Flashback Versus Backstory
A flashback takes the reader from the current time to a previous time. This usually happens quickly, and then they are returned to the present.
A flashback is told as an action scene.
Backstory is the story that happens before your novel begins. Sometimes during the story, you need to inform the reader of something that happened earlier in a character’s life. You may have files upon files of information you store elsewhere that you use to develop your characters, but what we’re concerned with here is what the reader needs to know.
Backstory is told as narrative.
A reader lives a flashback is if it were a regular scene. Flashbacks can be a sentence, a paragraph, a scene, or an entire chapter.
The importance of a flashback should influence its length. So look at each flashback and ask yourself how important is it to the story. This is where the rewrite comes in. You may have a flashback in which a murder occurs, and the murder is the driving motive for your protagonist in this story. In that case, give the flashback time to develop on the page. Don’t shortchange your reader with only a few sentences.
Remember a flashback is a scene. It must be immediate. It must have conflict or tension. You’re taking the reader out of the story and into the past, so make it worthwhile.
When you’re revising your flashback, check how you got into and out of the scene. Did you give the reader a clue you were jumping back in time? How do you let them know you are back in the present.
You can use an object to do this. An object in the present can trigger a character to think about something in the past, and that’s your lead into the flashback.
A sound or loud noise can jar the character from the flashback and back into the present. Any of the senses will work for this.
Are the flashbacks clustered together or spread throughout the story. If too many flashbacks occur close together, maybe they could be repositioned or grouped into one flashback.
- How important is the flashback?
- Is the flashback written as a scene?
- Did you give the reader a clue you were jumping back in time?
- How do you let readers know they are back in the present?
- Are there too many flashbacks clustered together.
By keeping track of the backstory, you can decide if you’ve started your novel in the right place.
If you have more backstory than current story, you may want to start your novel earlier in the character’s life.
A good backstory is an event that hurts your characters before page one. The backstory can create motives or character flaws.
You may be writing a novel that is over half backstory. In this case, you’ll be using a technique where you bounce between the present and the future. Do you give a fair balance to past and present?
If you’re writing a novel with a small amount of backstory, then you don’t want too much backstory early on in the manuscript. Only dole out the information as the reader needs to learn it. You don’t want to give too much backstory at one time. This can cause the reader to lose interest in the story if they are jarred out of the immediate story.
Part of re-writing backstory may include moving some of the backstory to later in the manuscript. If you find you have a lot of backstory in the first scene or chapter, consider moving some of it to later in the novel.
Ask yourself, does the reader need the backstory information? If the answer is no, then cut it from your story. If the answer is yes, ask yourself does the reader need the information in the current scene or can you move it to later?
Your characters need to do something interesting before too much backstory is included.
One final thought on backstory. Curiosity is what drives the reader forward. If your character has a past that’s driving their motivation, then don’t tell the reader too soon.
Keep the reader curious.
- Do you have more backstory than current narrative?
- How early in your novel does backstory occur?
- Does the reader need to know what you’re sharing in the backstory?
- Does the backstory cause a character pain?
- Is the backstory important enough to be shown as a flashback
How Fictionary Can Help You
Below is the Story Map in Fictionary for Look The Other Way (by Kristina Stanley). In Fictionary, you can select only the key elements of fiction you want to evaluate
In the Story Map, I’ve selected the POV character for the scene, backstory and flashback
You’ll notice I don’t have a flashback in any of the first 6 scenes. I have one later in the novel for a key event in Shannon’s past.
For Backstory in each scene, I’ll show why the backstory is included.
Scene 1: Shannon quit previous job. This is important to the scene because Shannon is being fired. Now she’s regretting leaving her last job.
Scene 2: Debi’s boat history. The story takes place on a sailboat and this lets the reader know Debi is qualified to go sailing.
Scene 3: Previous fight. Shannon and Lance are engaged, but I let the reader know there is trouble in paradise.
Scene 4: Jake was a cop. Now the reader knows Jake’s purpose in the novel. He’ll be believable when tracking a killer.
Scene 5: Jake’s past hurts. Here, I’m letting the reader know Jake is carrying a past that was difficult and it will serve as the reason why he has trouble getting close to Shannon.
Scene 6: Boy’s bedtime ritual. This backstory shows a closeness the boy feels to his father, so when the father dies, the reader will understand his pain.
I hope the above illustrates who using select backstory can engage your readers.
The History of Fictionary
Fictionary is a new interactive web app for self-editing fiction that helps writers turn a first draft into a story readers love.
Creating Fictionary began when I (Kristina) finished the first draft of my first novel. By then I’d read over 50 how-to-write and how-to-self-edit books. I’d taken writing courses and workshops, and had 100s of writing and rewriting tips swirling about in my head.
I knew I had to begin the rewriting process and improve the quality of my draft before sharing my work but I didn’t know how to go about it. How was I supposed to remember the torrent of advice and apply it to each scene? To address this problem, we built Fictionary.
Post written by Kristina Stanley
Kristina is the CEO of Fictionary, and I edited all of her books using Fictionary.
Why not check out Fictionary’s free 14-day trial and turn your draft into a story readers love?