There are tools in a writer’s arsenal that I like to think of as seasoning. The most common ones are adverbs and adjectives. Use them too much and your story is unpalatable. Too little and bland, bland, bland. Of course this is a matter of taste. I’ve a good friend whose idea of culinary excitement is to slather some mayo on her white bread and bologna. Then again, I’ve had Mexicans laugh at me for crying over chile rellenos.
A little less thought of in the seasoning category are backstory and flash backs.
Now every writer cares deeply about his or her character’s backstory. A good character doesn’t pop up from thin air. He has a full life that begins before the story –erm except for David Copperfield. We get to follow him from birth. :) Ahem. But yes, there is usually the story before the story. How did this character get to this point where our story starts? What are the forces that have made her the person she is at the start of the story? All very important. Right? Well…
That depends. Of course, we –the writers- need to know all of this. It helps us develop our character. The reader might need to know as well. Certain plots revolve around things that have happened in the past as it comes back to haunt the character in the present. Backstory can be very important when it comes to world building as in fantasy. The reader can’t easily jump into an alternate world without understanding how that world works.
The thing is, backstory is like salt. Too much and it ruins the reading experience. Our story is now. Yes, backstory helps ground the reader, or guide them, but it must be used properly. Back to fantasy/sci-fi or alternate world building. A reader will be much more forgiving of backstory because it is needed to understand the world the characters live in. Thus we can add a bit more into the beginning of the book. Even so, you have to remember backstory: salt.
A while back, Jen wrote an awesome post of tension. One main point in tension is to leave the reader constantly wanting to know more. In every story there is a mystery. This doesn’t mean a “whodunit” precisely. It is a subtle use of raising questions that the reader wants answered. Here is where backstory can be used in a highly effective manner.
Giving hints of things that happened in the past can whet a reader's curiosity. What has happened to this character? Why does she fear this thing? What haunts them? All these answers are backstory. Yet how we reveal them can be a thing of beauty or a huge bore.
What is more tantalizing? Little clues that bid you to put together the whole picture? Or a huge dump of information set right in the middle of some other on going action? Think of it this way. Say you are watching the season opener of a show. Before it begins, you get, “Last season on Baywatch (har!) such and such happened.” Yes, of course that can be interesting in and of itself, but get on with the show already. Then again, if you know nothing about what happened last season and important information FROM that season is mentioned within the current season without any nuggets of information, then yeah, you become lost and irritated.
Doling out the backstory not only informs the reader but keeps them hooked for more.
Backstory can be conveyed in a variety of ways, the info dump (watch out, train wreck ahoy!), dialogue (beware of “you know Bob”) short bits of inter-monologues, and the favorite –flashbacks.
Flashbacks. Ah, so tempting! Like that last slice of chocolate cake that is just sitting there on the kitchen counter, calling you…
Flashbacks are alluring because instead of a passive or inactive recounting of what has occurred, you can create a dynamic action filled reenactment of pertinent events. Oh, but the utter saltiness of flashbacks!
Yes, a flashback can be effective. We wouldn’t have them if they weren’t. An aside here –one often hears dire warnings of writing “no-no’s” but listen, none of these things, adjectives, adverbs, telling, backstory, etc would be around if they didn’t have their uses. It’s learning HOW to use them that is the key.
But I digress. :) There is a time and place for flashbacks. Some can be a subtle narration as in Outlander where Frank leaves Claire to go see a Mr. Bainbridge. Claire bids Frank to give Mr. Bainbridge her regards and Frank murmurs a dry “Of course.” Why? Well, Claire very smoothly tells us by slipping strait into a flashback in which she burns her fingers on a teapot and blurts out “Bloody fucking hell!” in polite company. This whole bit has the appearance of ‘real time’ when really it is a flashback. In this case the flashback is anecdotal, nor does it detract from what is going on in the current story. In fact, it answers the raised question of why Frank is reluctant to bring Claire along.
Then there is the flashback as recalled in a memory. This sort of flashback is often conveyed in italics as to show the reader that we are indeed experiencing a flashback. Why? Because often the flashback is more abrupt. It is giving us information but it doesn’t fit as well into the ongoing narrative. I.e. “Timothy saw the smoke and his mind filled with dark terror, seeing another time and place. He ran down the hall, crying for his mother. Where was she? Did she not feel the heat of the fire?...” And now we know why happened to Timothy when he was ten and why he fears smoke and fire. Yet we have been distracted from the current situation.
If a flashback goes on too long the reader become submersed in the flashback and disoriented upon reentry into the current narrative. A real danger because things like this pulls the reader out of their nice cozy state of active reading. Like using too much salt, a flashback can ruin your story’s momentum.
This is huge reason why flashbacks fail when a writer succumbs to the temptation in the first chapter of a book, because the reader hasn’t had time to sink into the story. Openings are like the proverbial trail of crumbs along that path in the woods. You are leading the reader in, tantalizing them with hints and questions that bid them to follow further, turn that page. By slapping down a flashback in those first pages not only are you giving them the desert before the appetizer, you are alerting them to the journey.
Best to use the flashback sparingly. Just as with backstory, dole it out. Be a cheapskate about it. Of course they can be effective. But they should be flashes, not glorified info dumps.
Effective use of backstory and flashbacks is a master craft. It isn’t easy to do, you’ll need practice, might fail spectacularly, but once learned it can be a wonderful tool in your arsenal.