Backstory and Flashbacks Deepen Stories

Wednesday, January 30, 2013
When we invent characters, we need to know all about them, including where they grew up, childhood fears & dreams and more. Where does this information go? Where do you put all this backstory?

Two friends, writing vastly different stories, were struggling with backstory. One was adding backstory to enrich the story and the emotional lives of his characters. The other was writing a sequel and the whole previous novel was backstory to the new novel; she couldn’t be sure the reader had read the previous book, though, so she had to work in some of that story into this one.


Many of my thoughts about backstory are shaped by the needs of fantasy and science fiction writing (sff) where the writer creates a world, complete with complex sociological and political histories and magical norms. The challenge in this genre is to communicate this complex world and culture, without stopping for a history lesson. Orson Scott Card has an excellent chapter on handling exposition (and backstory) in his book, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Basically, new information is filtered through the main viewpoint character. Specific terminology, even if alien and unfamiliar, is helpful; what is named is no longer so confusing. Implication is essential. Often a phenomenon is named, but the explanation isn’t given immediately. Sff readers understand this as one of the conventions of the genre and don’t mind waiting and pondering the meaning until the right time comes for an explanation. My friend who writes middle-grade non-fiction chaffs under the sff conventions, because she feels that the explanation must come immediately and be placed right next to the unfamiliar term. But for fiction, terms can be understood partially in context and the sff reader waits for more.

So, I come from a reading background of understanding huge chunks of backstory through the techniques of implication, slow revealing of complexities, intrigue, and I’m comfortable with a certain degree of ambiguity, as long as I trust the author that the answers will come eventually. It’s part of the appeal of the genre (and why many dislike it!). So, before we even start the discussion of where to put backstory, I’m comfortable with delaying it a while, both as a reader and as a writer. I know that one of the cliches of contemporary stories is a first chapter with lots of immediate action and a second chapter of backstory. But I think stories are stronger if the backstory doesn’t stop the flow of action.

Disadvantages of Early Backstory

  1. Pulls the reader out of the current time flow. “Ideally, all fiction should seem to be happening now.” Says Sol Stein in Stein on Writing.
  2. “One of the most common ways that inexperienced and even practiced novelists bog down their openings is with unnecessary backstory.” Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook
  3. Backstory tends to “tell” a story instead of show it.
  4. “Again and again in manuscripts I find my eyes skimming over backstory passages in chapters one, two and even three. Backstory doesn’t engage me because it doesn’t tell a story. It does not have tension to it, usually, or complicate problems.” Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook.
  5. The use of flashbacks for backstory is often awkwardly handled. We will discuss this more in a minute.

Advantages of Backstory

  1. Deepen inner conflict. Backstory can provide motivation for the conflict, deepen the emotional effects and let the reader empathize with even the villain.
  2. Increase tension. Hinting at backstory, but not telling all makes readers long to know the “secrets,” too. We read on, to find out what secret is so terrible that it provides the motivation for this conflict.

Usually backstory, especially flashbacks, should be put at a point where it will enhance the tension and conflict of the story. You can think of a story of a collection of scenes, followed by characters reflecting upon the scene and deciding what to do next, which leads to the next scene. Scene, reflection, decision, scene. Often the backstory needs to come in that in-between stage where the character is reacting emotionally to the events of the scene that has just happened.

For example, Gloria slaps Joe. So what? What are the readers supposed to make of that? What does it mean? We don’t know, the author must interpret the action in some way. The scene could progress without the explanation until Joe turns around and makes a fast exit. Then, Gloria has the time to react emotionally. That’s the point for a flashback that explains that Joe once accused her of embezzling money and let her stand trial, even though it was Joe who had stolen the money.

Ah, now the backstory explains and deepens the tension. But an early chapter that goes into a long story of how Gloria and Joe worked together for many years and Joe was Gloria’s mentor and they even had a brief affair that Gloria’s husband still doesn’t know about—that’s boring stuff. It doesn’t help Gloria make a decision about what to do next. It doesn’t add to the present conflict, even if it does explain it somewhat.

Where do you put backstory?

Backstory is there for its emotional weight. The story’s current situation is emotional, but for some reason you want to up the stakes. By adding backstory, you can strengthen the motivations of the character and make events mean more. Backstory should add irony, poignancy, regret, hope, or other strong emotions.

That means you put backstory at the point where it most directly impacts the emotions of the characters and/or the reader.

Not specific enough for you? You still ask, where EXACTLY do you put backstory?

