Monday, November 14, 2011

Dealing with Your Character's Past

A couple weeks ago, I pulled out a manuscript of mine from high school. At the time I wrote it, I felt like if I could complete the project, I would have a shot at getting it published. But the dandelion story, as I've been calling it on here, had problems I didn't yet realize.

So far I've talked about my book idea being too small, some serious POV problems, and a lack of confidence.

One of the biggest flaws of the dandelion story was my clumsy use of flashbacks and backstory.

Just so we're all on the same page, flashbacks are scenes that take place in the past. They are set apart from the story, sometimes in a different font, sometimes just with scene blocks. Backstory is woven into the current story.

The text marked in red is what backstory looks like:

This day was different, however.  Today she stood in the doorway a stranger to them all.
At the end of freshman year, Paige had tearfully moved away from Brawder, California to some unknown town in Missouri, and no one had heard a word from her. Now here she was, a year later, on the first day of junior year.  No one had even been expecting her.
The above is copy and pasted from the dandelion story. I'm itching to edit, but I'm refraining. Though I would especially like to remove that unnecessary "even" from the last sentence. (For those who read last Friday's post, I would like to point out my parents and my husband [then boyfriend] loved me and supported me even when I was writing stinky stuff like this!)

A well used flashback or snippet of backstory can enhance a story. But it's one of those tools in your writer's tool box that should be used sparingly. Otherwise you run the risk of making your plot sluggish.

Here is the big lie I believed about flashbacks/backstory when I first began weaving stories - in order to be interested in my characters, the reader must understand who they are and how they got here.

This is one of those weird thing that when you read the above sentence, you can be like, "Yeah, I agree with that. Why would I be interested in them if I didn't know who they are?" But when you're reading and the author keeps pausing the story to fill you in, you're thinking, "This is moving so slow!"

Here are a couple quick guidelines for wielding flashbacks and backstory, then we'll talk more about them on Wednesday:

1. R.U.E.

This stands for Resist the Urge to Explain. In the above example, I do a good thing where I say, "This day was different, however. Today she stood in the doorway a stranger to them all." Intriguing, right? Because I've already established that the other students know her, so what makes her a stranger to them?

Planting the question is good.

Answering the question in the next sentence is bad.

Instead it'd be much better if I just left the question dangling there and moved on with what was currently happening in the story. If the reader doesn't need an explanation at that moment, hold it back. You want to drop your backstory in like breadcrumbs.

2. No flashbacks within the first 3 chapters.

Again, this is a guideline, not a hard and fast rule. But it's a guideline suggested by Donald Maass, who wrote Writing the Breakout Novel and who is possibly the biggest literary agent out there. (I don't know that there are any official rankings on literary agents, but he's doing very well for himself.)

In my early days, I would have really argued this point because I was a big fan of flashbacks. But now I agree. A flashback slows down the current story, which is the one your reader really cares about.

3. Only one or two flashbacks per book.

A flashback should be used only for a scene that is so emotionally charged, you can't do it justice by explaining it in a paragraph. In the Skylar Hoyt books, before the first book opens, she's nearly date raped at a party. It's, obviously, a very important turning point in Skylar's life. It's also not really something she likes to think about. Because she's pushing the pain away, there was no need to flashback to the scene in Me, Just Different. Or in Out with the In Crowd. It isn't until halfway through So Over It that we find out what happened that night, and then the scene is given almost an entire chapter.

But by now, the reader has gone through 2 1/2 books of not knowing exactly what happened that night (Skylar's also a little fuzzy on the details, as it turns out). By the time they reach the flashback, they understand the significance of it. Whereas if I'd put the scene in the first book, or if I'd opened Skylar's story with it, the way I'd considered, the reader wouldn't have understood as deeply.

I'll talk more about flashbacks and backstory on Wednesday. Anyone have any burning questions they'd like to make sure I address?


  1. Jill Williamson explained that backstory is kind of like a broken mirror. The writer must insert it "one shard at a time." This makes it sound painful, and I suppose for those of us who *love* tossing RUE and explaining every question, it is. :)

    But it's kind of like real life. When you first meet someone, they don't hand you their baby pictures or their passport or their report card...You don't get their backstory up front like that. It comes gradually.

    Stephanie, on the subject of questions, do you keep a Writer's Notebook like Mr. Bell talks about in The Art of War for Writers? I'm trying to start my own.

  2. I really liked this post. :) I definitely have to remember R.U.E, because over explain is something I tend to do.

    In one of my WIPs, I open the book with the two main characters(my MC and the hero), who are teens at the time, meeting for the first time. That's like the first chapter. Then the second chapter starts, and the MC is now in her twenties and hasn't seen him for several years. I wanted to have the first chapter be about how the two main characters meet, because they end up falling in love, so that the reader get's a taste of how their relationship started. Would that be considered a flashback though? Should I avoid starting it out when they're young and just jump in to when they are older? Hopefully this made some sense! :)

    On a side note, the first post I ever read off of Go Teen Writers was about flashbacks. :) Hehe, it just reminded on how much I've learned since I've been apart of GoTeenWriters. I'm so thankful that I found this blog when I did because it's been such an gigantic blessing! :) Thanks Stephanie! :)

  3. Rachelle, yes! Both of those are great illustrations. I've tried to keep a writer's notebook, and I'd really, really, really like to do it successfully. I think I may have to get these kiddos in school, though, before I'm able to make time to be SO intentional.

