Backstory and Flashbacks: Not Exactly the Same Thing

Backstory and Flashbacks: Not Exactly the Same Thing

A Grab-N-Go Video

Don’t feel like reading, grab a bowl of popcorn and join me.

Welcome to my first Grab-N-Go Video

That sentence gives you a lot of backstory. Firstly, it tells you that I have never done this before. It tells you this is a new experience for me. Secondly, it implies you’re going to have to be patient with me.

Further, you might guess, you guys are my guinea pigs. You are!

Wanting to do this for a long time, I’ve finally found the courage to give it a go. Please be patient with me.

First, let’s talk about backstory.

To do this, you must understand backstory is the relationship to of character/s in the forward motion of the story, to the life she has lived before.

Every character you write should come into a story as a fully developed person.

That character had:

  • a childhood,
  • a family,
  • a job,
  • a relationship,
  • a life lived before the moment story she walked onto the page.have lived up to the moment they walk on our pages.  Your pages are the continuation of their stories given the events that occur.

The story you write is a continuation of a person/character’s life.

In order to put that fully developed person/character on the page, a writer must KNOW all the aspects of not only what a character looks like, where a character lives, her worldview, as well as the life led before the story moment. He must know how those external aspects of character impact not only the life the character has shaped but the emotional reaction as well.

In short, a writer must know his characters intimately.

While a lot of this information is the “hard work” that will never, ever, ever make it onto the pages, the intimate character/writer connection will influence the who the writer puts on the page. This knowledge will inform the choices, the reactions, the emotional deepening of the character’s story.

This is all the backstory.

Backstory is the story that happens before the story your telling begins.

However, sometimes in the forward motion of a story–the continuation of a life led–the reader needs to know some of that backstory, so she can understand how the story/plot works in forward motion. The writer tells the reader something they need to know for story clarity.

I know, I used the dreaded “TELL” word, and I know that as writers we have been trained, taught, discouraged, berated for using telling in our work. However, backstory is telling, and sometimes the writer must tell a reader information.

The key is to only dole out the information as the reader needs to learn it. You don’t want to give too much backstory at one time because you risk losing the reader’s confusion or interest if they are too long out of the forward story.  

Good backstory is anything that impacts the now-character before the character stepped onto your page. This kind of backstory can create motives or character flaws.

Bad backstory then will be anything that the writer includes that had no impact or relevance on the in-the-moment event or forward motion of the now-character’s story

Good backstory will deepen your characters, hint at motivations or flaws and impact the  forward motion of  your story

Me!

There are many tips, tricks and ways to include backstory in your story.

Ways to include Backstory: When you include backstory there are many ways to do this.

  • Dialogue: Two characters in the now-story discussing something that has happened before.
    • Typically, this discussion should revolve around information that is needed for the now-moment and/or the forward progression of the story.
  • Internal thought: An event or sight or sound that makes a character remember something from the past that impacts the now.
    • He sees a dog barking and thinks about the dog attack he experienced as a child. He takes action to run.
  • A Flashback: See not the same thing.
    • Flashbacks are one way to get backstory into a story, but it is a part, not the whole.
    • Think about backstory being an umbrella and flashback crowding in with the other techniques under that umbrella.  We will come back to flashbacks in a minute.

Backstory Example: The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater—if you haven’t read this book, you should—page 88 chapter 11

A you gotta read!

Sean

The Malvern stables are a haunted place at night.

Though I have already been awake for seventeen hours and need to be up in another five, if I’m to have the beach to myself in the morning, I don’t go straight up to my flat. Instead I take my time in the chilly stable, walking up and down the dimly lit aisle, making sure the grooms have fed and watered the thoroughbred and draughts as they are supposed to. They’ve mucked out most of the stalls, but now that it’s nearly November, they’re too cowardly to enter the few stalls occupied by the capaill uisce, even when I had the water horses down at the beach. Part of that is the water horses’ reputation, I think, and part of it is the stable’s. Regardless, it leaves me with three stalls I don’t want the capaill uisce to stand in all night. As head trainer, my time’s supposed to be too valuable to be bothering with mucking out, but I’d rather do it myself then have Malvern’s two new frighten mice do it badly.

Let’s break it down:

You can see from this example Maggie wove in the backstory of both Sean and the barn into the forward motion of her story.

  • She has put Sean in action and has used his emotions (internal thoughts) to give backstory.
  • She tells us that Sean thinks the stables are a haunted place at night. Right there we know that Sean is someone who believes in haunted places.
  • She also tells us that he has been awake and implies working for a long time. He will get very little sleep because he wants the beach to himself.
  • She keeps in him action, working, checking, and mucking but slides in the backstory that he isn’t just some farmhand, he is head trainer. A position of power, but he would rather work like a grunt because he feeds us the backstory that the water horses are dangerous, and the others are afraid.