You put the backstory at the point where it impacts the emotional weight of the story. Exactly there. For example, can you interrupt a scene with backstory? Yes. But you’d better have a strong emotional reason to slow down the story at that point.
Some ways backstory can impact the story’s emotional weight.
  • Interpret actions/dialogue/events. Some scenes, such as action scene, are better left intact with any flashbacks or backstory coming later as the character reflects on the events. Then, the flashback helps the character interpret the scene’s importance or outcome.
  • Help make a decision. Sometimes, though, a scene leads up to a character making a decision. Flashbacks provide needed information and emotion to help the character make the best (or worst) decision.
  • Change relationships. If the backstory comes in dialogue, instead of as a flashback, it can change relationships.
  • Story twist. If your plot is too straight-line, a good bit of backstory can add an interesting twist on events.

Flashbacks Effective in Deepening Novel

Flashbacks, scenes or partial scenes of something that happened before this moment in the story timeline, are the best way to insert backstory. In other words, a flashback is a scene that is presented out of chronological order. The flashback relates to the current scene, deepens character motivations or otherwise illuminates the current action of the novel.
First, write the scene with the current action and make it as fully developed as possible. If you’re going to interrupt the on-going action of the novel to insert this back story then at least give the reader a full scene that will keep their interest.
Then, write the flashback as a fully developed scene. Again, if you are messing with the time line or chronology of the novel, it should be done in such a way to keep the reader’s interest. This doesn’t mean it has to take up pages; a paragraph of a mini-scene might be perfectly reasonable. On the other hand, the flashback might need to be several pages long in this particular novel. Do what works.

Now, integrate the two scenes. Figure out where exactly in the novel the reader needs this bit of back story in order to understand the story’s action, or to create a deeper emotional response. Put the flashback as close to that as you can. Then smooth out the transitions.

The trickiest part of a flashback is getting into in and out of it. Try to do it with a single sentence both times. One transition opening sentence should signal a time shift, and then go straight into past tense like you would in any scene of a novel.

I remember that cloudy evening, the night before the tornado. Dogs whined restlessly, cattle kicked over buckets of full milk, and chickens scratched endlessly at the dust, all warnings that something bad was coming.

Coming out of it, use a single transition sentence again.

I walked away without a scratch on the outside, but felt like a stray splinter of wood had stabbed my heart. Now, looking at Jeremiah, the coward of that night of horror, I couldn’t believe he was asking me to be brave.

This demonstrates that a flashback scene needs to be a high point or a low point in a character’s life, something worthy of a dedicated flashback. There also needed to be some emotional hook. Here, you can sense that the Jeremiah’s behavior during the tornado was cowardly and that affects the current scene.

Ways That Flashbacks Go Wrong

  • Too early. Too often, I see a flashback in the second paragraph of the opening scene. No! If you need that flashback in the second paragraph, you have started in the wrong place. Or, I may see one on the second page. No! Or the entire second chapter is a flashback. No! Only use a flashback at the point where it will directly impact the ongoing action.
  • Too much exposition. Flashbacks should give the reader a scene, not pages of compressed exposition. Work the facts the reader needs to know into the flashback portion of the scene just like you would into any scene.
  • Watch verb tenses. The conditional tense that uses the “would” construction is awkward and should be avoided in flashbacks. Sometimes, you want to indicate that, for example, watching fireflies in the evening was a habit of your family. You write something like this:
    Every evening we would gather on the lawn and wait for dusk. We would slap at a few mosquitoes, would murmur quietly in the heat, and would sip ice tea. We would wait until the fireflies would start winking, and then the chase would begin.
    That’s too awkward. Instead, use the one “would” construction and go straight into the past tense. Use a single “would” to come out of it.
    Every evening we would gather on the lawn and wait for dusk. We slapped at a few mosquitoes, murmured quietly in the heat and sipped ice tea. We waited until the fireflies started winking and the chase would begin.
  • The flashback has no connection to the current time in the novel. Why include this flashback? It must up the stakes, provide motivation, increase the emotional tension; it must relate to the current novel in a vital way. If it doesn’t do this, if it’s just there to give us a history lesson, cut it.


Darcy Pattison blogs about how-to-write at Fiction Notes and blogs about education at


Margo Dill said...

This is a great post! I love how you quoted some of the "experts" and put in what you like and have seen in your vast experience too. I think it is sometimes genre specific on how things are handled too as well as the age group you are writing for. That's why being a reader is so important (in my opinion) as you can see how the published writers in your genre handle backstory and flashbacks. Thanks for such an extensive blog post!

Angela Mackintosh said...

Amazing post, Darcy. This is definitely one to bookmark!

"You put the backstory at the point where it impacts the emotional weight of the story. Exactly there."

I LOVE your advice of writing the current scene completely and then writing a flashback as a complete scene or mini scene FIRST, and then integrating the two scenes together AFTER you figure out exactly where the reader needs the backstory. I'm going to try that and see how it works. :)

LuAnn Schindler said...

Great post! As I read, I notice authors either do not know where to put the backstory so it makes sense OR they have no backstory and the piece lacks in cohesiveness. Great tips and examples.

Powered by Blogger.
Back to Top