Questionable: Back Story and Flashback

Katie Redhead said:

I vote yes to discussing how and when to deploy backstory effectively . . . And maybe I’m sort of asking another question all together about flashbacks vs backstory and whether which way we get the information makes a difference to how I feel about a character.

Let’s start with what back story is, then go on to the difference between flashback and memory as a way of putting back story on the page, and then talk about back story and character.

Back story is the stuff that happens before the story starts.

If you are writing in classic linear structure, your story begins when the conflict starts and ends when the conflict ends.

That stretch of time between the beginning and the ending is the now of the story, the events unfolding in front of the reader, the events that make the reader part of the story.

Anything that happens before or after the now of the story is not story because it’s stuff that happens out of the time of the story. The common term for events previous to the story is “back story” but it should more accurately be called “history,” because it’s not part of the story it precedes and so is not story at all in that context.

Because your story is happening now in the reader’s mind, it’s a living thing; every time you interrupt the story to explain back story, you cut into it and make it bleed. Therefore, back story should be avoided at all costs.

Note: This applies only to linear/chronological storytelling. If you’re using a patterned narrative, you can go all over the place.

Flashback and memory are the two most common ways of screwing up your story in the now with back story.

A flashback is an event from the past shown as a full scene as if it is happening now, even though it isn’t. (The flashback, like the cake, is a lie.) Flashback cuts into your story to take the reader back to an event in the past so that she can read a scene that is not only not part of your story, it has no relevance to your story because what actually happened in the past is gone. The facts of the event evaporated right after it happened and it immediately became memory, or rather memories, the different versions that the people who were at the event constructed to explain it. There is no past in the now, there are just memories of what people think happened in the past, so what actually happened at that event is irrelevant and unknowable. So flashback in a chronological narrative is essentially useless.

Memory happens when a character in the now of the story remembers something that took place in the past. It’s better than flashback because it’s part of the now of the story, and it can be very useful if the important thing about the memory is the event in the now that evoked it, but it’s still deadly when misused because it results in sittin’ and thinkin’ scenes in which nothing happens, so the plot doesn’t move and character doesn’t change, the character just thinks about back story because the author wants to get that info on the page.

Basically, back story kills.

But, you ask, what happens when the stuff that happened in the past is important and must be on the page?

Look at your definition of “important.” If it really means, “It’s easier to explain this character by showing an event in her past,” that’s not important, that’s a misconception on two points.

The first is that a character’s reaction to any past event is an explanation for current behavior. Ten people can be traumatized by the same event, and they will react in ten different ways, take ten different paths, because no human being reacts to events in exactly the same way. So dropping the back-story-as-fact (which is really a subjective memory) into a story to explain something is useless.

The second is that one event in your character’s past does not inform her character, it’s the thousands of events that have happened to her since birth that have made her the person she is today, along with whatever genetic dispositions Nature packed into her before birth. That one event may be a piece of the puzzle the character is now, but it in no way completely explains or motivates her behavior now

Therefore do not use back story as explanation or motivation for character action: character is what we are now, how we act, what we say, how we think now, not what happened to us in the past. I can’t make this strong enough: Dropping big chunks of back story into the now of the story to explain something is useless and damaging and should be avoided at all costs.

Yes, I know that’s upsetting. Now let’s look at how you can use brief memories of back story in the now of the story to build and arc character.

Let’s start with our character, Jane. Jane is at a party chatting away, when Richard walks into the room. Jane freezes. The person Jane is talking to says, “What’s wrong, Jane?” Jane says, “There’s that bastard, Richard, who ripped off the head of my Barbies when I was six.” The person Jane is talking to says, “Let it go, Jane, you’re forty-two, it’s time to move on.”

If Jane does move on, you can cut that entire bit because that piece of back story, while fun, is completely unnecessary to the story.

If Jane does not move on, if the thought of her topless Barbies now haunts her and she begins to stalk Richard, planting Barbie heads everywhere he goes and slowly driving him mad, you can keep that bit and leave the back story as that one line. The reader knows all she needs to know to understand that Jane is a complete whack job, not because of what happened in the past but because of Jane’s actions now. Character is action now, not in the back story. What makes the Barbie back story important is not that it happened, but how Jane is acting on that memory now.

Have I mentioned that you should stay in the now of the story?

The key is to only give as much back story as the reader needs to understand the story she’s interested in now. She doesn’t want a flashback to Richard topping Barbies because she knows that happened. Move on, she thinks, What’s Jane doing to Richard now? Ah, he’s just found a Barbie head floating in his French onion soup, its plastic tresses tangled in the cheese. Now Richard’s throwing up on the waiter. Who cares what he was like when he was six, what’s he going to do now?

The key to back story in the now of the story is, why is this character remembering this now? What has happened in the now of the story to bring this memory back now? Why is this memory important now? What is that memory going to spur the character to do now? The memory isn’t what’s important, what really happened in the past isn’t what’s important, what’s important is what’s happening now that’s going to make the character do something now to change the story now which will in turn change her character now.

