Why Backstory Is Better Than Flashback

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Why Backstory is Better Than Flashback Image 1If you’ve heard that the good ol’ fashioned flashback has fallen into disfavor with today’s reader, you’re probably wondering what to do about it.

Apparently our readers have the attention spans of gnats and won’t sit still for a sudden stop in the story so we can show how our character got where she is today.

Used to be you could invent something to remind her of her childhood or her relationship with her father or the first time she fell in love. Then you’d have her begin daydreaming and remember everything about some poignant incident from years past.

Well, I agree that got to be a clichè—and was always followed by someone somehow jarring her back to the present.

Regardless, resigned to writing for people who get most of their information from screens, I’ve had to get up to date. And so do you.

Tell Your Story in Order

Gone is the luxury of taking the character (and the reader) back and laying out the significant scene the way it happened. No, readers want to read chronologically, and they don’t want the present story to come to a halt for a flashback.

But we can’t ignore the past! No one has thrown character motivation out with the bathwater, and let’s face it: our characters are who they are and do what they do because of who they once were and what happened to them then.

So what do we do?

Good news! You don’t have to explicitly flash back to deal with your character’s past—you can do it in a way that doesn’t detract from the flow of your story.

The answer? Backstory is all the rage now, and I have to admit it’s better. It doesn’t slow the story, doesn’t force you and me to artificially create for our heroes a block of time so they can relive in their minds some powerful moment from their past.

What is Backstory?

Don’t mistake it for an abbreviated form of flashback. It’s more than that, and it can really make your fiction sing.

In its simplest form, backstory is everything that’s happened to your character before your novel opens. In essence you’re writing backstory when you identify a middle-aged man as “General so-and-so,” or a young woman as “Dr. so-and-so.”

Readers know such people weren’t born with those titles and the roles they imply, so immediately they realize these characters have pasts—and they can even start imagining what they were like.

Does your character have a scar? That implies backstory.

A limp? It will emerge whether it was congenital or the result of an injury or disease, but regardless, that’s backstory.

How to Best Use Backstory

Backflashes are obvious. They scream, “We’re headed into the past!”

But backstory sneaks up on you. The point of using it over a flashback is to fix the break in the flow of your story.

I’ve found the best way to manage this is through dialogue.

Example:

At an amusement park:

“You’re not getting me on that ride, Madison,” Suzie said, “Don’t even—”

“Oh, yeah. Sorry. Still having those dreams?”

Suzie looked away. “Not so much anymore, but once in a while.”

“You’d think after all these years…”

“I’d still rather not talk about it, okay?”

“Sure, sorry.”

See all we’ve learned from that otherwise innocuous exchange? Something years ago still causes nightmares. Naturally, we’ll eventually have to pay off on that set-up, but that’s what keeps readers turning pages.

Whatever the trauma was, you can hint at it like this more and more throughout the story, revealing more each time. Eventually something or someone from her past will show up and force the issue—and the whole story will come out.

But you see the difference? It’ll be onstage now, be recounted and explained now. Sure, it happened years ago, but it emerges as part of the current story.

That’s subtly using backstory without resorting to flashback.

One More…

One of the best uses of backstory I’ve seen is from the 2016 movie The Magnificent Seven.

Denzel Washington stars as Sam Chisolm, a bounty hunter and leader of the seven. Ethan Hawke plays Goodnight Robicheaux, a sharpshooter.

They’re strategizing to protect a town and avenge a woman who saw her husband shot to death. Robicheaux nods toward the woman and says to Chisolm, “She’d be about the same age as your sister, wouldn’t she?”

“Uh-huh.”

Robicheaux says, “Just want to make sure we’re fighting the battle in front of us instead of the battle behind us.”

That’s it. That’s the backstory. We don’t know what it means, but we know we’re going to find out. They’re not going to set up something like that and not tell us what happened. We’re going to find out that our hero, Sam Chisolm, was once a victim.

Is he really out to protect somebody out of a sense of honor, or is he out for personal revenge? That’s the perfect example.