  4. Clarebear, I'm glad THAT is what you thought, not, "Sheesh, she's already repeating herself?" Glad the blog has been a blessing. I looooove it.

    Your explanation does make sense. Keeping in mind that every story has different needs, my opinion is not the end-all, be-all, and that I haven't read a single word you've written ... yeah, I would avoid opening that way. It would be an appropriate use of a prologue, since you're jumping in time, but you'll have to weigh whether your character's meeting has enough tension to draw a reader into the story.

    You might try to fit it in later in the story, though if there's really no need, then it's just going to slow down your plot.

    So, those are my thoughts, for whatever they're worth!

  5. I think I am going to make a poster that says RUE and hang it up in my room. My whole personality is tell tell tell and explain everything. Thanks for the help.


  6. Wow, this is so interesting. My first novel went running right through, with practically no flashbacks. Just BLAM--straight ahead like an arrow. Then I got feedback that people wanted to know more of my MC's personal history. My second novel had to have flashbacks, since it started in the middle of a historical character's life. Then, I veered toward too many. I'm writing my third novel now (hoping I fix all my mistakes!)--and hoping for publication this time. I was just thinking recently that there has to be a balance. We generally need to know a little about where this character came from, what his/her motivations/issues are, etc, but we can't get lost/confused in the flashbacks.

    NO flashbacks in the first three chapters is really hard, when you're establishing that MC and why people should care what happens to him/her. However, with this novel, I'm aiming a little closer to that mark! Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  7. Hey Stephanie! First of all, I've really enjoyed reading these posts about POV, as that's something I have a hard time with. A question I have that is sort of about leaving something hanging is that in my WIP, it's in first person, and my MC doesn't want to let anyone know he's related to the bad guys, but I also don't want to tell the readers that. Is it okay to give hints, but then leave them hanging until the absolute perfect moment (which I've already figured out)? Sorry, I may have just repeated what you said in the R.U.E section, but it's really been bugging me.

  8. Heather, sounds like you've set yourself up to have the perfect balance for book number 3! I struggled with the no-flashbacks-for-the-first-3-chapters thingy for a while too. Now that I'm used to the discipline of it, I think it's really improved my stories. Keep us updated on your progress!

  9. Becki, excellent question. I just read a book that did something similar and did it flawlessly. I think your readers should know your MC has some kind of relationship with the bad guys, or a history of some sort. If you give them little dribbles of information like that along the way, then when you do your big reveal, they're more likely to be like, "Oh, they're BROTHERS," or whatever. Instead of being like, "What?! Now that doesn't fit at ALL."

    The best surprises in books, I think, are the ones where the hints are framed in such a way that you've built an explanation in your mind. So when the big reveal happens, and you go back and check all those clues, you see how they fit with what the author intended.

    Hopefully that made sense :)

  10. This post is incredibly helpful to me! I'm currently doing a re-write of my novel (in which the entire story is the heroine overcoming her past, so of course there's a lot of backstory there), and I keep running into problems with limiting the flashbacks.

    My question for you: Aside from the many mini flashbacks that I'm trying to cut entirely and just work into the diolague, there is one giant, dramatic flashback that finally ties everything together about 3/4 into the book. I currently have it written from the POV of an outside (but non-omniscient) observer, even though the rest of the novel switches back and forth between the hero's and heroine's POVs. So, does that add drama to the flashback, or just come across as weird and confusing to the reader?

    Thanks! :-)

  11. Man, everybody is asking tough questions!

    Sapphire, it certainly has potential for being confusing, but I don't think it has to be. You should help out your reader by clearly establish the POV. There's nothing wrong with trying it, at least. If you get feedback from multiple people that it isn't working for them, you could always rewrite the scene from a different POV.

  12. Thanks, Stephanie - you're always so helpful. :-)

  13. So...

    Would a flashback be okay in a scenario of a memory? Because a male character of mine who's the father of my MC, is dancing with his wife and he remembers the day when they were only just in love and the first time he kisses her.
    Would that be an unnecessary flashback?

  14. Jazmine, are you actually cutting away from your scene to show us something from that time, or is your character just thinking about it?

    I haven't read your story, and I know nothing about it, but it sounds like you don't need to break away for a flashback, that dropping in some backstory will do. But go with your gut on that.

    Not sure if you saw this post or not, but I talked more about backstory and flashbacks here:

  15. I wrote it a while ago before I found GTW, and I need to fix my writing style in the finished book and half completed book in the fantasy series it's in.
    And yes, he is just thinking about it. *blushes*

    And I actually did read that post, I just didn't realize it was there until after I clicked 'post comment'.

  16. I am an amateur working on a first draft (trying to keep in mind that it doesn't have to be perfect on the first try!). I have a slightly unique case, because in my story, my character starts having literal flashbacks. Seemingly random triggers, such as a drop of water hitting her cheek, throw her into vivid recollections of a horrible event she has long forgotten.
    I'm trying to handle them well, by keeping the flashbacks very brief and sudden, like they are for my character. But, when I'm rewriting, I'm going to try to set up the character more before she starts having them.

  17. Aemi - good for you, working on your first draft! Very hard work.

    Have you read Edge of Recall by Kristen Heitzmann? Her main character is similar - has lots of flashbacks triggered during the course of the story - and it's done very well. Brief and sudden, just like you described.

  18. Excellent post, very helpful! I tend to want to over explain and throw too much information out there for my readers, so this is definitely something I will try to remember.