Limit Flashbacks in Narrative Nonfiction

The use of flashbacks in narrative nonfiction is similar to flashbacks in fiction.

Flashbacks are used only when necessary and are engaging.

A flashback is a dramatized scene that looks back to a time before the story started. Now here’s the thing — if your readers need to know the information in the flashback, why don’t you just put it in chronological order?

There are plenty of reasons not to. You may want to start at a crisis point, backtrack to how you got there, then pick up the story again and move forward.

© creative soul •
© creative soul •

Or let’s say you’re writing a memoir about a difficult time in your adult life. You might not want to start with your birth and work chronologically through your whole life up to the point the crisis hit, as you would if you were writing a comprehensive autobiography. You might just want to start with the first incident in your adult life that’s relevant to your theme, and then focus on how you dealt with it, sharing just a few flashbacks to your childhood to show formative events.

That would be a good plan.

The key is in sharing a few flashbacks. Too much bouncing back and forth from one period to another can disorient the reader. It’s a technique novelists and literary nonfiction writers have used successfully, so I won’t remove it from your toolbox, but always consider whether it’s the best tool for the job.

Presenting your story chronologically as much as possible will help avoid reader confusion. David McCullough uses a pretty straightforward chronological approach in John Adams. It’s a solid way to organize a complex story.

Exceptions may be made for works that are arranged thematically rather than chronologically. For example, in What Lincoln Believed, Michael Lind uses a mostly chronological structure, but his chapters are also thematic, so he groups concepts accordingly. Near the end of Chapter 5, “Lincoln and the Union,” he quotes from Lincoln’s second inaugural address, delivered on March 4,1865, and then at the beginning of Chapter 6, “Race and Restoration,” backtracks to an April 12, 1861, visit to the White House by Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, who urged Lincoln to emancipate the slaves. Lind includes the dates at the beginning of paragraphs so there is never any confusion about the timeline.

The key to using flashbacks is ensuring the readers always know where and when they are.

If you haven’t already, get the Elements of Nonfiction Editing Checklist

Seen a great example of narrative nonfiction that uses nonlinear storytelling? I’d love to hear about it.

Disclosure of Material Connection: The Amazon link above is an affiliate link. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive a pittance of a commission from Amazon. Regardless, I only recommend books I believe will be of value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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  1. Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, a bestseller turned into a movie, is full of flashbacks, all woven in expertly. The fact that she does that is one reason that Wild is such a great book. I’m soooooo glad she didn’t choose to tell the her story chronologically. I think you’re being way too prescriptive. The amount of flashbacks doesn’t matter. What matters is how they are woven in. Flashbacks are one tool in the writer’s toolbox, not inherently good or bad.

    1. I think I said that about the toolbox. I don’t make rules. I give advice.

      Nonlinear storytelling is an expert technique, and most of my readers are new writers. It’s an interesting technique, but since I read more amateur manuscripts than expert ones, most of the times I’ve see it, it’s been used inappropriately.

      Thanks for recommending Wild. I will check it out!

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