Tell me in the comments below how you’ll use backstory in your work in progress. And feel free to share a favorite example of backstory you’ve heard or read.

  • THIS is the type of instruction I’ve craved for so many years. The perfect example of one of those invisible threads that make writing fiction so mysterious and unattainable. Thanks so much.

    A great example of this I’ve read recently is in The Daughter of Zion by Brock and Bodie Thoene. (The whole body of their work is constant backstory revealed, which is one reason I’m so addicted.) In this scene, Ehud Schiff, a minor character, is holding a baby and remembers his own children. Since he’s a holocaust survivor, you wonder about their story as he thinks, “Imagine a world where Jewish children are welcomed.”

    Can’t wait to employ this technique! God bless! :)

    • Thanks so much, Rebekah. I hope there’s more and more you find helpful.

  • Peter Friesen

    This is very timely advice for me. I’m going to correct the flashback I wrote into my novel. I never liked it, and now I know why, and what to do about it. Thanks. Blessings to you.

  • Big Shirl

    For decades people have told me that I’m the best (secretary / admin) but I could never truly accept compliments or strive for anything greater than what I was. But I never knew what was holding me back until I did “tapping” and my story started to unfold. I was spanked (about age 4-5) because I found a nickel, bought a box of Good and Plenty at the corner store, ate it in front of my Mom, then got the spanking of my life. “Wait until your father gets home!” I froze and couldn’t tell my parents I found a nickel as I crawled behind the couch. Bottom line: I would be punished if I have money. I’m calling my book FROZEN EMOTIONS, and why it took 60 years to finally melt. Thanks for this simple illustration of the Backstory, because I have another one (second grade teacher) that had just as big a hold on me as this one.

  • Jamie Jenkins

    I put in a flashback in the first chapter of my current novel-in-progress, and after I did, I realized right away that it just didn’t work the way I planned. In fact, it really made the chapter stink! I’m glad to read this post because now I know how to fix my first chapter. I will be revealing the back story gradually instead of using the flashback. I’m also glad to hear of a rough draft being like a huge chunk of meat waiting to be carved. I can’t believe how bad my writing is at this stage. But I’m glad to hear that all writers start out the same way. Thanks for this post!

  • Keith Heron

    Backstory technique is quick and a mysterious play on our thoughts. It can keep our readers engaged and interested in our stories. Thank you for bringing it to our attention.

  • Rick Mapson

    From Seeing Clearly – A View from Heaven
    Matthew turned on the coffee maker as he passed back through the kitchen and picked up a writing pad off the small table by the phone. Sitting down at the kitchen table, he looked back through the annals of time to when he and Jane first met and smiled. This will surprise her; it’s been a long time.
    He stared into the den for a minute, then started to write the first thing that came into his head. Roses are red. He closed his eyes for a long moment and shook his head. No, not roses. . . not ever again. Why… why did something like that have to pop into your head, today of all days?
    He felt all emotion drain from his face, giving him a cold, mannequin-like feeling. He glanced at the calendar that hung next to the phone. October 20th was only three days away. In three days it will be twenty-five years.

    Years ago I met Curtis Lundgren at Sandy Cove Writers Conference. He was one of the first to review Seeing Clearly. He gave great encouragement to this aspiring author.

    • Rick, that’s good use of backstory.

      I know Curtis. It’s been years since I’ve seen him, but he’s a good guy.

      Resist the urge to recount every detail of Matthew’s sitting to write. Turning on the coffee maker can work because it implies where he is and what time of day, etc., but you can skip passing through the kitchen, picking up a writing pad, sitting down (where else would he sit but down? :)), etc. Skip the on-the-nose stuff (mirroring real life but not getting to the good stuff) and you’ll get to your point quicker. http://bit.ly/1boPgVI

      So maybe something like:

      Matthew turned on the coffee maker before sitting to write about when he and Jane first met. He smiled. This would surprise her; it’d been a long time.

      Roses are red. He closed his eyes and shook his head. No, not roses–not ever again.

