If 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.
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?”
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 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?”
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.