A few weeks ago, I started a new novel. I’ve already gone on and on about how I start my new projects, so I won’t rehash. But there are two aspects I’ve never touched on: back-story and flashbacks.
When we start a new story, we need to get the reader into the conflict as soon as possible. But we also need to bring him up to speed on what’s happened with the characters up to that point. This is usually done through back-story or flashbacks.
Just so we’re all working from the same page, here’s how I define these terms.
Back-story: a summary of an incident that has happened in the character’s past.
Flashback: taking the reader to the past incident and showing it to him through action and dialog.
Back-story is almost always necessary because the reader needs to know where the character is coming from. Flashbacks aren’t always necessary, but sometimes the reader needs to be in the moment to truly understand the character’s position. The key is to get that history across without interfering with the story.
A story needs to have forward momentum, meaning it needs to unfold at a steady pace. Flashbacks (and sometimes back-story) stop that momentum. They take the reader somewhere else and get him involved in a different story. Then that stops, too, and we’re brought back to the real story. If this happens too much, it can frustrate the reader because he’s being pulled in too many directions at once, and left wondering when he’s going to get back to the ‘real’ story.
In general, it’s smoother for the reader if back story can be conveyed in a sentence or two. This is hard to do, but it’s worth it because the reader won’t be skimming ahead to find the real story. In this case, less is definitely more because it has a greater impact on the reader.
Flashbacks are trickier because they can’t be conveyed in a sentence or two. If a flashback is absolutely necessary, then a good way to keep the reader from feeling jerked around is to start the flashback at the beginning of a chapter. That way, the reader is already at a natural break in the story (the previous chapter has ended, and he’s got some breathing room), so shifting into a flashback may not feel as jarring as it might in the middle of a chapter. The catch here is that you will need to make it clear from the beginning that this is a flashback—either put all text in italics, give a date or time frame of when this happened in the past, or change the point of view. This way, the reader will settle in without any confusion, and will also be expecting to switch back to the real story later on.
For me, personally, I avoid flashbacks because they are very hard to get right. And I make a conscious effort to limit my back-story to no more than two sentences. If I can’t get it all across in two sentences, then I figure out what the reader MUST know at that moment, and then I’ll move the rest to a later point in the story. It keeps things from sounding like an info dump.
How do you handle back-story? Flashbacks?