Say you have a character who had a life defining moment in their past that of course bears on their present because, life defining. How do you handle relaying that to the reader? There always comes a moment when they need to explain it to someone. Is the conversation enough to bring that across or should you go for the flashback? I always feel odd about it because it can break POV to do a flashback, plus I remember that conversation in Jaws where Quint relates a story about surviving a shipwreck during WWII and that was very powerful without resorting to a flashback. But then you have to go to monologue and that’s tricky in its own right. What’s the best way to approach that kind of moment in a narrative?
I had a life-defining moment on May 4 in 1970. I was nineteen years old, a good girl, a child of strict Republican parents who taught me to always obey authority and that the government was there to protect me. I was in school at Bowling Green State University, which is in northwestern Ohio, and on May 4, the National Guard shot and killed students like me at Kent State, another Ohio state school that was so close to us that when they closed Kent, the students came to our campus. The problem with a strict, absolute belief is that it can’t rebound from a blow, it cracks and shatters and there’s nothing left. I went from a 3.8 grade point to a .9, went from being a law-abiding citizen to a peace protestor, went from being my mother’s good girl to being a pot-smoking hippie who gave up her virginity without a qualm and never met an authority that didn’t make her say, “Hell, no.” That was a life-defining moment. Today the only time I think about it is when somebody says, “Kent State,” and for that moment the rage and the fear and the betrayal comes back, but only for that moment. Then I go on with my life because my world changed that day, but it was forty-four years ago. It changed me then, it doesn’t change me now.
And that’s the problem with back story. It’s in the back of the story, not at the front where the action and character arc and the change is. Using back story for motivation in the now isn’t just lazy, it’s useless. “He shot up his workplace because he had a bad childhood.” Yeah? Everybody I know had a bad childhood and none of us have shot up a Walmart. He didn’t do it because of his bad childhood, he did it because of something now. If it was because of his bad childhood, he’d have done it as a child.
Okay, that’s facile, but the thing about fiction is that it’s supposed to be better than reality. We go to fiction because the real world is chaotic and often meaningless, and good fiction gives us a rational world, and “This happened ten years ago which is why I’m doing this today” isn’t rational. Rational is, “This happened ten years ago and I changed and got on with my life and then THIS HAPPENED TODAY and now I’m doing this, in part because of my memories but really because of THIS THING THAT HAPPENED TODAY.” It’s not that our pasts don’t do a lot to shape who we are today, it’s that they don’t do anything to CHANGE who we are today, and change is what story is about, the day that is different. Your character isn’t what happened to her in the past, it’s who she is now on the page, how she talks, acts, treats people, handles problems now. If you want a shorter reason not to do back story, back story is telling, story in the now is showing. If your character wastes her story real estate in the now to moan about the past, she’s not doing anything.
So ask yourself, “Is that moment in the past really the defining moment in my character’s life?” Because if it is, that’s the story you should be writing. And if the story you’re writing now is another defining moment in the character’s life (most of us have multiple defining moments), then write about that one, not about the other story. Once again, pick a lane, but keep that lane, whatever it is, in its own now so you’re not hobbling your protagonist. There’s a reason Miss Havisham is not the lead character in Great Expectations: trailing around a mansion in a wedding dress from your aborted nuptials from thirty years before makes you an object of pity and revulsion, not a heroine. Think of your back story as a rotting wedding dress and let it go.
And now forty people will tell me I’m wrong and give me examples of great flashbacks. You know what? A flashback might be fascinating, it might be riveting (Quint is a good example), it might be amazing, but it’s never going to move story. So, no.