Flashbacks And Frames

If you tell of bygone events in narrative summary, it's exposition. If you dramatize them as a scene, it's a flashback.

Flashbacks can be as brief as a single line of past dialogue or as extensive as a whole independent plot.

The virtue of flashbacks is that, unlike exposition, they're showing, not telling. They have action, drama, immediate events. But they're not as strong or vivid as present-time scenes, simply because they're past. I mentioned in Chapter 7 that we tend to take the past less seriously than the present because, for good or ill, it's over. We're only hearing about it rather than see ing it happen—even though it's presented as a scene. It's history, even if dramatized history.

Real matters. Now matters. And what's real, and now, is what we perceive as being real and now.

There's a tricky corollary to this insight. Nearly all the stories ever written happen in the past. That is, the story's present timeline is the reader's past. Anything that wasn't set, written, and published in this present year is, to a greater or lesser degree, historical fiction of this kind.

Some stories don't age well. References get dated, styles and expectations change, society has different concerns from one decade to another. Stories about our own pasts, times we've lived through, paradoxically seem more dated than those that occurred during our parents' generation, or even longer ago.

So why aren't all these stories seen as flashbacks, as things with marginal relevance to our current interests and concerns?

Some of them are. The adjustments needed to read, say, Shakespeare or Chaucer with comprehension and enjoyment can be radical. And without a lot of footnotes, much of the fine detail and topical references still get lost. And there were hundreds of other writers in Shakespeare's time, or Chaucer's, or Dickens', whose work is virtually unknown now, except by scholars who aren't reading primarily for enjoyment.

But there's also fiction that's lasted, that we can still imagine ourselves into despite sometimes radical differences of time and culture. And those stories are set in something I'll call the absolute past. They're complete, reflecting one small slice of everything there is or might be, requiring little or nothing beyond themselves to make sense. Each is a self-contained and independent fictional world.

That fictional world, existing in the absolute past, has its own timeline, its own stated present. While we read, that present is ours. Nothing is over until the final fat lady sings, no matter how many hundreds or thousands of years ago or ahead the events (even imagined events) are supposed to occur.

It's part of the willing suspension of disbelief I talked about earlier, part of the Once Upon a Time syndrome. It's a fictional convention we're so used to that, as readers, we scarcely notice it.

And this is just as true of science fiction and fantasy, with only the most tenuous claims to connect with historical reality, as it is of more ostensibly realistic fiction. Each has its own timeline, its own hermetic present which doesn't need to connect to anything outside itself.

Therefore, what's present is whatever the story's central timeline shows being the present. Anything that departs from that is a flashback or, more rarely, a flashforward.


Flashbacks are past, in the story's context. Therefore they disrupt the story's timeline and are, individually and collectively, less effective than "present" action. If there are a lot of them, they can leech the vividness out of the whole story and invalidate the story's present.

If you think your story is going to have just one or two substantial flashback interruptions, it's probably not worth disrupting the timeline to include them. They're not enough to set and maintain a narrative pattern, so they're anomalies, freaks in an otherwise sequential story. Turn the essential information into exposition. Don't dramatize it. Your story's timeline is already no more than a convention between writer and reader—why put a needless and avoidable strain on it?

If your story is going to have several extensive flashbacks, particularly if it's long fiction, then the technique is roughly like leaning off a roof: make sure you're solidly anchored and the footing is reliable, then go ahead and lean.

Make sure the running plot in your story's present is strong, clear, and well established before splitting off to do anything else, whether following a subplot, interjecting a chunk of exposition, or embarking on a flashback. Make sure the flashback is vivid and interesting in itself—if it's not, it would be better as exposition. Compensate with as many echoes and mirrors, to connect the flashback plot with the present plot, as seem reasonable and judicious. Use strong but inconspicuous transitions to help the shift along. And remember that a past story is also a story, and needs to develop characters and situations just as any story does, even if it's only a single scene long.

To compensate for the ending being known (remember, it's the story's past), you might state the past resolution right out and then use your flashback to show what led up to it. That's especially appropriate when the story hinges on some major historical event whose outcome is presumably already familiar. In The Day of the Jackal, Frederick Forsyth managed to bring off a cliff-hanger thriller about a plot to assassinate de Gaulle during the Algerian crisis, although readers presumably already knew that de Gaulle survived to an irascible old age. I suspect the interest was in knowing the attempt was going to fail, yet wanting to find out precisely how it failed.