      Emotion drained from him, leaving him cold. In three days it would be twenty-five years.

  • I had been contemplating using first person flash backs to add some truth to an unreliable narrator in my novel-in-progress but actually after reading this and getting feedback from a lecturer, I think I need to use back story instead, it will add more suspense to my thriller.

  • Kitty Trock

    What about the back story that is written before the first chapter? I’ve seen books that begin that way. Is it merely to set the tone of the book or to acquaint the reader with the back story and then move forward? What do you think? Kitty

    • Yes, that’s a thing, as they say. But because the narrative begins there, it reads like the present, and then the first chapter, in essence, flashes forward.

      Something I (and a few others) prefer is not labeling this prefatory copy as Prologue or Introduction or anything at all. Research shows that a certain percentage of readers skip such labeled stuff and thus miss important information, jumping right into chapter one. If you don’t label it, they’re more likely to misinterpret it as chapter one, and then when they come upon the real chapter one, they’re pleasantly surprised. Or, as my agent puts it, “That my hallucination, anyway.”

  • This is great! I think the new show West World is a perfect example of non-stop back story.

    • I haven’t seen it, Jesse, but I have heard that too. I’ll have to check it out.

  • Oh wow! This article is exactly what I needed to hear to change part of my novel that I’m working on. The flashback was quite working for me. I couldn’t explain why. But to know how to feed it into the current story through dialogue is gold. Thank you, Jerry.

  • Cathy

    GREAT article! I posted your link all over the place.

    • Thanks so much, Cathy! Appreciate that.

      • Cathy

        You’re so welcome. It seems like backstory serves a dual purpose, mixing foreshadowing and flashback. It refers to something that happened in the past but creates an energy that pushes the story forward. Love it.

  • Carolyn Warren

    Literary novelist Elizabeth Berg is a master at backstory if anyone wants another example. (Open House is a favorite.)

  • Joshua Light

    Jerry, I have a case where a character has recently received a letter of reprimand from someone about an explosive high-conflict lecture he gave one month prior – but both the lecture and the letter are well-into the story’s timeline, so it’s not really about anything before the story itself began. When I first laid-out the lecture in-line this really dragged-down the action. It seemed that by having him “relive” the lecture’s electricity while standing somewhere else, allowed me to cherry-pick the lecture’s parts into the scene without the same loss of momentum. The lecture itself is a framework to give the reader information about apologetic subjects somewhat unrelated to the storyline, so plant seeds in the readers mind that will transcend the reading of the book. It’s a very difficult balance. How would you suggest playing this out?

    • Yes, Joshua, it’s difficult to make compelling a scene about a lecture. And the idea of using the scene to “give the reader information about subjects somewhat unrelated to the storyline” breaks a cardinal rule of fiction. You’re going to have a real difficult time not sounding preachy or teach-y there.

      You have apparently figured out a way to cherry pick, as you say, the highlights of the lecture, particularly the ones that got him in trouble, so why not do that in real time? Don’t make it a flashback. Put him behind the podium and vastly condense the rest of it–in fact don’t include much of it at all. It can be as severe as, “He was 10 minutes into a Q&A session following his talk on ___________ before a crowd of __ in the auditorium at ___________ when someone asked…” Then tell his answer, what he thought and felt at the time, and what resulted from it. Readers want the important action on stage, not talked about later.

  • I had no idea flashbacks were out now – most of the books I read still employ them. But I agree that working the backstory in here and there is much more effective. I’ve read many a flashback taking place during a conversation and wondered if the other person was just sitting there waiting for their friend to come back from wherever her mind had wandered. I really appreciate that you share clear examples of what you are talking about.

  • Cathy Gross

    In my current novel, a woman dies shortly after childbirth. Her husband arrives, is distraught and leaves his child in the care of his wife’s best friend and he runs away. In time he hits bottom, is taken in by a woman and her two servant friends and is nursed through DT’s. He remains angry, bitter and self-pitying. The woman who took him in is finally fed up and begins her back story. It also explains her relationship with the two servants who live with her.

