Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Flashbacks and Backstory

On Monday we talked about flashbacks and backstory and how not to do them. Sometimes at conferences I hear new writers talking about flashbacks and backstory being on the "no-no" list, but that's not true at all. They  just tend to get over used, which can suck away tension and drama.

So. You're staring at your manuscript. You're looking at that flashback scene, that paragraph of backstory, and you're thinking how do I know if it should stay?

When to use a flashbacks

  • If this is a moment in time that has forever altered your character.
  • You've spent time in the story building up tension about what happened on "that night" or "that afternoon" and your flashback is revealing what went down.

When to not use a flashback

  • You wrote the scene, but then your timeline changed, but you really want to put it somewhere...
  • It's a cute scene and you love it and you think readers will find it "fun." (Flashbacks are not about fun - they're about revealing something deeper.)

I'm not a huge fan of them being used in prologues, though with that being said The Apothecary's Daughter is one of my favorite books and Julie Klassen opens with a flashback-y prologue. So it can be effective in the hands of a skilled writer.

Onto backstory.

Backstory can be a sentence or two, like the red below:

"Kyle?  Will you raise your hand so that Paige will know who you are?"
The entire class teetered with laughter at this comment.  Paige and Kyle had been best friends since preschool.  In fact, the idea of Paige not knowing a person in the class was a little humorous in itself.  Paige had been friends with everyone and had been the most well-known girl in school.

Or it can be paragraphs. Don't worry. I won't make you read a paragraph of backstory. I'll just say that usually the lead-in to a paragraph of backstory sounds like, "Paige and Kyle met during a finger painting incident in preschool..." and then it goes on for awhile about the details of their meeting, but in a "telling" fashion rather than flashing back.

One of the biggest things to consider with backstory is your character's voice and viewpoint. Even backstory needs to happen through their eyes. An example is:

When I told Meghan about Jay, she said, "I think you guys should just be friends."
Of course. Ever since Joel stomped on her heart last spring, Meghan has been all about "staying friends."

That bit about Joel is backstory, but it comes through the Point of View character's filter. It tells us everything we need to know at that moment. Which is that she doesn't trust Meghan's advice because of what Meghan's been through. We don't need an additional paragraph about the narrators feelings on Meghan and Joel's relationship. Maybe that will matter later, or maybe not. Like we talked about Monday - RUE! Resist the Urge to Explain!

Little sentences here and there are normal. Those are the bread crumbs, or as I've been told Jill Williamson calls them, "shards of glass." If your backstory delves into a paragraph or two, it's definitely possible the story needs it, just make sure you're asking yourself that question.

Don't forget to get your writing prompts turned in tonight! And make sure you're back here on Friday because Sarah Holman, young author of The Destiny of One and The Destiny of a Few, will be here for an interview and giveaway!


  1. I think this can tie in with your draft process too--go ahead and put the backstory into those first chapters when you're first writing. YOU need it. You can then easily take it out later on. Once you know better where your characters are going, it's easier to know what tidbits you need from where they've been and which can be left out.

  2. Thank you. I've just started another round of edits, so this is very helpful.

  3. So know I know that you have to decide carefully whether or not to put in a flash back, but is it okay to put, oh, I don't know, an action scene or something really important that doesn't really start off the book in the prologue? Like putting an action scene or something like that in the prologue, and then coming back to it in the middle of the book, and we're finally caught up. Does that make any sense? (Sorry, these things always sound better in my head. :D)

  4. That made that a whole lot clearer. I was really worried that I would have to go through and change all my little bits of flashback, but you made it very clear what parts should no be in and what should. This helped do much. Thanks

  5. Roseanna, that's a great point. This is something that can be dealt with in the second and third draft.

    Ladonna, so glad it was helpful!

    Alyson, glad this post clarified what I said on Monday!

  6. Becki, that's a perfectly acceptable practice, to put an action scene as a prologue, then work back to that scene.

    The only bad thing about it is a lot of writers use it as an excuse to start off Chapter One in a flimsy way. When that's the case, I tend to think of what you described as a cheater opening. The writer knows you need to be pulled into the story and wants to do that ... but can't think of a better way to open his or her book, so instead of working at it, they pull a dramatic scene from later.

    I'm a Twilight fan, but one of the criticisms I have of the first book is that the author did that. They used a dramatic snippet from the climax of the story to suck you in, then kind of rambled around in chapter one. Obviously that book has done quite well, so readers don't seem to mind a cheater opening :)

  7. Haha. I'm NOT a Twilight fan, so I couldn't say as to that, but I think most of the people who read that aren't too concerned about flimsy openings.

  8. Also, Stephanie, I was wondering what you thought about backstories that are not actually IN the book, but are in the back, as appendices? Because I have two that are for my two main characters, and are each a short story about an important event in their past. Is that too much of a cop-out, or should I just take them out completely? (Just so you know, it's not imperative for the readers to know these stories, but it gives a little insight."

  9. This was really helpful :)

  10. I've come to a part in my nanowrimo novel where one of my characters meets a brand new character with a strange life. Is it too much backstory if this new character tells about his life in order to explain why he is so different from other people?

    I just sent in my prompt entry!


  11. I'm going to print this off and hang it on my bulletin board for all my upcoming edits - thanks for such a helpful post! :-)

  12. This is great, I've been struggling with flash backs for a while.

  13. Stephanie, I was wondering, when will the contest for the Story Pillars book end?

  14. Becki, if it's a type of bonus material for your readers, I say go for it. Readers love that kind of stuff.

    Jordan, if you're in first draft stage, I say put it all in, and then you can tone it down in a later draft if you need to. Do you have a critique partner? Because they can be really helpful with figuring out what's necessary and what isn't.

    Sapphire, so glad it helped!

    Imogen, thank you SO much for the reminder. I drew the winner today - it was Jenna Blake Morris.

  15. Roseanna, I like what you said about flashbacks being a sort of "starter" for the draft process. I've rewritten and rearranged the first three chapters to my first novel a gazillion times because I started it out with this wierd back-story thingy that I thought was soooo necessary. :) That's the joy of editing - flexibility! :)

    Becki, that's so interesting that you have other episodes with your characters as appendices!! Have you ever read Wayne Thomas Batson's The Door Within series. I love it (one of the first fantasy books I ever picked up) and he does that with his "Lost Chapters" included in the back of the books.

    As always, thank you for this informative and interesting post, Stephanie. (Uggh, sorry about the prim and proper speech. Can you tell I'm in paper-writign mode!?) Flashbacks are one of my favorite writerly things to read about!