After reading up on flashbacks, both on this site and others, I learned that flashbacks should be used sparingly since most readers enjoy a story from A to Z. I feel very strongly about having a form of a flashback, but can't decide which would be more appropriate. I want to hook the reader by displaying the danger and darkness of my world, but I don't feel that's possible starting off with a relatively safe adolescent child.

  1. Full Flashback - My protagonist starts off during some event and something triggers the story to flash back to when her drama began (a number of years earlier).
  2. Framing the story - My protagonist starts off during some event, reflecting in how she got into this situation, and the story starts many years prior.

The problem I feel I will have is that the flashback/framing point is during the middle of my story, lets say point "M".

I could use the first method, flashback to reveal the beginning of the drama, point "A", then back to M, then from N to B,C,D and back to N. You can see how I might end up with too many jumps and turn off the reader.

The second method would be more linear, starting at M to frame her current, dark situation, jump to A. I would then tell the story linearly until point M, then continue on to point Z.

Which method would work better?

EDIT: Examples given to better express my thoughts.

Example 1: For the first method, the story would start with the character in the middle of some mess (call it conflict A). She would have a full flash back that would take her years into the past and give the read her origin, background, introduce her and other characters, but not show how she got into conflict A. The story would then come back to the present, and the plot would continue, she would go about resolving her current mess, with the reader understand a lot more about her motivation and abilities.

At some point later, she would have another full flashback, explaining more details, maybe introducing the antagonist and leading up to conflict A. Coming back to the present once more, she resolves the conflict/defeats the antagonist.

Four time jumps, roughly equal in time (years).

Example 2: Character is in conflict A and goes through a chapter's worth of plot. Story flashes back several years before conflict A, origin is explained, characters are introduced, etc. Story progresses normally until character enters conflict A. The story skips the already covered story from chapter 1, continues on as the character resolves the conflict/defeats the antagonist.

Two time jumps, one years in the past and one a couple hours into the future

  • It is unclear whether your flashback example has three jumps or four. However, I would venture that your biggest concern is the length between jumps. Maybe your question is, then, not whether they will be confused by the jumps, but by the timelining. Please edit the penultimate paragraph so that I can give you a helpful answer. :-) Jun 6, 2018 at 1:51
  • @can-ned_food I've added some examples of what I mean. Since posting the question, I've flushed out more of my plot, so it's great to come back and update the question with more details. Thanks for your comment.
    – curt1893
    Jun 6, 2018 at 12:22

3 Answers 3


"I want to hook the reader by displaying the danger and darkness of my world"

This is a very common idea about how to engage the reader, but it has a fundamental flaw: Darkness and danger are not interesting unless they happen to someone we care about.

Look at most successful novels and you will see that they do not work this way. Picking HP and LOTR as examples (because they seem to be the thing we can guarantee everyone here has read: how far do you have to get into HP before you even hear the name Voldemort? How far do you get into LOTR before we find out what the ring is and what needs to be done about it?

The answer in both cases is, quite a way. So what is happening for all those page before we get to these points in these books? We are getting to know the main characters and to understand the desires that will shape their quests once they begin them in earnest, and the character that will govern how they pursue those desires.

This is the proper beginning of any story. A story is the story of someone, some person with a particular character and particular desires. The story begins by establishing who they are. Good stories do it thorough incident, but it is not the central drama of the story.

Good writers have to learn to do this stuff and do it well. They have to have the skill of creating the defining incidents as well as the inciting incident and the climactic incident. Writers who are not confident in their skills may not feel they are up to this part of the story process, and want to skip ahead to the "good bits". But the truth is that there cannot be any "good bits" until the characters are well established. It is our engagement with the characters that makes the good bits good.

If we should not be using flashbacks for this purpose, when should we use them? I'm going to suggest a principle, but I can't say that is based on exhaustive study or thought, so there may be ample grounds to modify or refute it, be here goes. I propose that the proper starting point of a story is the establishing of the desire that drives that characters. ("It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.") But it is possible that there may be events prior to the birth of desire that will shape the later development of the story. If that is so, a flashback, or a frame, seems like an appropriate mechanism to use to supply those details when needed. But using a flashback to jump back from the climax to the establishment of desire should never be necessary and will usually be unwise.