In short, stay in the now.

And now, looking into my crystal ball, I foresee these questions:

Can I have my character think about back story if something in the now of the story triggers the thought?

Okay, remember you’re in the now of the story. Richard has just said something to Jane that made her remember that he ripped the head off her Barbies. How much time does Jane have to think before she snaps at Richard? Whatever you write has to be in real time, Jane can’t remember the whole sordid story in the middle of the conversation because (a) people don’t have long memories when they’re involved in conversations, especially if they have a violent reaction to the memory, and (b) Richard’s gonna notice that long silence and ask questions about it. So you get exactly as much time to write back story as Jane has to think the thought and continue the conversation. Which probably means something like You bastard, not a detailed image of how the Barbies looked topless.

Fine, she’s not in conversation, she’s staring out a window thinking about the whole thing. Is that okay?

A scene is two people in conflict. If she’s staring out the window thinking, she’s passive, alone, and not in conflict and therefore not in scene and therefore you’re not telling story. You can fix it by putting somebody else in the scene and creating conflict, but then you’re back to conversation (see Jane and Richard above).

Okay, FINE. How the hell do I do back story then?

You don’t. If it’s not part of the ongoing plot, people don’t need to know it. Write the story without the back story and give it to your beta readers; if they don’t ask for more information, the story doesn’t need it. If they do, find a way to make the information BRIEFLY part of the ongoing plot, usually by somebody in the now questioning the actions of a character in the now and demanding an explanation.

Yeah, I know that’s hard. I’m working on two different novels right now that are lousy with back story, so I feel your pain.

In conclusion:
Most of the time you don’t need back story because what’s happening now is what’s important. When you do find you need it, it’s because something happening in the now is caused by the back story resurfacing in some way and that reemergence becomes part of the now. It’s not what happened back then that’s important, it’s the effect of that event on the current story that’s important.

Standard Disclaimer: There are many roads to Oz. While this is my opinion on this writing topic, it is by no means a rule, a requirement, or The Only Way To Do This. Your story is your story, and you can write it any way you please.

Index of Questionables

61 thoughts on “Questionable: Back Story and Flashback

  1. But characters grow out of the history that made them. I agree you shouldn’t stop the story to tell the reader about it! But if I look at _Welcome To Temptation_ it is solid with backstory — everybody’s actions are coming out of their pasts — like that old stored wallpaper and the old printed mayor posters, and the story would be much poorer without that. The story is going forward, but the roots are in that soil and it would be a much thinner and less rooted story without them. I totally agree with “don’t stop the story”, but you do have to let characters have history and you do have to get that across to the reader, because otherwise they’re just blanks waking up on the day the story starts with no connections, and nobody is that.

    1. I think sharing longer backstory has to be a thing that a character is doing to achieve a goal in the present. So if our lovely Jane is trying to convince somebody to join in her vengeance against Richard, she might get into the details of how horrifying it all was as a means of convincing someone. Or in Welcome to Temptation, Amy coaxes Clea and Sophie to share some of their stories so she can film it and put it in her movie. Sharing a longer memory has to have a goal in the present. When we share memories in real life, we do it to bond, or let off steam, or entertain people, or confess something. But how and what we share is determined by the situation, who we’re sharing the story with, and what we’re trying to accomplish. And that part is all very much in the present. Maybe the goal of the person sharing the story is what determines whether or not backstory moves the story forward or weakens it?

      1. I agree to a point. That is, the idea that lovers are sharing secrets definitely moves the relationship in the now. But if those secrets go on for pages, the story has stopped. Anybody who says, “Okay, I did this, but you have to understand, it happened because of something in my past,” and then goes into back story is shirking responsibility for who she is now. Amy wants those stories for a reason in the now (I really haven’t read that book for a long time), so if they go for more than a paragraph, they’re clogging up the story. As I remember, vaguely, the three women swap losing their virginity stories, and it’s the only moment in the whole book where they are even briefly connected since Clea is using Amy and Sophie and Amy is using Clea and Sophie. As I also remember, Amy keeps getting up to fix the camera, and Sophie gets suspicious, and that’s what that scene is supposed to be about.
        I don’t think that telling people back story (in real life or in fiction) really motivates people to do something in the now unless the other person is closely attached to the person with the back story and the back story is heart wrenching: the murderers on The Orient Express, for example, executing someone who’d gotten away with a murder that devastated all of them. But if the past is the past, it’s just lousy motivation; that one works because the kidnapper is still alive in the present, he hasn’t been punished and must be in the present. Another approach is “He did this before which is I why I’m sure he’s going to do it again;” that brings it into the now of the story: we have to stop him before he does it now.
        Mysteries are a real bitch for this because the entire story is about trying to find out what happened in the past, but if you read really good mysteries, they’re much more about what’s happening now, what the detective is doing now to uncover the culprit, what the culprit is doing now to escape, how the investigation is changing people’s lives now. I think that’s why the “You’re probably wondering why I’ve called you all together” speeches at the end of too many mysteries are so often boring: the action is over and the detective is just explaining what he did. Unless something big happens during that reveal, it’s just blather.
        I do agree that the goal of the person sharing the story is important because that goal is something she wants now, and the back story is just the tool she’s using to get it, but again, if there’s a big chunk of it, it stops the story regardless.

