A flashback takes the reader from the current time to a previous time. This usually happens quickly, and then the reader is returned to the present.
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.
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, and are told as an action scene.
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.
Here is a beautiful example of a flashback that works. It’s from The Starlight Claim by Tim Wynne-Jones. To set the scene, Nate is a sixteen-year-old boy, thinking of his friend Dodge. Dodge died a year ago. The italics are Nate hearing Dodge speak to him while he reminisces. This is the end of one scene and the start of the next scene. The second scene is the flashback.
The freight train pulled into the station, going about the speed of a snail on tranqs. Too noisy to make a call now, [Nate] thought.
You’ve got to come, Numbster. You owe me.
Numbster. Short for numb nuts. Dodge had been a sentimental guy.
“What am I going to call you?” says Dodge. He hurls the hardball at Nate. Nate nabs it, hurls it back.
Right away, the reader knows the second scene is a flashback. Notice that it’s written as an active scene. The writer also switched from past tense to present. Another clue to the reader this is a flashback.
The first scene: The. Freight train pulled… is in past tense.
The second scene: He hurls the hardball…is in present tense.
This shows Wynne-Jones has control over his writing. The exit from the main plot into the flashback was well thought out and well constructed.
- 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.
Good backstory is an event that hurts your characters before page one. The backstory can create motives or character flaws and is told as narrative.
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
I hope the above illustrates who using select backstory can engage your readers.
You can also learn about the difference between Tension and Conflict and apply it to your story.
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