Callback or Flashback?

How Nancy Kress Uses Callbacks to Reuse Narrative Context

by Jack Windeyer
science fiction painting
Image copyright Peter Elson

When you need to make a reference to an event that occurred earlier in your narrative, the first tool you may think to use is a flashback. But what if you don’t want to break the flow of the narrative by jumping back in time. What if, instead, you want to use the reference to evoke a remembrance in the reader? Not to mention the fact that flashbacks can be tricky to pull off.

Consider the literary callback. It can create a deep sense of interconnectedness within disparate parts of your story. Successful writers often use callbacks to re-evoke emotions or imagery from an earlier part of the text. You can think of it as a kind of shorthand; if the source of the callback is strong enough, you only need to mention it briefly to reuse the source’s context in your current scene.

Nancy Kress writes a stunning series of callbacks in her novel Beggars in Spain. Let’s trace that series from source to final reference.

The source of the callback occurs early in the first chapter when a man named Roger Camden and his pregnant wife are discussing the possibility of genetically altering their child with their doctor, Susan. At this point in the conversation, Camden is frustrated by his wife’s reluctance to go through with the procedure.

Camden took out a cigarette. The archaic, filthy habit surprised Susan. Then she saw that it was deliberate: Roger Camden was drawing attention to an ostentatious display to draw attention away from what he was feeling. His cigarette lighter was gold, monogrammed, innocently gaudy.

At this point, the reader has no idea how important this detail about the cigarette will become. But notice how Kress emphasizes it by layering on adjectives, making it more likely that the reader will remember this tidbit later on. We also learn something about Camden: he smokes when he can’t deal with his emotions.

The first callback occurs only a few pages later, which is another good way to ensure the reader remembers the source of the callback.

“Let me be concise and fast,” Susan said, “I don’t want to make this any more drawn-out for you than I have to. We have all the amniocentesis, ultrasound, and Langston test results. The fetus is fine, developing normally for two weeks, no problems with the implant on the uterine wall. But a complication has developed.”

“What?” Camden said. He took out a cigarette, looked at his wife, and put it back unlit.

Susan said quietly, “Mrs. Camden, by sheer chance both your ovaries released eggs last month. We removed one for the gene surgery. By more sheer chance the second was fertilized and implanted. You’re carrying two fetuses.”

Elizabeth Camden grew still. “Twins?”

“No,” Susan said. Then she realized what she had said. “I mean, yes. They’re twins, but nonidentical. Only one has been genetically altered. The other will be no more similar to her than any two siblings. It’s a so-called normal baby. And I know you didn’t want a so-called normal baby.”

Camden said, “No. I didn’t.”

Elizabeth Camden said, “I did.”

Camden shot her a fierce look that Susan couldn’t read. He took out the cigarette again, and lit it. His face was in profile to Susan, and he was thinking intently; she doubted he knew the cigarette was there, or that he was lighting it.

So, what makes this callback successful? Two things.

First, the same people are involved. Susan, Camden and his wife are meeting again to discuss the pregnancy. Furthermore, the chapters in this story are from different points of view, but this one shares a point of view (Susan’s) with the source. Consistency is key for this first callback.

Second, it doubles down on what we learned before: Camden smoked when he is overwhelmed. We also learn that it is an automatic response– something he may not even realize he’s doing.

Now that the reader has recognized the first one, future callbacks can be shorter and appear much later in the book. Take this next callback as an example, which is from the point of view of Camden’s daughter, Leisha:

Camden waited up for her, although it was past midnight. He had been smoking heavily. Through the blue air he said quietly, “Did you have a good time, Leisha?”


“I’m glad,” he said, and put out his last cigarette, and climbed the stairs—slowly, stiffly, he was nearly seventy now—to bed.

Notice the variation here: Camden is still involved, but Susan isn’t. Instead, Leisha is noticing the smoke. She may not know what his smoking means, but the reader does. Without the mention of the cigarette, a reader may believe there is nothing besides fatherly concern behind his words, but the callback adds a note of tension: Camden is upset.

The final callback appears near the end of the story when Camden has passed away. It, too, is from Leisha’s point of view:

Leisha had a funny thought: I wish I smoked. She remembered her father smoking, reaching for his monogrammed gold cigarette case, making a ritual out of lighting a cigarette. His eyes would half-close and his cheeks would hollow with the first long inward drag. Roger always said it relaxed him. Even then Leisha had known he was lying: It revitalized him.

Here’s a new variation: both Susan and Leisha notice Camden’s smoking, but each of them interprets it in a different way. For me, this complication made the series of callbacks emotionally resonant. It caused me to ask myself: which do I think is Roger’s reason for smoking? To mask his emotions or to revitalize himself?

I hope that now you see the power of callbacks and how you might use them in your own writing, but a word of caution: callbacks are like exclamation points in that each series of callbacks introduced in a story weakens the rest of them. That is to say, use them sparingly.