    2. To be honest, it’s been so long since I wrote (and read) WTT, I don’t know how I handled it.
      But I don’t agree that everybody’s actions come out of his or her past. They come out of his or her character, but that’s shaped by more than one event in the past. What you want on the page is the character doing something in the now, not describing one of the events many years ago that contributed to his or her character.
      So the Tucker-For-Mayor posters are in the now of the story; Sophie sees them and makes deductions on what the town and Phin must be like. I absolutely did not have to put that big chunk about his grandmother making a mistake on the order; one sentence would have done that.
      The wallpaper was a metaphor and I worked it to death; I’d cut that way back.
      The fact that Clea had made a porn film was only important because she hadn’t told the Dempseys that she was going to give it to a porn producer to distribute, and that was only important (they already knew Clea was a liar) because Leo showed up in the now and changed the film in the now. I think Davy drops that bomb on them in a couple of sentences.
      I think Phin and Sophie swapped some back story, but as I remember (long time ago) it wasn’t the back story so much as it was that they were moving closer and telling each other things they never talked about with anybody else, what was important wasn’t what happened in the past, it was the fact that in the now, they trusted each other enough to talk about pain. But even so, I think there was too much; I’d have to go back and look.

      But again, many roads to Oz. That’s the writer I was then, and she did a pretty good job. I think a lot of the success or failure of back story just comes down to, “Did I sludge up the fast running stream of my story by dumping in a lot of stuff that’s not necessary?” I did in WTT, but probably not nearly as badly as I did in earlier books.

  2. That was a fabulous way to look at the mechanics of backstory. Thanks for sharing your insight. I really liked how you put it!

  3. I love the reminder that it’s not really what happened in the past — the blow-by-blow actions — but how the character remembers it and acts on it, which varies depending on the character’s personality. That can’t be stressed enough, and it’s not something I’ve seen elsewhere in other discussions of flashbacks.

    If anyone’s read anything about eyewitness testimony, you know how unreliable it is, and how a dozen different witnesses to an event will have seen different things happening.

    The other aspect to it, the one that isn’t as well known, is how the same event can affect different people in different ways. I did some work on a case once (the attorney I was working with represented the homeowners insurance company on some technical issue of coverage) where the occupant of one house shot a gun (spoiler for the squeamish: no one was physically hurt) that went through the wall of the house across the street and into the headboard of a kid’s bed. The kid and the parents were understandably upset, and for most people, there would have been a reasonable period of anxiety until the neighbor’s guns were confiscated and he was sent to jail (which did happen pretty quickly), maybe a counseling visit or two, and then life would have gone back to (fairly) normal, and the kid would have had a great story to tell his friends about his brush with death. But in this case, the mother over-reacted, and was constantly reminding the kid that he could have died, and the world was an unsafe place, and he couldn’t go out to play (although, remember, the danger was inside the house!), and so on. Not surprisingly, the kid began to develop a number of anxiety symptoms that resisted treatment, because the mother was constantly reinforcing the danger and undermining the therapy.

    So, really, it’s not just the event, but it’s how the individual reacts to it afterwards, and subsequent factors working on the memory and reaction, which you can’t know from the event itself.

    1. That’s a great example because what’s really horrifying about that is not the dumbass neighbor, it’s the ongoing child abuse.
      To move that to a fictional frame, if the story is about the mother telling the kid that stuff in the now, the story is about the mother trying to keep her child safe and the child trying to live a normal life. If the story is about the child grown up and fearful, then it’s not about what’s happened with his mother in the past, it’s about how his fearful nature is affecting the story in the now. If he tries to explain why he’s so afraid by telling the story about his mother, it means he’s aware that’s where it comes from, and he’s using it as a crutch. If he doesn’t know why he’s so fearful, but even now when he’s grown, his mother insists on telling everybody that story (in a couple of sentences), then that moves the mother/son dynamic to the now and affects the story (as everybody in the now tells her to shut up). If Mom is dead and he doesn’t know, then that back story has no part in the now and it’s enough to establish that his is a fearful character and will act based on that.
      A good rule of thumb is that any time an author drags in character psychology based on a past event to explain something in the present, he or she is telling not showing. Back story is telling not showing.

  4. As a reader, a little back story is fine by me but some books are so overloaded with it that I get lost and have to page back through what I’ve just read and delineate the past and present before I can move on. I think that more literate novels are the worst offenders. Genre stories have to move along. 🙂

    I have been catching up on Person of Interest and I do like how we’ve found out the details of everyone’s past in little chunks that are understated (can’t think of a better word right now) unlike some other shows (**cough**Arrow**cough**) that hit you over the head with it. And because I have no other place to say it – I love Fusco. Between the actor and the writing, it’s the best character development I’ve had the pleasure to watch since Babylon 5 and G’Kar/Londo Mollari.

