Andromeda: Why we love flashbacks (and why we don’t)

The manipulation of time is one of creative writing’s great
In real life, we time-travel a little, pausing to remember—usually
briefly, usually hazily. But in fiction and memoir, we can jump around with
greater nimbleness and more purpose, revisiting the past in vivid detail,
adding depth via backstory, creating resonances either subtle or dramatic
between intimate moments or entire epochs.
The juxtaposition of past with present allows us to do our
favorite things as writers:
Find patterns.
Shape chaos.
Make meaning.
Here’s why Ethan Canin says he likes chronological
discontinuity and the vaster story duration that is possible when we are
allowed to jump around:
“Space adds immeasurably to the power of fiction,”
said the author of Carry Me Across the Water [in an interview with BookPage]. “If you just go
from Monday to Tuesday, it’s not as effective as going from Japan in 1940 to
Brooklyn in 1990. You can sort of trigger a reader to drop his emotional
Note that other big thinkers – including no less than
Aristotle – believed the opposite to be true. Writers have argued for the power
of limited canvases and plots of the shortest possible duration.
But notice: if your main storyline has an extremely
compressed duration, you may need flashbacks and backstory even more in order
to flesh out what brought characters to their current predicaments.
In other words, whether your story sprawls extravagantly or
is (mostly) contained, chances are you are going to be tempted to jump around.
And you don’t want to give your readers whiplash.
If you’re the type who likes to use flashbacks, then you
know that they are actually tricky to pull off. A flashback—or any space/time
jump—is a place where readers may choose to leave the narrative train. How do
you convince them not to get off at an early stop?
This blogpost is not about the answers, since one size
definitely doesn’t fit all, but rather about the questions.
What’s the difference between backstory and flashback, and
which one will best suit our particular literary needs?

If a story begins and ends in the past, with the middle all
about the present day, are those bookends really flashbacks, or just a frame?

When is it too soon to flashback?

How long should a flashback be?

How do we ease into and out of flashbacks without confusing
the reader?
If the main part of the story is told mostly in extended flashbacks, have we chosen the right structure?
Should we make the past story the main story, in other words?
I’d love to hear more of your questions and thoughts in the
And if you’d like to learn more about flashbacks—and workshop
your own writing to nail down those tricky bits—join us for my 49 Writersonline course, FLASHBACKS WITHOUT WHIPLASH, April 4-25. It’s an asynchronous
class, meaning interaction is expected but you post and comment when it works
for you. The focus will be fiction but nonfiction writers, especially
memoirists, use the same tools and are welcome to participate.
Andromeda Romano-Lax is a co-founder of 49 Writers and the author of BEHAVE, a novel about motherhood and science, set in the Jazz Age.

1 thought on “Andromeda: Why we love flashbacks (and why we don’t)”

  1. Lynn Lovegreen

    Flashbacks are tricky, which is why some people tell new writers not to use them. But if you can find the right transition in and out of them, they add a lot to the story. I try to use flashbacks sparingly, and if I'm using a bunch, it usually means I started the story in the wrong place.
    Sounds like a great class, Andromeda!

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