    For another authors work I like Rosamunde Pilchers, The Shell Seekers. Each chapter is named after the person the chapter is about and she weaves them together. It extends over her lifetime and yet seamlessly mergers them all together. Wonderful book. I love the story and the characters and visit them yearly.

    • Thanks for that tip, Cathy.

      In your story, when you say the woman “begins her backstory,” are you able to keep it from being a flashback?

      • Cathy Gross

        Yes, I believe so. The male character expressed his self-pity over the loss of his wife repeatedly. The female is finally fed up with him and finally tells him her story, how she ended up the wife and then widow of a wealthy seaman.I don’t think that constitutes a flashback, does it?

    • Sarah Gunning Moser

      Rosamunde Pilcher is a wonderful writer. Not so many know of her work now, which is sad.

  • Amy K Rognlie

    Someone else mentioned using the first chapter as a way to fill readers in on backstory. I think I may need to do this because I have so much backstory. Would you add in a date/setting at the beginning of both the first chapter and then the “real” first chapter?

    Also, I’m troubled by the sad fact that many readers have such short attention spans these days. What about those readers who still appreciate longer, more descriptive scenes and a slower-paced story? And what happens to a writer’s voice and style if we all write super-tight prose, minimal description and in a linear fashion? I realize that to sell books, we will have to write what readers want to read. And I agree that writers should always be honing their craft, so I’m not talking about someone who is lazy and says, “This is the way I write. It’s awesome and I’m never changing it.” But for me, there is also a balance between churning out what the masses want to read and being true to my own style, enjoyment of writing and satisfaction in the finished work. Sadly old-fashioned of me, I guess.

    • Using the first chapter to fill in readers on backstory? No, I wouldn’t do that. That’s what the entire book is for. It might look like an information dump if it’s all done first.

      Readers with short attention spans don’t need super-tight, minimal description, and totally linear, but they do demand we omit needless words. I’ve read plenty of lush prose and beautiful description where not one word is wasted. We’re not to churn out what the masses want; we’re to write what WE would enjoy and hope there are many like us.

      • Amy K Rognlie

        Thanks for clarifying!

  • Linda

    This article and the discussion on 12-13-16 were hugely helpful to me. I have been stuck even before my first line because I didn’t know how to introduce my first character, a 7 year old orphan. This backstory is the answer I needed. Thanks!

  • D. Holcomb

    A trend I see in books is to have the first chapter (or scene) present time, the next chapter (or scene) in the past, then the third chapter back to present time. Sometimes the chapters continue in present time, or they travel back and forth in time. It works for me, but sounds like you’re saying that’s old hat?

    • That trend isn’t all bad. What we’re trying to avoid is the clunky cliche of stopping onstage, present-day action and dialogue and having someone gaze into the distance and recall an incident that goes on for several pages. If you simply do this by dropping in a chapter of back story, without implying that your character has dozed off or zoned out while remembering it, it should work.

  • Kalqlating

    I have found in my own scribblings that flashbacks tend to be boring as well as disruptive to the flow.

    I’m trying to add hints periodically through dialog as you suggested, as well as internal dialog – short comments or questions that hint at backstory.

    As the action progresses, more hints,then leave it and come back to see if it makes sense. :)

    Sometimes, just an added adjective or adverb can add to back story.

    I’m working on a silly short story (written for fun from a prompt). It starts out with my protagonist in prison for tripping over a trash can that then caused a police car to crash and the bad guys to get away.
    This much is explained at the beginning – first person present tense.
    Skip ahead 7 or 8 months —
    Our intrepid protagonist is now a Lt. in the military police (generic) due to circumstances briefly explained.
    His CO tells him as he leaves on his first assignment:

    “Oh, and Harris. Try not to cause any more accidents… trash can related or otherwise.”
    I can hear the silent laughter as I exit Major Doyle’s office.
    I plan to avoid devious trash cans at all costs.

    Here, devious adds to what has already been revealed.