Overall: Likely, you never felt bogged down by the information. Woven so seamlessly, the narrative backstory likely;

  • Added clarity;
    • to setting
    • character
    • society
  • Never felt bogged down in telling
  • Created a visually moving moment
  • Encouraged a strong reader/character emotional connection
  • Felt like a beautiful moment that wove setting, action, internal thought into a seamless slip of backstory. We aren’t pulled out, but kept firmly in the moment.

Backstory checklist

A few things to consider when you are weaving backstory into your narrative.

  • Does the reader need the backstory information? If the answer is no, then cut it from your story. If the answer is yes, ask yourself does the reader need the information in the current scene or can you move it to later?
  • Do you have more backstory than current narrative?
  • How early in your novel does backstory occur?
  • Does the reader need to know what you’re sharing in the backstory?
  • Does the backstory cause a character pain?
  • Does your backstory go on for too long?
    • A great rule of thumb is no more than four lines (not sentences) of backstory (unless using a flashback) before you return to or break up the backstory with forward story motion. Four lines. That’s it, and most often keep those flashbacks shorter rather than longer—is my best advice.
  • Is the backstory important enough to be shown as a flashback

So, as promised let’s discuss talk the specific use of the backstory inclusion technique: Flashbacks.

Flashbacks are one way to put in backstory. In a flashback, the point of view character is still telling—using narrative—to inform the reader about something that has happened in the past, but in this type of backstory inclusion, the character makes the reader feel as if they are living the moment.

They use the structure of scene development to show the moment in the past. Do not confuse this to think it is a scene. It is still narrative but using the trick of scene creation to put the reader into the moment.

Flashbacks can be a sentence, a paragraph, a scene, or an entire chapter.

One sentence, a page, a paragraph or an entire chapter, the importance of a flashback should influence its length. So look at each flashback and ask yourself how important it is to the story.

A flashback that is the driving motive for your character’s story will likely get more page space. For example:  You may have a flashback in which a murder occurs, and the murder is the driving motive for your character’s story. In that case, give the flashback time to develop on the page. Don’t shortchange your reader with only a few sentences.

Flashback essentials:

  • Write a flashback as a scene.
  • It must be immediate. It must have conflict and tension.
  • You’re taking the reader out of the story and into the past, so make it worthwhile.
  • Here the use of past and present or past participle is essential.
  • And lastly never start your flashback with I remember when or my mind slipped back into the time. UGH. Mostly, you won’t want to announce your flashback.
  • When you’re revising your flashback, check how you got into and out of the scene. Did you give the reader a clue you were jumping back in time? How do you let them know you are back in the present.
  • Are the flashbacks clustered together or spread throughout the story. If too many flashbacks occur close together, maybe they could be re positioned or grouped into one flashback.

Flashback Example: The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Puck

That night, I dream about Mum teaching me to ride. I’m nestled in front of her like we are one creature. Her arms around me. Her fingers are stubby like mine and it’s easy to compare them—my hands are fixed on the pony’s made, and hers are light on the reins. It is as it often is on Thisby. My hands are wet with the sky’s sweat.

“Don’t be nervous,’ she tells me. The wind beats her hair against my face and my hair against hers. It’s the same colour as the ruddy fall cliff grass that bows down to the ground and back up again. “The Thisby ponies love to run. But it’s easier to get a barnacle off a rock than a Keown woman off a horse.” I believe her, because she feels like a centaur, like she’s part of the pony. It’s impossible for either of us to fall.

Let’s break it down:

While this is written as a dream sequence, we know this is how the moment played out, or could have played.

  • We see the moment as a scene, complete with character, actions, setting and emotion.
  • This moment has a powerful impact on the character’s present story. Her parents were killed by horses (the aforementioned water horses) She wants to run in the water horse race. She is struggling but also realizing her mother would understand. It is a powerful, short flashback inclusion that not only informs us about the character’s backstory, family life, but also impacts her choices to come — a good flashback.

When thinking of including a flashback ask yourself:

  • How important is the flashback?
  • Is the flashback written as a scene?
  • Did you give the reader a clue you were jumping back in time?
  • How do you let readers know they are back in the present?
  • Are there too many flashbacks clustered together?
  • Does it impact the character’s forward story?

And there is it is! My first Grab-N-Go video.

Want to share how you think it went? Drop me a comment.
Want to share how you included a line or two of backstory and/or flashback? Drop me an example. I’d love to see

Mucho love,

Rhay.

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