Do Flashbacks Change Reader Expectations? (Lost Mission Giveaway)

I was reading Lost Mission by Athol Dickenson and noticed a curious thing in the narrative structure. One of the storylines focuses on Lupe, a small town shopkeeper in Mexico who feels called by God to preach in America. She shares her thoughts with her priest, who upon hearing her, takes her to see the retablo, a miraculous alterpiece said to date back to the early conquistadors.

Lupe made no move.
The priest's voice came from the shadows. "Come with me, daughter. Have no fear."
"But Padre--"
"Lupe, do you have faith in our Lord?"
"Yes, Padre, I do."
"Then come."
And thus commanded, Lupe bowed her head and entered.

The scene ends here. The next time we see Lupe, she is already on her way to America. It's only after she loses her way that we finally flash back to the scene where the priest takes her to the alterpiece. When Lupe first sees it, it looks like a normal painting of the crucifixion. But ...

"You must look more carefully.  Draw closer, daughter."
Then Lupe saw the mourners and the Virgin... and she thought it could not be, and yet...
Lupe collapsed.. . .
Kneeling she stared at the altarpiece and trembled.
"Do not fear it, Lupe," said Padre Hinojosa, bending down beside her with a grunt, for he was not young. "It was ordained in love more than two centuries ago.
"But it is blasphemy!"
"Blasphemy? No, daughter. Not that."

After more arguing, the priest convinces Lupe that the altarpiece is indeed from God, and he gives it to her to take to America.

It's very rare for a writer to skip forward in a narrative and continue the the story later in flashback. I'm guessing Dickson had several reasons for doing this.

For one thing, marking a passage this way sets it apart as a crucial point in the story. I remember  when a critique buddy submitted a scene with the same structure: buildup to climax -> jump cut -> reveal climax as flashback. In that case, the content of the flashback was a side plot, and not important to the core of the story. Narrating it this way felt too dramatic for the material, and all the group members independently suggested that the writer to narrate it more straightforwardly.

So Dickson uses the flashback to mark the scene as important -- which it certainly is. The altarpiece serves as a touchstone for the entire novel. But I think there's something else going on here too. In the flashback, we learn that the altarpiece is miraculous, but we don't know why. Lupe clearly reacts to something, but we never see what it is. We don't find that out until the big reveal towards the end.

Now if Dickson had narrated the whole thing straight without telling what Lupe saw, it would have seemed dishonest. There's something about a flashback that allows the writer more freedom to pick and choose information. We know that the narrator is hiding something, but it's less strange for him to do so in a flashback.

What do you guys think? Is there something about flashbacks (and perhaps other modes of narrativing -- prologues? epilogues?), that changes reader expectations?

Also, I received Lost Mission as a free review copy from the publisher and I will now pass it on to someone else who'd like to read it. If you'd like me to send you the book, retweet this post and paste the link to the tweet in the comments. I'll draw a name on Wednesday morning, June 30th.


  1. INTERESTING book!

  2. Koontz used this technique in one of his novels. I forget which one it was, but there was a man who kept flashing back throughout the novel to a single scene about his father abducting and Koontzing young girls out in the barn.

    The flashbacks came to the reader/MC as a series of consecutive dreams, italicized, and broken into about ten different dreams by a few chapters of real-time action.

    It was agonizing. There was NO reason not to reveal the entire dream in the beginning, or at some point of the story as a complete scene.

    After the second flashback, I flipped through the rest of the book, looking for his flashback-dreams (italicized, thank God!), read them all as he wrote them -- in order, all at once, not broken and fractured -- and then went back to where I left off and finished the book.

    It read just fine.

    I considered it an unnecessary gimmick. The story was suspenseful enough without the author saying, "And later, we have a murder and suicide, but first!"

    Too morning DJ and evening news for me.

    I suspect this was an experiment on his part. The result: Don't do it!

    - Eric

  3. Well said, good lady. I agree that you can play with structure in this way, but it has to be for the important things--things you want to set apart in the reader's memory. Also, rearranging like this deepens the mystery. The reader is wondering the whole time up till that flashback what the deal was with the altarpiece. It's an elegant little bit of structure, no?

  4. I think the whole point of flashbacks is to change reader expectations (though they are often used to shoehorn background into the story). Narrative is by its nature a time-reliant method of arranging events, so any departure from a chronological timeline is done to shift a reader's expectations.

    Put another way: since narrative is a sort of list of cause and event, readers quickly learn to expect the next event. To change their expectations, you break the time sequence. In Lost Mission it sounds like the author used flashback to show that sometimes the cause of an event might be much further in the past, or much more powerful, than anyone expected.

  5. There's a Hitchcock movie from the 1940s with a fake flashback in it: the character (Marlene Dietrich) tells a story via flashback but it turns out later she's lying. Needless, to say, it's very confusing, particularly in a movie, when the viewer tends to expect that what they "see" must be what really happened. An interesting idea, though...

  6. I've never tried writing a flashback in this way. It's an intriguing idea and you're right - it would really make the moment stand out.

  7. Interesting concept. I haven't noticed any books that I've read using flashbacks in that way. Seems a bit odd in theory to have a climax be seen as a flashback. Maybe it's just me, I don't know. If it's a side potion of the plot, I could handle that. The big plot overall not as much. I'll ponder the idea some more.

    You have a blog award over at my blog.

  8. Dawn -- I think it'd be kind of weird to have the primary climax of the book done as flashback -- and I've never seen that done. Most of the scenes I've seen like this are for mini-climaxes at the beginning or middle of the book.

  9. I think there's a risk that the reader will amplify the mystery, and the reveal will be an anticlimax... I haven't read the book, but my mind is going to sexual blasphemy.

    Of course, that may be more an issue of the plot than the technique. For instance - the Da Vinci Code. Gripping story, but the big reveal at the end was a big Huh? So what?