    1. PoI is an interesting example because they did flashbacks in one episode that I thought were brilliant. (Most of the others I could do without.) It was the episode where the Gang was fragmented, reeling after the death of the heart of their community, and they were all trying to deal with the loss in different ways–mostly beating people up–and there were four flashbacks to therapy sessions or something similar that demonstrated that all four had difficulty processing emotions, especially emotions about death, because they’re all so cold and repressed. Because each session was so shattering (Fusco’s was jaw dropping), it fit with the fragmented structure of the story, and then as the team came apart in the present because the loss was so great, those scenes acted as foils to where the characters were in the now. Those are the only flashbacks I’d watch again; they were riveting.

      One of the many problems with Arrow’s flashbacks is that they’re so long, they’re often half the episode, so the story becomes two different stories, and viewers pick the one they like, and fast forward through the other. Those island scenes are just deadly, and they’re always there to explain something the characters are doing in the now, sometimes things that the characters have already explained in the now. They’re awful.

      Arrow is a good example of how back story can bite you in the butt. There’s a scene in the back story where the bad guy threatens to shoot one of two women our hero, Oliver loves. He points the gun at one of them, and Oliver leaps in front of her to take the bullet, so the Bad Guy shoots the other woman. Every viewer sees this happen. The bad guy tells Oliver to choose, Oliver says no, the bad guy points the gun, Oliver moves to block it, the bad guy shoots the other woman.
      Except that in the now of the story, everybody including Oliver is convinced that he chose one woman over the other. The motivation for the Big Bad for the entire season is based on Oliver choosing one woman over the other. If we hadn’t seen the back story and Oliver was arguing that he hadn’t chosen, then there’d be some interesting stuff going on, but as it is, the conflict is between Oliver/Slade insisting that he chose and the viewers insisting that he didn’t because they saw him not choose. It’s some of the dumbest storytelling I’ve ever seen and all of it would go away if they just hadn’t shown the flashback.

      1. Arrow is a good example of how a back story can bite you in the butt! – Yep the more they continue to tell the story on the island and the story today – the more i just feel like the whole thing is going in circles because really one should learn from experiences! Plus they like to thrown in things that make no sense if you try and apply logic to a timeline over a 7 year period (5 years on the island and 2 back).

        In terms of a book – one of the Fantasy books I read (Mistborn Trilogy) the author prefaced every section with a “in the beginning x” type paragraph. So while the preface didn’t necessarily directly refer to the characters that would be in the section it did provide a hint as to what would be explored as well as give me some history behind the world we were in-the great evil-current politics of the day.

        Im not sure that the preface in that situation is considered backstory though?

      2. You know they actually kind of went back and addressed that issue in Arrow last week. Sara *finally* said to Oliver something about him not having a choice and that there was nothing he could have done to make that end differently. I don’t have the exact wording around because I can’t find the clip anywhere, but when it finally popped up in the episode, I threw my hands up and yelled, “Finally!” at my TV. Ugh. Don’t get me started.

  5. A scene is two people in conflict.

    It’s this statement that throws me every time. I’m working on an adventure story with romantic elements. My character spends some time surviving (Man vs Environment). I think there can be conflict without two people in the scene, think Life of Pi, etc. I agree that scenes have conflict and arc. I think this is why I have so much trouble with your conflict lock, because there isn’t always a consciousness in conflict with my protagonist. (Struggling to make sense of this difference.)

    As for flashback and back story, this exactly.

    1. Haven’t seen or read the Life of Pi, so I’m useless there. From pictures, he’s sitting in a boat with a tiger. Isn’t that protagonist/antagonist? Sorry, I just don’t know enough about that story or your story to comment. I am wondering, if your story is a romantic adventure, how you’re moving that romance if the protagonist is battling the environment alone.

      1. I see the tiger as part of the environment that Pi survives, much like Wilson is part of the environment in Castaway. The authors use them as means for directing dialog so that the characters aren’t babbling to themselves, but they have emotional resonance, too, I admit.

        It gets complicated in Pi, and I can’t explain it because I don’t want to spoil it if you ever watch it. Maybe not the best example, because the plot of Pi and the story of Pi are two different things. But anyway, what I’m plotting doesn’t have a character alone for such extended periods, but there is separation in a dangerous situation, that includes hiding and traveling and surviving, while striving to reunite. I want both the adventure of the journey and that moment of reuniting. Did you see King Kong with Adrien Brody and Naomi Watts? There’s a moment when he comes for her, when she looks at him with amazement that he would strive so hard to come to her there, through such danger. I want that moment too, but the roles are reversed. So in my scenes during this time, there is war, there is danger, but not always a human antagonist.

        1. The only real answer to this is that you have to write the story in the way you think it’s best to tell it because it’s your story, and that trumps anything else. It’s the reason I try to remember to put the disclaimer at the bottom of every Questionable. IF that’s the way your story demands to be told, then you have to be true to your vision.

