It’s About Time: Backstory, Flashback, and Chronology
A story, by definition, is something that moves through time. If you removed the passage of time, you’d have an exposition, description, or interior rumination.
While there are exceptions, like Jodi Picoult’s novel A Spark of Light that starts at the end and works its way back to the beginning, the movement of a story is usually forward—from now to later, from before to after. That’s why a good story engages our attention. We want to know what’s going to happen next, how everything works out (or doesn’t).
Sometimes, we also want to know what happened earlier, before the story began. Usually, it’s because we want a deeper or fuller explanation for a character’s response to a situation that’s taking place in the present-day narrative. Something happens in the “front story,” and we want to understand the source of the character’s reaction, choice, action, or failure to act. There may be indications in the front story, but we want more. For that, we have to travel back in time.
In other words: the reason for the foray into the past comes from something that’s happening right then and there, in the present. By “reason,” I mean both necessity and timing: when a chunk of backstory is revealed, why, and how.
Let’s talk about those questions.
Note: I’ll be using the word “backstory” to refer to the entire narrative of the character’s past, the things that happened when she was younger that helped to shape who she is now, and the word “flashback” to refer to the specific chunk of backstory that’s being disclosed.
Types of flashbacks, and how to get in and out of them
Flashbacks can be long or short—entire scenes full of action and dialogue; memories that unfold as reflections in the POV character’s mind; or brief emotional responses that link past and present.
Flashback as an entire scene: When you want to depict a past event in a vivid and detailed way, it’s often better to show it “alive on the page,” rather than as a rumination in someone’s mind—as a scene, written like any other scene, with action and dialogue.
The key to an effective back-story scene is in the transitions into and out of an event that is not part of the forward-moving story. These transitions are like portals. First, there has to be an entrance portal that provides a natural, credible reason for the character to recall the event right now. It can be a sensory impression like a song or a smell, a question, the awareness of being at a crossroad. The more specific, the better. A generic transition like “She couldn’t help remembering the first time …” isn’t nearly as strong (and seamless) as a story-specific detail. Ask yourself: What evokes the memory for the POV character and draws the reader into the back story scene?
In the same way, there has to be an exit portal—a natural way to leave the backstory scene and re-enter the present-day time of the “front story.” It’s good if the second transition can echo the first one, like a bookend. However, if you don’t want to return to the present-day scene and would rather end the chapter with a powerful moment or utterance from that remembered event, the transition back to the present will be the first sentence of the new chapter. Either way, the reader is re-oriented to time and place.
Ask yourself: What breaks the flow of the memory and jolts the POV character back into the present?
Flashback as an interior reflection: Here, the passage (usually shorter than a scene) is written the way the character herself would be recalling and thinking about it. She remembers, relives, and responds while she is remembering. There’s a balance of external (what happened, back then) and internal content (how it made her feel, back then, and may still make her feel).
The key to an effective interior reflection is to make sure it “fits” into the existing scene, since it’s not a scene of its own. After all, just because the character is deep in her own mind while she remembers something, time hasn’t stopped around her! If Jason’s remark makes Lindsay remember how her brother used to trick and torment her, what is Jason doing while Lindsay takes a mental side-trip into the memory of her terrible adolescence? What’s happening around her, while she’s lost in thought? How much time has actually passed?
For this reason, a transition may be needed here too, depending on where the POV character is while she’s having this reflection. If she’s with others, she might suddenly realize that she’s missed an entire segment of the movie or song or conversation—to account for the time she’s just spent in the past. If she’s alone, she can realize that her coffee has grown cold or the rain has stopped.
It’s best to avoid having the character talk to herself about things she already knows—simply because these are things that you, the author, want the reader to know. You may indeed want the reader to know that Lindsay’s brother was cruel, but there has to be a story-relevant reason for that to be disclosed, right now.
I’ll say that again: As the author, you may want the reader to know about a character’s childhood trauma or terrible secret or heart-twisting desire—without which, the story wouldn’t make sense. That’s called “motivation,” and it’s fine! But there still has to be a specific, urgent, and irresistible reason to interrupt the forward-motion of the story at this particular moment.
Flashback as a brief response: In this case, unlike the two above, new information is not being imparted. The reader already knows about the past events that are being triggered in the present-day scene, so less is needed to evoke that memory in both character and reader.
It can be as simple as the smell of burnt toast or the bright yellow of a daffodil or the way someone tightens his coat collar—a sensory impression or overheard remark that makes Lindsay (and the reader) connect the present scene with an emotionally-charged moment from the past. That connection doesn’t have to be spelled out for the reader; it can be conveyed in a phrase that Lindsay murmurs to herself, like: “Oh no, not again.”
Flashback through dialogue. Here, the POV character relates her memory to another character in the course of a conversation. While this can seem like an easy way to impact backstory information to the reader, caution is indicated.