    The plot involves the trash cans but that is pretty explicitly stated.
    A few paragraphs later…

    As I slide in next to Arlo, I spot the lidded trash cans again. I have no idea why they so capture my attention. A warning? A premonition? Or maybe the memory of that other trash can.

    These hints suggest the connection between Lt. Harris a specific incident involving trash cans. (Like I said, silly story for fun!)

    • Sounds like fun. I do find less is more when it comes to humor, though. A few comments in brackets below:

      “Oh, and Harris. Try not to cause any more accidents… [I would delete the followiing closing phrase as everyone–speaker, hearer, and reader know what he means: trash can related or otherwise.”]

      I can hear the silent laughter as I exit Major Doyle’s office. [I would delete this sentence as well; for one thing you would ‘sense’ the silent laughter, not hear it; plus the whole sentence seems to be a hint to the reader that they should find this funny]

      I plan to avoid devious trash cans at all costs. [This seems to be begging the question too; to introduce the wry mention of a devious trashcan, I would employ this in dialogue, something like: “Yes, Sir. I’ll avoid devious trash cans at all costs.”]

      As I slide in next to Arlo, I spot the lidded [why is it important that these are lidded? won’t we assume they are if you don’t mention it?] trash cans again. [I would delete the next four sentences; they don’t add anything and are sort of over obvious; plus, I just think it’s funnier without them] I have no idea why they so capture my attention. A warning? A premonition? Or maybe the memory of that other trash can.

      [not trying to be critical, but just helpful, so these are simply suggestions]

      • Kalqlating

        Actually, that is part of the reason I included so much of this here – to get some feedback on it. thank you!
        Some of the things you pointed out might make more sense in the complete story – maybe not.
        Some of those bits were added to display more of Harris’ personality.

        I will definitely try out all of your suggestions to see how they fit the overall story. Having Scrivener makes it easy to try stuff. :)

        Thank you for taking the time to read this and make suggestions!

        Nancy H.
        (Kalqlating is sort of my writing alter ego – not quite a pen name. It’s actually KalQLaTing, as I am also a math teacher ;).

  • My whole WIP is backstory, as the protagonist has amnesia. Her backstory is told throughout the book in snippets. She recalls bits of her story in dreams, in strange words coming to mind, and in brief flashes of memory (not a flashback, more along the lines of “That was something her mother once said,” then going right back to the action.

    • Hmm, thought I had answered this, Bruce, so sorry if this is a dupe.

      That sounds like it would work, and of course, all novels are backstory when you think about it.

      • Not a dupe, Mr. Jenkins. I posted my comment quite recently. Thank you for your reply.

        As I think about it, all stories are backstories, in a sense. (At least, the good ones are.)

  • patrick brunson

    After two pages about our maid, comes the ending: “When she cooked banana puddings, she asked my father had he been drinking (bananas and beer made a deadly combination.” I go not further in describing my father, you assume he must have been a regular drinker.
    In the chapter: Refugees: The Language of Hope: “the last refugee I saw from D.R. Congo was medical student in Louisville, KY.” Without going into his past you know he made it to the USA and became a doctor.
    Does this sound like a humor book?

    • Actually it doesn’t, Patrick, but I suppose in context, both of those could be funny. The first one, in the form you shared it, is telling, however. I’d rather see you show it, like: Whenever she made banana pudding she would say to my father, “Have you been drinking?” because bananas…

      The second would be funny in dialogue, say after someone has made a disparaging remark about immigrants or refugees. The “D.R.” would slow some readers, so I’d either write out “Democratic Republic of…” or just say “the Congo,” if the other sounds too formal and unlikely for conversation. And of course, for a manuscript you’d write out “Kentucky” as well.

  • Renee Blare

    Maybe we need another name for it than “backstory.” LOL I’ve always been told that too much backstory was bad, bad, bad, hence the use of flashbacks was always a way to avoid it. But now they don’t want us using that convenient method. ;) But I do like to sprinkle hints of history through my story. It helps build suspense although I have been dinged by a reviewer or two for being “cryptic.” I guess I can’t win for losing sometimes!

