashion lately for writers of note to be dismissive about flashbacks as a device for story telling. Colm Toibin is the one who comes to mind, and he devoted an article in The Guardian about his disdain for them (even though he uses them). I’ve heard other writers say the same thing.

    I can’t imagine telling a story without using them. Certainly I use them all of the time.

    Also, nice to see a reference to Doorways in the Sand.

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