"A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings but a cat does not." -Ernest Hemingway

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

From Seconds to Eternity: Time and Space in Fictional Writing - Part II

“For us physicists believe the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one.” - Albert Einstein

In Part One, we explored two methods used for capturing time and space in fictional writing.  In short, we discovered summary deals with a long period of time in a short distance and scene is key to readers experiencing the elements of your character’s lives through the five senses.

Originally, in Part II we were going to discover two more methods for transporting readers through time; however, due to the length needed for each method I felt it necessary to break each one out into its own post.  After all, time is crucial to any writer.

The third method used in fictional writing time travel is flashback.  Although a successful technique used in film, if used appropriately and sparingly, it too can be just as magical and powerful in fictional writing.

Let’s explore:

When used properly, flashback can be more effective in transporting a reader into the past than film or stage can an audience.  How?  Because writing encompasses all the five senses, not just sight and sound, thus allowing a reader’s mind to live the experience as if they too were traveling back in time.  However, when used improperly flashback can be intrusive or even down right annoying to the reader.
So when and how should a flashback be used to strengthen a story?  Here are four quick questions to keep in mind when you feel a flashback is necessary:
  1. Could I obtain the same result using dialogue?
  2. Would a brief summary fill in the missing information?
  3. Is there a reference that could be made instead?
  4. What about using a certain detail to reveal the information?
If you can answer yes to any of these questions, then a flashback may not necessarily be your best option.  But, if the answer is no, then ask yourself if using a flashback would contribute to the revelation of character and theme.  If yes, it’s clear a flashback would be an effective method in revealing information at the right time.

It’s important to keep in mind when using flashback to provide some kind of transition.  A connection between the present and what happened in the past will often not only transport the character into the past, but the reader as well.
Listed below are some helpful do’s and don’ts when using flashback.
Don’t use straight out transitions such as, “Larry thought back to when” or “My mind drifted back to when I was little.”  It’s always best to assume the reader is intelligent enough to follow a leap back in time.    
When writing in the past tense, do begin the flashback in the past perfect and use the construction “had” several times.  Then by switching to the simple past; the reader will be with your character in the past!  If writing in the present tense, it's best to keep the flashback in the past.
Don’t have a flashback within a flashback.  Way too confusing to any reader and it may be a good sign you are attempting to use flashback to carry too much of your story.
Do be clear when ending the flashback and catching up to the present.  A technique good for making the smooth transition is to use either an image, a sound, a smell or an action that the reader will remember from the time period the character is now living in.   
In Part III, we will explore our last method for transporting our readers through time, slow motion.
Until next time,
Keep on thriving, keep on striving and keep on writing!

T.K. Millin


  1. Good stuff, T.K.! Thanks for the information. I don't find myself using flashbacks in my writing, probably because when I was first learning the writing craft my mentors and critique partners frowned on scenes utilizing them. I think flashbacks have their place, and you've done a nice job explaining how to use them.

  2. I never like to use too much flashback all at once: a snippet here, a snippet there. Just as description can be over-used, so can flashbacks. Everything in good measure.

    Great post, my friend!