The same problem arises if your narrator is telling the events of his youth from the perspective of greater experience and more years. After all, he survived to tell the story, didn't he? So you can't create suspense about whether or not he's going to survive. But you can create suspense about the manner of his survival—did he fail or succeed? Did he pay too great a price for survival? The style of his surviving is still open to narrative embellishments.

You can also displace the narrative interest from the known to the unknown, focusing not on who won the Battle of Midway, for instance, but on whether one particular seaman survived and won the Navy nurse of his choice.

Of course, sometimes the problem of known outcome doesn't even arise: in entirely invented worlds; with minor historical events the reader is likely to be unfamiliar with (quick, now: who won the War of Jenkins' Ear? Gotcha!); or in really strange or exotic societies, invented or borrowed. Instead, another problem takes its place. If the situation is already complicated by some major strangeness, like an alien world or an invented future society, it's risky to throw in any more and merely structural complications. If your story's present is apt to be difficult for a reader to follow for whatever reason, you'll probably be better off just staying with the main timeline and avoiding any flashback longer than a paragraph or so, to keep avoidable complications to a minimum.

If your flashbacks are going to run through the whole of a novel, treat them as what they are: another parallel and relatively equal plot, or as main plot and subplot, one running in the present, the other in the past, as I discussed in the last chapter.


What if you only want two flashes—one at the beginning, and the other at the end? The narrator, at the age of 40-some, is going to tell the events that happened when she was 20. Then we leave the narrator andjump directly into the story, with no other departures. The story's main timeline is therefore anchored in the 20-year-old events. That's the story's present. The 40-year-old who introduces things exists in that curious construction, a flashforward.

An introductory flashforward of this sort is used in du Maurier's Rebecca to set this gothic story's mood of brooding uncertainty. Then the timeline drops back a few years and proceeds sequentially until it again reaches the time the story opened with. King's 'Salem's Lot uses the same technique.

Other stories have no overlap (save perhaps the continuing narrator) between opening flash, story, and closing flash. The flashes are one time; the story is another. In either case, it's the story's main plot that establishes what the timeline is, regardless of any introductory flash.

All these kinds of arrangement constitute what's called a frame. It's used when an author feels some kind of bridge to the story's basic situation is needed—to put things in the proper perspective (as in Conrad's Lord Jim), establish a social context to which the main protagonist will be a stranger, provide solid credibility for a story otherwise likely to be taken as fantasy (James' The Turn of the Screw), hint at a climax the reader can thereafter look forward to reaching, or do some other important narrative chore the story itself will be too busy to do as economically or strongly.

To get technical for a minute, an opening flash with the "past" story following sequentially thereafter is a flashforward, sometimes called a prologue; an end-flash is an epilogue. A prologue or epilogue stands aside from the story and comments on it from a different perspective.

Matching and connected flashes at beginning and end, mirroring one another—which may or may not be actually labeled as prologue and epilogue—constitute a frame.

Stand-alone prologues are still fairly common; epilogues are less so—in part, I think, because they've been so severely abused in the past. Epilogues in which the author rambles on self-indulgently about everything that happens to the main characters for the rest of their natural lives, or tries (generally unconvincingly) to tie up all the loose threads of an untidy plot, became justly notorious in the past century.

And there's another problem with epilogues: the story is already over. Epilogues which aren't part of a frame presenting an independent miniplot therefore have no drama and are pure talk. Pure exposition. Soggy anticlimax.

If there's no overriding reason to do otherwise, get the story done and then close the curtain as quickly as possible, while the reader is still halfway wanting more, as I'll discuss in more detail in the next chapter.

Don't dither. Avoid weak, throat-clearing closes, just as you'd avoid throat-clearing, inconclusive openings. Let the ending be the ending, without waffling afterthoughts.

But if there's some solid narrative reason (not just trying to do in five pages what you failed to do in 200) to have a standalone epilogue, make it a scene rather than exposition and make sure it has a point, some new insight the story would be incomplete without (please: not "It was all a dream"! It's far, far too late, at that point, to change the rules!). Follow the good manners of departure: say goodbye firmly and briskly, then get yourself gone.

The only trick to creating a frame, prologue, or epilogue is to keep it brief, direct, and interesting. The frame isn't the picture. It'sjust support and context for the picture. Keep it to that, and you shouldn't have any trouble.

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    How to write flashbacks in short stories?
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