          1. Thank you, Jenny. You make me think it through. I think I’m reflecting something about alienation and connection in the plot that I didn’t realize.

  6. I have to admit, I much prefer chronological storytelling with a minimum of time-jumping – anything that requires me to pay attention to the date on the chapter header is not going to work well for me. And I abhor the lazy device you see on TV so often nowadays, where they start with the exciting scene and then then switch to a quiet scene labeled “2 days earlier” (or whatever time period it might be). Drives me nuts. Lazy storytelling.

    1. Oh, yes. I really hate that device too. It just signals to me that the writers haven’t come up with a good (interesting) beginning to the story, so they feel the need to find something exciting to sort of announce, “Stick with us, and we’ll get to the good stuff eventually.” But they haven’t fixed the not-so-good beginning to the story, just moved it to where they hope the viewer won’t notice.

    2. I hate that. As Gin says, it’s a dead giveaway that the writers don’t have faith in their story. I particularly hate it when it’s a lie, and it turns out the gun that the mad killer was shooting the entire town with was a paintball gun, or the moment of despair is actually part of a con. That’s lying to the reader and it’ll spoil a story for me every time. The series finale of Leverage did that; made me crazy. Actually they do that in several episodes.

  7. I’ve just thought of another brilliant use of flashback: the Leverage episode “The Rashomen Job.” It’s a patterned structure in which each team member gives his or her version of the same theft, and it’s hysterically funny, in part because by that point we know the characters so well. It’s my favorite Leverage episode and it’s 90% flashback. I think that’s coming up in the next couple of weeks so we can talk about POV and community, but really we’re watching it because it’s so much fun.

    1. It was really neat in that episode how people were replaced as each one told their version of the story.

    2. I watched “The Rashomon Job” twice in a row; that is, it was so fun the first time, I just took a necessary break and then clicked on the episode again! I have now seen it 3 times and am looking forward to the fourth.

      The Good Wife had contrasting flashbacks in “The Decision Tree”. The differences were small but meaningful, in the way 2 different people remembered things.

  8. Thanks for this! Up until now I’ve always written in a linear pattern. I have a story I’m working on that would be best told as a patterned narrative. Do you know of any online resources that offer information on the patterned narrative and how to use it successfully?

    1. I don’t know of any writing resources although there must be. The best example I know of is Margaret Atwood’s short story “Rape Fantasies.”

  9. When I’m writing, I try to approach back story as more the events that emotionally shaped the character as s/he is today. That’s always important to know but when I frame it against the Now of the Story, I try to keep in mind that all of that stuff isn’t something the reader needs to know. I’ve never found a reason for flashbacks in my stories. I’m not a fan of them in books I’ve read. Balanced back story is okay but it’s when it goes on and on and on for pages that I have problems and start flipping pages.

    There is, for me a difference between acknowledging that the hero hated his hometown and skipped out, leaving the heartbroken heroine behind in a book plot that has that same hero hero returning to said town and reuniting with said heroine. But what if the Now of the Story is about this same hero in a new town with a new woman? Suddenly including that back story makes no real sense. I certainly wouldn’t need flashbacks. Those past events will have shaped who the hero is in the present, but I can convey the important aspects of that back story via how I actively portray the hero in the Story in the Now… his choices of career, his attitudes toward peoples & towns, heck even the type of transportation he prefers. I could probably sum up his back story in one sentence of dialogue with the heroine. Done. The rest would have to stay firmly grounded in the present for them to deal with in the Now of the Story because the story isn’t about the small town he ran away from or the girl he left behind. It’s about today.

    I think this is why I have such problem with one of the stories I’ve been kicking around forever now. I keep getting bogged down in the back story. I keep telling myself it needs to be explained in order for the “today” story to make sense. Then I read what I wrote, growl, and rip those pages back out of the manuscript because they’re *boring.* They don’t move anything forward. They don’t introduce conflict. They don’t “do” anything. They’re just boring and wrong because *I* know that No, the reader doesn’t need to know all this stuff. I know I’m over-thinking it and that’s why the back story thing keeps creeping in. I’m trying to justify to myself the hero’s actions in the present and leaning on back story to do it. Ugh! Hate it! Yet when I skip ahead to try to plant the story in the present and kick it off where it feels like it should begin, I can’t get any traction. Sigh. Is it any wonder why this story has been stuck for years now?

    On the other hand, it’s funny because I once wrote a story where the hero has no back story. None. He’s never called by his real name, he never gives it up. He goes by an alias given to him by the heroine in the very beginning of the story. He has no past. He never speaks of it. He’s a mystery man just passing through The heroine makes certain assumptions but that’s based on his actions and deed and things she observes about him. It doesn’t hurt the story or his character. In fact, for that plot, I thought it worked really well. But it didn’t make his character “lack” anything. I don’t think anybody who read it felt they didn’t understand him because he had no back story. His character stood on its own because of who he was the Now of the Story.

