Monday, November 01, 2010

Flashbacks and Back-Story

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?


Catherine Stine said...

Good post. Yes, flashbacks are tough, and too many really stall a story. That said, I think an author can do a lot with what's termed "half-scenes," which are short, memories, heavy in dialog and action, that read like dynamic mini-scenes.
But yeah, never, never in a first chapter!

Tabitha said...

Good point! The reader can handle more flashback-type scenes toward the end of the story because he's more likely to be hooked already.

And short 'half-scenes' work great! In my view, less is definitely more when it comes to back-story and flashbacks. :)

Stephanie said...

Sometimes I read published stories by pretty big authors and wonder how the heck they got away with so much back story in the first chapter. I'm reading one right now and it just felt like it dragged forever!! Definitely gives me motivation to not do that in my own writing!

J.Tuttle said...

I have personally used some of the suggestions that you wrote about to very good effect in my own work. Keep on giving great advice!

Sherrie Petersen said...

I think in first draft I always have more flashbacks and backstory because I'm learning about the characters. Most have to come out in the second draft or I have to incorporate them differently. It's always interesting to me to see how some of my favorite books deal with this. It's so tricky.

Brian James said...

Great post.

I agree that flashbacks are very tricky in novels. Oddly, they work fairly well in film but it's a device that rarely translates well into the written medium.

As for backstory, I agree it's important not to get mired down in telling the reader what happened BEFORE they picked up the book. I've found it effective to tell backstory little by little throughout the first part of the book so that it unravels naturally, as it typically does in real life when you're introduced to somebody new.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great post. I think it's easier to avoid so much back-story in a first novel in a series or a stand alone book. The two sentence limit is a great idea.

I'm struggling a bit because I'm writing the second book in a series. It's harder not to tell some back-story or the reader doesn't know what's going on. But too much is not good either. It's a hard balance.

Tabitha said...

Stephanie - yeah, I wonder that sometimes, too. :) It drives me crazy. I'm determined to NOT be one of those authors. :)

J.Tuttle - aww, thanks. :)

Sherrie - excellent point! In a first draft, all that backstory is useful when you're in discovery mode.

Tabitha said...

Brian - EXACTLY. :)

Natalie - another great point! In sequels, it is necessary to get the reader up to speed (sort of) on what happened in the previous book, to at least jog his memory so he doesn't have to re-read. That's tricky, and I think it can still be done by spreading out the information a bit. Not too much, I guess, but a little at a time would still work.

C.R. Evers said...

awesome post! I agree. flashbacks are tough.