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How Do I Use Flashforwards and Flashbacks in My Novel?

It’s not what you say but the way that you say it…

As children we all learnt that a story should have a beginning, a middle and an end. As we get older we come to appreciate that they don’t necessarily have to be in that order.

What is linear storytelling in novels?

Linear storytelling is the simplest and most common way of writing a novel. In terms of timeframe, everything happens in a straight line with events being recounted in the order in which they occurred.

e.g Mal and Tara are two British secret agents. Having once been married they divorced acrimoniously when the intense pressure of their jobs took its toll.

A linear approach to the novel might look something like this:

  • Mal and Tara learn that their five-year old daughter, Claire, has been abducted.

  • The kidnapper tells Mal and Tara that she will only be released if they hand over highly classified information which he will then sell on to a foreign state.

  • Mal and Tara reluctantly agree to put their differences aside and work together. They agree that Claire’s abductor is unlikely to release her even when they have fulfilled their part of the bargain. But if there is any sign of police or security service involvement she will also be killed.

  • They devise a plan to work on getting the secret intelligence while simultaneously trying to track down their daughter’s location.

  • As they work together Mal and Tara become closer and closer and realise they are falling in love again.

  • The two agents eventually track down Claire and her abductor to an isolated rural hideaway.

  • They enter the building and find Claire, but Mal is attacked and seemingly killed by the kidnapper.  

  • Tara and her daughter hide on another floor of the building but are discovered by the abductor.

  • He is about to kill them both when he is shot dead by the mortally injured Mal – who then dies in front of his daughter and ex-wife.

  • Tara has the bittersweet experience of seeing her daughter safe and sound while losing the only man she’s ever truly loved for a second time.

 

It would be perfectly possible to write an exciting thriller using those events in that order. There are, however, alternatives – and these revolve around using non-linear storytelling techniques.

What are non-linear storytelling techniques in novels?

Rather than telling a tale in chronological order, as in the above example, non-linear techniques place particular events out of order – to create mystery and tension and so engage and enthral the reader.

There are two non-linear techniques – flashforwards and flashbacks

What are flashforwards in novels?

Flashforwards in novels take the reader to a more advanced point in the narrative. They show where the story is heading – but not necessarily how it is heading there.

A common way of using a flashforward is right at the start of the novel. In the case of our story with Mal and Tara, for example, we might begin with the following:

The two of them lay shaking and shivering under the bed, total silence their only hope of survival. And then the sound they were dreading, bare floorboards creaking under measured, methodical footsteps approaching the room. But terrifying as the sound was, it was nothing compared to the terror of the footsteps stopping…

What are the advantages of using flashforwards in novels?

A flashforward like this can have a number of advantages:

  • It begins the novel in a tense and thrilling way, immediately drawing the reader into your story

  • It creates a sense of mystery – who are the two people under they bed? Who is looking for them? How did this situation arise?

  • It keeps readers engaged throughout the novel. An inexperienced author may be reluctant to use a flashforward for fear of giving away what is going to happen in the story. Using flashbacks skilfully, however, can actually add to the sense of uncertainty and ensure that readers remain enthralled. In our example, we have been careful not to identify who are the two hiding under the bed and who is looking for them. As they read the book readers will be forming their own theories as to what exactly was happening in the flashforward and how the story reached that stage. Such active engagement with the reader can be a highly effective way of keeping them immersed in the book and increasing their enjoyment of it.

  • It creates the potential for surprise twists. Once again, far from acting as a spoiler as to what is going to happen, a well-constructed flashforward can actually lay the foundations for an unexpected development later in the novel. In our example, the reader may well form the view that it is two out of Mal, Tara and Claire who are hiding and the abductor who is searching for them. It could be, however, that Mal is the kidnapper. He has discovered that Claire is not his daughter – her father is actually a colleague with whom Tara was having an affair. The abduction is his way of exacting revenge on Tara by making her watch her daughter suffer and having her reputation destroyed as a result of the secret intelligence she has stolen. Such a twist will be more powerful if the flashforward has led the reader to take the narrative at face value and assume that Mal really is a loving father desperate to save his daughter. Some readers, of course, may deduce what is really going on – in such cases their enjoyment of the novel may well be enhanced by the satisfaction they derive from anticipating the twist.

What are flashbacks in novels?

A flashback is a literary device which takes the reader back to an earlier point in the narrative. It is important to stress that a flashback should not be about re-treading old ground and telling the reader something they already know – but putting a new slant on the events that have already been portrayed.

In our original story of Mal and Tara, for example, we may decide not to start with the revelation that they have previously been married and that it is their daughter who has been abducted. Instead we open at the point where the two of them are working together to access top secret information while also trying to determine the location of a former fellow agent. We can see that there is an obvious tension between the two of them and a desperation about the way they are behaving – but we don’t know why.

Through the course of the novel, flashbacks slowly reveal their former marital status and the fact that they are on an unofficial mission to save their daughter.

In another scenario we could return to the plot twist mentioned earlier where Mal is actually the abductor. Just as he and Tara are approaching the hideout where Claire is being held, a flashback could reveal the moment when Mal discovered that she was not actually his daughter.

This provides a shock for the reader and added mystery and tension going forward – is Mal still genuine in his desire to save Claire or is he the person behind the abduction? The reader also develops extra empathy and concern for Tara – she is unaware that the person she trusts most in the world could actually be the one who means harm to her and her daughter.

To use a different approach, we could delay the use of the flashback until after Mal and Tara have entered the hideaway. Tara finds Claire tied up in a cellar and, crying with relief, begins to cut her bonds – only to turn and see Mal holding a gun at her.

This would provide a shock twist but the tension could be diluted if we then go into a lengthy monologue from Mal about how he discovered the truth about Claire and plotted his revenge.

A flashback could provide the same information more concise and dramatically as well as offering a more powerful insight into the devastating effect it had upon him.

Just a single side of A4 paper. That’s all it was. The result of three years of suspicion, called-in favours, bribery and blackmail to get his hands on the personnel report that changed everything. The one that detailed his wife’s infidelity with a colleague and the daughter that resulted. Just a single side of A4. That’s all it was.

As with any surprise twist in a novel it would be important to drop subtle hints about Tara’s affair earlier in the book to make the revelation credible to the reader.

In our example with Mal and Tara this could be in the form of other flashbacks which detail the deterioration in their relationship, treading a fine line of foreshadowing the twist without giving it away.

 

What are the advantages of using flashbacks in novels?

The advantages of using flashbacks, then, include the following:

  • Increased tension and uncertainty as crucial pieces of the backstory are released slowly by a series of flashbacks

  • Greater engagement with the reader as they form theories as to what is going on – and eagerly await the next flashback

  • Flashbacks can avoid the need for clunky disposition in which characters explain the plot at great length or tell each other things they already know for the benefit of the reader. Instead the information is provided in a more dramatic form.

 

Conclusion: Flashforwards and flashbacks in novels

Variety is the spice of life and flashforwards and flashbacks – as alternatives to the standard linear way of telling a story – can add a new dimension to a novel that will help draw in readers.

Such literary devices should not just be used for the sake of doing something a bit different, however, but as part of a well-planned strategy to add mystery, suspense and intrigue to your novel and so engage readers with the world you have created.    

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