  10. Am I the only one impressed that Jenny can make a Portal reference and put a picture of beheaded Barbies in the same post? Yes? Ah well. I’ll just sit here and cackle to myself then.
    Also, someone should find Jane a therapist. And maybe Richard, too (I like to believe beheading Barbies is not normal behavior. Look at Sid in Toy Story).

    1. I don’t know about Portal, so I don’t see the reference. But I do love having this great discussion about writing interspersed with Jane and then a picture of beheaded Barbies. Who else in the world would do this? It’s so wonderful!

      1. The Portal reference is “the cake is a lie,” which is an old internet meme. You didn’t miss anything.

  11. Thanks for this. My guess is a little back story on a “need to know” basis is fine. Feeding in small amounts, a sentence or two over several chapters, would increase intrigue, but I agree it would have to be relevant to the story now. The reader gets that snippet of info and starts thinking oooh, this is interesting.
    I think I’d better take another peek at my ms. before submitting. Ha ha.

  12. The picture of the headless Barbies is just perfect! I wonder if Jenny found it first and wrote the example later, or she wrote the example first and searched for the picture afterwards?
    Any way, this is a great post, precise and expressive. I subscribe to the same point of view and try to keep backstory in my writing to an absolute minimum. But many writers of series, especially fantasy and sci-fi, offer entire chapters or prologues of backstory, summarizing all that happened before the current book. And then they end the novel in a cliffhanger, so they have to do it again in the next book. I find the practice off-putting and don’t read such writers. But I’m in the minority. Many readers love them and count days until the next novel in a series, with even longer prologue to include the additional book. Didn’t their writing mentors teach those writers that backstory is deadly and should be avoided?

    1. Idea came first and then I did a google search for the image. I had a disturbingly large selection to choose from including on that had several Barbie heads in a bathtub.

  13. I read a book somewhat recently where in the first 60% or so of the book, more than half of it was back story. The only reason I finished it was because I was reviewing it. It sucked until we got to the part where the back story fill, that I didn’t care about and only made me not like the heroine & hero, stopped & the story started.

    1. Thatsa lotta backstory. But frontloading a story with backstory is sometimes a stage you have to go through in writing. You know you’re not going to keep it, but you need to work your way through it. But then for the love of god, CUT IT.

    2. That reminds me of a book a friend of mine talked about. She was so excited about it and then when she read it, she came back to me just so disappointed. All back story, no story, and it went on for hundreds and hundreds of pages. She was so upset because it was a character that was part of a series and she’d been reading all the books for years, expressly excited about that one, and when it came out it was a back story filled with abuse and violence for a very thick portion of the book. I don’t think she ever finished it.

  14. This is a fantastic explanation of back story and the pitfalls associated with it, thank you. I would suggest The Blacklist as an example of back story done well. Most weeks, we get a tantalizing scene, a minute or two at most, where we see what Red wanted to get from the Blacklister, why he set the FBI on to them. Piece by piece it adds to what we know about what happened to him (and occasionally, where other characters have come from, what they are doing) which, for Red, was the first step on becoming the person we were introduced to at the beginning of the series. But, while doing so, it is still in the now of the story, telling us about his search (and I guess the fact that Red himself doesn’t know key aspects to his own backstory also brings it into the present?) Even the scene with Red at the ballet, which could technically be described as Red sitting and remembering, tells us more about how Red is coping (or not coping) with the past in the now, rather than telling us what has happened to him. And while there are moments of flashback, they are fleeting, seconds long (at the ballet, Liz and the smoke) and tell us more about the characters emotional reaction than what actually happened.

    The show also makes good use of video as a means of conveying back story, so the audience can see something that happened in the past, but at the same time, the focus can be and I would argue often is on the reaction of the character that is witnessing the video in the present.

    And come to think of it, even in the most recent episode (and I hope this isn’t spoilery, I don’t think so, but you can delete it if you think any of it is) there is a conversation between two characters where they are having a conversation, and only discussing events in the present (or the immediate past, i.e., within the timeframe of the episode) yet it supplies the key bits of information about the two characters, and their past relationship to each other, both real and fake.

    Thank you for your references to The Blacklist, by the way – I started watching after your initial post where you talked about it (along with other surprising shows) and am thoroughly hooked.

    1. Thank you for not spoiling. Since I don’t have cable, I get episodes of three shows I watch a day late through Amazon and sometimes I don’t get to them for awhile, although The Blacklist is my reward tonight for working through my To Do list today.

      I thought the show did something great with back story earlier this season when Red tells someone about the trauma of coming home and finding his family slaughtered. It was chilling. Then later he says it wasn’t true, it was a story he told to get what he wanted, and you’re left wondering which is the lie, which puts it all in the now of the story.

  15. Jenny, did you see Inside Man with Clive Owen and Denzel Washington? If so, would you consider it a patterned story? As the story of the bank robbery develops, the filmmakers intercut interviews with the hostages after the fact with the now of the main story. Or is the main story a flashback, because when Owen addresses the camera in the beginning, the robbery is already over?