  • Mark, I appreciate your comments. I feel like I might be misrepresenting my idea. I wasn't planning on writing 20 pages of darkness/danger/fear, but rather one or two. After thinking about this more, I start to wonder if a page or two is worth possibly confusing the reader.
    – curt1893
    May 2, 2017 at 11:57
  • @curt1893 I don't think it makes much difference if it is 2 pages or 20. The reader makes their go/no go decision in the first couple of pages anyway. And we have seen darkness/danger/fear so often that we are not moved by them at all unless we care about the person facing them. When you see a story about a car crash on the evening news, does your heart leap into your throat? No. What if the pictures show a car that looks just like your friend's car? Then your heart leaps into your throat. You have to lead with caring about the person involved.
    – user16226
    May 2, 2017 at 12:09

Two Things To Focus On

There are two things that come to play here:

  1. In Media Res : In the middle of the action
  2. What Is Your Actual Story?

In Media Res

As I'm sure you know, In Media Res is the idea that to draw the reader in you must start right in the middle of the action.

Readers don't want to sit through 50 pages of backstory to get to the story. That leads us directly to the 2nd -- and most important point -- the summary of your story.

What Is Your Story?

If you flashing back to show why the world is so dark, it is likely the reader doesn't really care until later anyways. Really consider your story at hand and tell that story.

Darth Vader Is A Great Example

When Star Wars : A New Hope was originally released Darth Vader showed up on the screen within the first 15 minutes of the movie (I think less actually. Viewers did not know his name, his purpose, his backstory, nothing. And we didn't care. We knew he was the bad guy (he was scary looking and dressed in all black).

We did care about the story though. We wanted to know what his part in the story we were watching would be. But we absolutely didn't care about his back-story.

Only later, after 20-odd years did they make a movie about his back-story.

Tell Your Story As It Happens

I suggest you put the character in the middle of the trouble and start telling the story that the character is going through right now.

If there is plot point that needs back-story then explain it at that moment. Here's a melodramatic example:

Alvin paused and stared down at the lever. This lever would turn the lights back on. After 10 years of the overlords forcing darkness upon the world, flipping this one lever would change it all. It would liberate the people!

Back-Story Can Be Like Grandpa Talking About Good Old Days

The back-story can occur along the way of the main story. A salient point might even be to consider how often a story becomes boring and how disinterested readers become when an author descends into detailed back-story.

"Back in the day when the overlords forced us into darkness, we had to walk five miles in the snow..." Yes, yes, grandpa.


  • 1
    I.e. save the flashback for a so–called prequel, or even a satellite story. Jun 7, 2018 at 4:23
  • 1
    @can-ned_food I agree 100%. If an author is writing more flashback than story then maybe the flashback is the story the author wants to tell.
    – raddevus
    Jun 7, 2018 at 12:54

I never use flashback, I always use a frame, so obviously I think that works better.

There are several ways to use a frame; as a report to a superior, a story to a friend or lover, explaining something to a new acquaintance, business or work partner, or lover, even a letter or briefing: Your MC reads a letter, or attends a briefing, that informs them of a situation they must address. In Star Wars, the hologram of Princess Leia is one such framing:

General Kenobi. Years ago, you served my father in the Clone Wars. Now he begs you to help him in his struggle against the Empire. I regret that I am unable to present my father's request to you in person, but my ship has fallen under attack and I'm afraid my mission to bring you to Alderaan has failed. I have placed information vital to the survival of the Rebellion into the memory systems of this R2 unit. My father will know how to retrieve it. You must see this droid safely delivered to him on Alderaan. This is our most desperate hour. Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You're my only hope.
Star Wars; 1977, George Lucas.

Such things can be used to increase intimacy (bring people closer together), or even cause a rift (drive them apart). In this case, this new knowledge causes Luke to refuse this call to action, to Obi-Wan's chagrin. (Obviously not for long).

That Said, +1 Mark:

Darkness and danger are not interesting unless they happen to someone we care about.

All of my stories open with the main character doing relatively unimportant things and dealing with a relatively unimportant issue, as my route to introducing the reader to the MC, who has a problem (so there will be some conflict to sustain reader interest) but in a non-life threatening situation: Their status quo world. That is how I get them into the story, not with a flash-bang, which I found always falls flat. You can do that pretty quick, just not (for a novel or movie with all new characters) in the first 5% of the story; typically not in the first 10%.

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