    • Yep, Renee, times change, though I can’t say I ever heard that flashbacks helped avoid too much backstory. It doesn’t surprise me though. Just like on the news, last week coffee would kill you, this week it’s the best thing for your health. Go figure. :)

      • Renee Blare

        Lol don’t get me started on coffee! I won’t miss using flashbacks that much. I’ve only used them once or twice anyway. Like the reader (of which I’m one!), I don’t want to be taken out of the story.

  • writebrainrd

    In a book series (I’m writing book 3) how much backstory should I be supplying a reader about what has happened in the previous books? These are thrillers and run at a pretty fast clip. Thanks.

    • Good timing! I was just last night reading a writing book by one of my favorite novelists, and he says a Prologue–which he generally eschews–is acceptable in series. There you can briefly (literally a page or two) bring readers up to speed.

  • Robert Murphy

    I start my novel with a prologue which occurs a year prior to chapter 1, and involves both of my main characters, husband and wife. I didn’t realize until just now that his backstories focus on him, while her backstories focus on their marriage and family.

    • So they sound like real people. That would be a good thing to let the reader discover–as you did–without making it obvious.

  • Carol Van

    Hi Jerry, my first 4 chapters are backstory, written as if it’s taking place in the present – chapter 5 fast forwards the reader 40 years – the division is clear and starts with a conversation between 2 characters relating to the present. Is this acceptable or would it put my story on crutches?

    • That could work, Carol. As your first four chapters are written as if in the present, they’re not really back story, or at least they don’t appear to be a flashback to the reader. All you’re really doing is going from there to 40 years later, not stopping the story to reflect.

  • baba stanley

    I understand that flashbacks can be somewhat boring, I honestly agree. But there are sometimes when it is absolutely pivotal to the story. Let me cite an example although it comes from a movie: Deadpool. The critics love it however it relies heavily on flashbacks. So does my story. In fact without the flashbacks, the story may not be the same! The flashbacks help the reader understand how the main character arrived at the present. It takes place in a post apocalyptic war, but how the war began is more complicated than meets the eye, since the main character is directly involved. But just stating it or explaining it would be somewhat of an information dump. Not only does the flashback give my character backstory but it helps propel the story

    • It’s not that flashbacks are boring; in fact, I don’t think they are. If/when they are, that takes precedence and they need to be fixed or deleted. It’s a sin to bore the reader, flashback or not.

      The major problem with flashbacks is the technique. In their original form, flashbacks tend to stop the story and the hero/heroine daydreams or dozes and we’re supposed to be transported back in time with them. That said, there are no absolutes, except that there are no absolutes. :)

      You need to do what works best for your story. I would urge you to avoid the cliche of having your lead character do as I outlined above. Better, just use a date and location tag (flush left and italic) and tell that story. When you come back to the present, avoid the cliche of the lead being jarred back. Just use the appropriate date and location tag and move ahead.

      • baba stanley

        I honestly understand what you’re saying. It makes total sense. Okay let me explain how my flashbacks work. It’s a science fiction novel. My character happens to have a respiratory disease which requires her to use “an inhaler”.
        She’s experiencing flashbacks, triggered by sideffects of a particular drug which makes her relive past events as if they were “present tense” These past events come along the story ever so often, to further show the reader how she got to wheere she is presently and also reveal a plot line as to exactly who started the revolution, its a post apocolyptic war novel, because actually she plays directly into that narrative. But the reader can’t discover that from where she is presently

  • Rick Taylor

    And then there is the inevitable exception to the rule as in The Son:currently in print and on TV. Every chapter of the book is a flashback/forward/halfback/a quarter forward. It took three tries to read it, but now it is making sense and is an interesting read. Dune has those interesting excerpts from authoritative sounding sources to lead in to each chapter. Are they flash forwards or are the chapters flash backs? But now to my work-in-progress…is two characters discussing another’s past a flash back or just another gimmick to avoid a genuine backstory chapter? (Been gone a while: glad to be back among your posts.)

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      It took three times to read? You’re a more patient man than I.

      Good to have you back.