  16. Fab distinctions. Agree and think it’s a great compass while writing to always ask myself if a scrap of info I’m giving is connected to the now, so “now” makes a good “north” for me:)

    But a lot of what you explain re backstory I also feel applies to research. Not keen on the “research dump” either. Mostly, my experience is that 99% of research helps informs the writer but doesn’t need to be on the page. Case in point: I read a book recently that moved locations a lot and almost always spent at least a page on the locale’s history. I was fine with the relevant bits, but found myself instantly editing these intros down to a paragraph max as I read. And this was by a good, tight writer who knows how to keep story moving, so in no way am I knocking the writing overall, just not a fan of lots of this or overly detailed explanation like its kin, “here’s how & why this works.”

    Probably this is subjective and some readers love the facts, so it’s good that they’re in there for those readers. Just not for me. Felt the same way the first time I read a John Fowles book with lost of description–all the loveliness & poetic feel were lost on me after a while and I started skimming those passages. But then, I was not born with an abundance of the patience gene;)

    1. The dreaded Infodump, of which Back Story is a subset. Other flavors include Research, which is exactly as you’ve described it; the Emotional Inventory, during which the character examines her feelings in great detail (your reader is not your character’s therapist); the Houzz Plague or “Let Me Describe This Room/House/Landscape/Setting In Detail,” and a host of other Things That Are Not Story.

      Sometimes when I do critiques, the temptation to say, “Will you cut all this crap and just tell the damn story?” is overwhelming. It’s not hard. You just look at a passage and say, “Is this telling the story? No? It’s gone.”

      1. I’m reading The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence for a book club, and most of the book is Emotional Inventory – thank you for defining it for me! :-). There’s just no plot – there’s no there there.

  17. Thank you for these blogs, Jenny. I’ve learned a lot through them. This one will have me thinking for days.

    1. You’re very welcome. They’re good for me, too, since some day I really do want to do that writing book, so running al of this past Argh Nation is excellent.

  18. This is very good information because my current WIP (very first draft) is lots and lots of backstory, lots and lots about the world, and a little bit of conflict. So I’m becoming more and more aware of what needs to happen and how to better use my knowledge of history in the story.

    I remember reading a very thick fantasy book years ago. The author was very successful and had a series of these thick books. I barely finished one. Obviously the author had taken the time to learn everything he could about period sailing ships: all the pieces, what they did, how one took care of them and how one handled the mechanics of a period sailing ship. It was so immensely boring and did nothing to further the plot or the characters. It was as if the author decided that all his research HAD to go into the book. It was painful.

    I have a question re conflict (always it goes back to conflict). Does conflict have to be between two characters? I’m currently thinking that the conflict of my story, in parts or the overarching conflict, is between the main character, who wants so much to be normal, and her magic, which wants to be expressed. There will be conflicts with other characters, and between some of the other characters. But currently it seems to me that the main conflict is between what the MC wants her life to be and what her inherent nature wants her life to be.

    1. That’s internal conflict. It’s very important, but it moves character arc, not story. Do you have a character who can represent her inherent nature? The way Ronnie represents Loretta’s inherent nature in Moonstruck?

      1. Actually, I have two characters who can do that, and they are going to be in opposition: one who lives in an almost totally magical way and another who lives a more balanced magical/non-magical sort of way. I think that can work. And now there will be three-way conflict. Oh ugh, because often all three of them will be in a scene together. But at least they are tangible conflicts.

    2. I think there’s a subset of fantasy, and sometimes science fiction, where the story isn’t the big thing. People want a history lesson (or mechanical fidgeting in the Regency era) in a palatable package. The story is just there to make the delivery of these facts not so boring.

      And sometimes it’s REALLY boring. But sometimes it’s downright synergetic — the trivia is fun, and then the story is fun, and they play off of each other.

      (-: But it’s not universally appealing. (I know nothing is universally appealing, but some things are more popular/enduring than others, and some works are ephemera that are great for the moment, or for the audience.)

      Gotta have the writer and the readers in sync to pull off that trick . . . .

  19. I have a feeling we’ve discussed The Crying Game before. Maybe it’s patterned? I really liked that movie, but I’ve only seen it once.

    Raiders of the Lost Ark used backstory VERY effectively, but as Jenny points out, it was often just a sentence or two that explained why things were happening NOW. Why go to Mongolia to visit the ex-girlfriend? Her dad probably has the medallion that we need right now.

    AFAIR, we never did get the backstory for why Indy hated snakes. Don’t need it. Common phobia, and we see what he does with it in the now.

