Writers’ Questions: Should I Open with an Extended Flashback?

This question is about jumping into a flashback in the opening of your novel.


What’s your guys opinion on a beginning that starts with a cold open, then flashes back to what led to it—Breaking Bad episode one for example: starts with Walt diving the RV violently through the desert with two (presumed) dead bodies sloshing around in chemicals behind him. Crashes the RV in a ditch, gets out in his undies, points a gun toward the approaching sirens, and then boom were taken back to his normal life, cancer diagnosis, and ride along to a meth lab bust which gives him his bright idea, etc., etc., until we lead right back into the opening scene. Works well for tv, movies too, but generally do you find that to be attractive when reading?

Or would it be more plausible to hook the reader, then just keep the story rolling, sprinkling in backstory over the course of the narrative?

Like I said, just a general question. I’ll end up going with whatever I personally enjoy reading/writing the most and what I feel works best for the story but I was just curious about your thoughts on it 🙂 thanks!

 I bring it up originally because I reread Live By Night by Dennis Lehane, and he opens on a scene that happens like 10 years after the story unfolds. Only touches on it for a paragraph. Thought it was an interesting take on getting us into the story—linked the pic of the first page below.

Dennis Lehane jumps quickly into a flashback to explain how his main character, Joe Coughlin, ended up in a tubboat with his feet in cement about to be thrown overboard.
The opening of Dennis Lehane’s novel, Live by Night (2012).


A few thoughts.

  1. It is good that you distinguish between writing for visual media, i.e,, TV and movies, from writing novels or short stories. Some things work better for one media than others.
  2. From what I’ve seen, most bestsellers take the second approach: Hook the reader, keep the story moving, and sprinkle in backstory at opportune moments. Jumping almost immediately into an extended flashback happens more in literary fiction. Commercial fiction is much easier to get published than literary fiction, especially for a new author.
  3. If you really have your heart set on flashing back, make sure you have a clear transition between the story opening and the flashback. In the example you give, Lehane did this well with the last sentence of the first paragraph, and the first sentence of the second paragraph.

One more thing to consider. I took a course on writing memoirs. In one of my assignments, I used the same technique. I started with a phone call from a former crush who told me she was getting married, flashed back to when I knew her, my love was unrequited, and she moved away, then back to the phone call and going to her wedding. My teacher told me it made the story interesting in a way. But by saying at the beginning that she was marrying someone else, it took away the suspense the reader would have felt in wondering, “Will he win her heart or not?” I had never thought of that.

Try to understand what you will gain or lose with either choice.

That post came from a FB group called Fiction Writing. This was my answer. If you want to see the original post and other answers, here is the link. You will probably have to join the group if you haven’t already. https://www.facebook.com/photo?fbid=1628589800828232&set=gm.2377342689075120

What do you think? Do you like it when novels jump into a flashback after a brief introduction? Is it something that works better on TV than in books? Have you read anything published in the last three or four years that has an opening like Lehane’s above?

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