  20. So when Michael Hauge talks about the Wound, or the late Blake Snyder, the Shard of Glass, these old psychological traumas or life-changing experiences can inform the now of the story but not necessarily be dredged up…am I understanding you correctly? And it’s because the other thousands of experiences in that character’s life helped evolve him or her, too. Again, not positive I have that right. But if so, then I like that very much. I’m bored with plumbing the emotional depths of my characters to find that one life-altering moment–the wound that has been scarred over–or your readers won’t empathize with that character. Not everyone has that one moment, and I frankly don’t give a s*** about it. To me, it feels contrived to seek it and invent it. Yet I’ve been told time and again in workshops that you have to mine that character’s back story for the Event That Changed Everything. You. must. pin. it. down. I really hope what I’m hearing is what you’re saying: who gives a crap about the past? Stay here and now.

    1. I think who we are now is the sum of everything we’ve experienced, so tracking all of that back to one event is reductive and absurd.
      However, if some event in the past is causing the inciting event, the thing that throws the protagonist into her story, then that’s not “this happened to me and formed who I am,” it’s “this happened to me and now it’s come back to haunt me in the event right NOW.”
      One thing to remember about Hauge, from whom I’ve learned a lot, and Snyder is that they’re talking screenplays which can be much simpler than novels in their approach. Not always, of course, but a lot of the time. A screenplay is remarkably short compared to a novel (although not any easier to write) so you’re not going to do the layering over time that you do in 400 pages of densely written ms. What you do have in screenplay is actors communicating character in ways outside the scope of the script.
      I don’t think I’ve ever written a character who was formed by one event, although they all probably had vivid memories of different events that stuck in their minds, the way we all do, things that happened that were probably innocuous at the time but that for some reason stay with us. And they’ve probably repressed or forgotten things that were really traumatic, too painful to recall.
      I was twelve when my grandmother died, and the hospital called my dad, and he had to run two blocks to be with my grandpa to tell him, and I remember my mother standing at the kitchen window, saying in this dispassionate voice, “He’s running to tell his father that his mother is dead,” as if she were trying to process it. That memory has had absolutely no impact on my life, I wasn’t particularly fond of my grandmother who was a very cold woman, but I’ll never forget it. OTOH, I sometimes have weird reactions to things, completely out of line with what’s really happening, and I always wonder where the hell that comes from.
      In short, memory of the events that shaped us is wonky at best, and definitely incomplete, and even more definitely not to be traced back to one simple event. Human beings are infinitely more complex that that.
      Although talking of Michael Hauge reminds me of Hitch because we had a huge argument about Hitch once, both of us gritting our teeth while we were polite because you can’t smack somebody in the middle of RWA, because he thought the movie was great and I’m on record as hating the main plot, especially the part where the female lead explains that she has a hard time attaching because her sister fell through the ice once and almost drowned. We watched that for PopD once, and Lani and I looked at each other at the point and said, “Really? REALLY?”
      No, I’m not a fan of the Wound.

  21. After reading your concerns about the use of Flashbacks–I have this question. If the story begins with a character coming wake in side a box–in complete darkness– how he got there–where did he go wrong–this character thinks back how one thing led to another ending in being robbed,. tied up, knocked out stuffed in a box to rot. Would a series of mini flashbacks chained together like a necklace work to ground the reader how such a life and death situation come about? These flashbacks would in a way be daylight pictures,. images in a dark overwhelming place. Any comments, advice and thoughts would be most helpful. Thanks.

    1. Flashbacks are only flashbacks if you’re doing a traditional linear plot. If you’re using a different kind of structure–say a framed structure or a patterned structure–then time is handled differently.

      For example (example only, not a suggestion): He wakes up in the box and realizes what’s happened (first section of frame). Then he tells the adventure story of how he got into the box. Then at the end (back in the box) he puts it in context. How he got into the box is adventure; the theme and the meaning is in the frame.

      Or you may be using a patterned structure, something like Out of Sight. Or you may be basing your structure on something else entirely. There are a million possible structures; the only time you have to worry about flashbacks is if you’re using tradition linear structure that starts at the beginning and goes on until you get to the end. Then flashbacks are death to your pacing.

      I’m more concerned about the sittin’ and thinkin’ going on in that box. No antagonist is going to make those sections pretty static.

      1. Thanks Jenny for your insight. I want to think over the Frame structure idea. This might be the best. My character is not sitting and thinking. He is hog tied and robbed of his money and clothes. Unless something happens to free him –he may die. To deal with his fear of hopelessness–he drives his mind to picture how he got in such a jam in flashback fashion. Thanks again

        1. Sorry, I didn’t make myself clear. My creative writing prof, Lee K. Abbott, used to call scenes with one character “sittin’ and thinkin’ scenes.” That applied to characters who were walking or lying down or whatever; if there was one character who was just thinking, not in active, escalating conflict with another character, it was a sittin’ and thinkin’ scene. So your imprisoned, desperate character is still just thinking, not in conflict. He’s in big trouble, but because he’s alone, he’s not in conflict.

          1. Thanks again Jenny. It looks like I will have to change the beginning of the story.

          2. You know, maybe not.
            Remember, I’m one opinion. I’m often wrong. And you are the ONLY person who knows the right way to write your story. If you feel strongly about the opening as it is now, keep it. It’s your story.

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