The credibility of this sort of confession hinges on whether (and why) the other character needs to learn about this memory right now. Perhaps the conversation is a crucial moment in their changing relationship in the front story—for example, a moment of risk or trust that is needed in order for the protagonist to engage this character as an ally. The backstory revelation thus serves an essential front-story purpose.
Bread crumbs, delays, and the strategic use of backstory
I’ve used the phrase right now several times, because it’s so important.
It might seem, at first blush, that explaining the origin of a trait, habit, defense, desire, or fear—early on—will make a character’s motivation more intense and enhance the emotional impact on the reader.
Yet not knowing is what keeps us hooked. A question. A puzzle. A growing mystery. Feeling smart as we follow the bread crumbs and start to put the backstory together for ourselves.
It’s not nearly as satisfying if the author simply tells us—especially if she tells us in the opening chapters, before we’ve had a chance to grow curious or care about the character. That’s a waste of a great backstory.
One of the best lessons I ever learned was to wait. To drop hints, let the tension grow just as it does in the front story, let the threads start to connect, and then—pow, the longed-for revelation. Barbara O’Neal did this in When We Believed in Mermaids, saving the story of the trauma that shaped Kit and Josie’s lives until the reader can’t stand not-knowing a moment longer.
There’s rarely a disadvantage in letting a question simmer, waiting before you pull back the curtain. As Dave Corbett reminded us last month, let the answer (the reason, which lies in the past) be revealed by the characters behavior in the present.
Sometimes, as Dave suggests, you don’t ever have to tell that backstory tale, especially if it refers to a secondary character. That’s right: not ever. We get it that Lindsay is guarded and defensive, because that’s how she behaves. Do we always need to see the event that made her like that? Maybe not. In Katherine Center’s Things You Save in a Fire, for example, it’s clear that protagonist Cassie was sexually assaulted in a terrible way and that this experience has affected her deeply. But Center never halts the forward-moving story to show us that scene in a long flashback. Instead, she does something quite different—something so skillful, in fact, that it merits its own paragraph.
By the time the Cassie’s backstory is fully revealed, the reader always knows it, so that’s not why Center reveals it. Rather, she has Cassie relate the backstory, at long last, to the least likely person, at a precise moment—for the sake of her emotional arc. Not to “fill the reader in,” but to provide an important emotional turning point for the character.
In Things You Save in a Fire, as in other novels (including my own), the backstory isn’t fully resolved until the end of the front story. In both Queen of the Owls and The Sound Between the Notes, for example, the protagonist’s childhood relationship with her sister, which has always colored her vision of herself, isn’t resolved until the end of the book, as back and front stories merge.
What about a nonlinear timing of scenes?
When we talk about flashbacks, it’s with the assumption that the front story is moving forward in chronological fashion, and that a pivot into the past is a temporary interruption of that chronology.
There are some novels, however, that zigzag among time periods and tell their stories “out of order.” I may be old-fashioned, but I think it’s a risky thing to do. It really has to be done purposefully—to enhance the reader’s experience, not the author wants to experiment. Otherwise, it can be fragmented and confusing.
Certainly, there are times when it works well. In Jessica Strawser’s Almost Missed You, for example, the opening chapters toggle between two time periods (as well as between three narrators). In fact, you could say that much of Almost Missed You is a gradual unspooling of the backstory until the inciting event in the first chapter finally makes sense. Novels that start in the middle, like Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, rearrange time in a similar way.
This is different from the use of dual timelines. In a dual timeline story, there are two narratives, throughout. They might be the stories of two different people, who intersect in an important way, like Molly and Vivian in Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train. Or they might trace the events during different periods of the same POV character’s life, as I did for Susannah in The Sound Between the Notes.
In a dual timeline, both narratives are told in chronological order; the reader is following two parallel tracks, trusting that they will meet in a satisfying way. In a nonlinear structure, there is one track that zigzags through time.
What I’ve been saying here, in different ways, is that jumping from present to past and back again needs to be purposeful and to serve the reader’s experience.
How can you know if you’ve done that? Well, you can try putting each of your time-shifts to the test and asking yourself:
- Why is this bit of backstory needed right now? How is that need signaled to the reader?
- What would happen if I waited to tell the reader—or never told?
- Is there another way to reveal the information about the past—more economical or evocative?
For sure, each of us has patterns and preferences, deeply-held beliefs about backstory. Personally, I tend to get seduced by the convenience of having a character talking to herself about stuff she already knows and feels, so I try to be alert for that.
What about you? How do you approach backstory?
About Barbara Linn Probst
Barbara’s (she/her) debut novel QUEEN OF THE OWLS (April 2020) was a medalist in popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association, first runner-up for the Eric Hoffer Award, and short-listed for the $2500 Grand Prize. Her second novel THE SOUND BETWEEN THE NOTES (April 2021) was the recipient of a Kirkus starred review, where it was lauded as "a tour de force" and selected as one of the Best Indie Books of 2021. Barbara has a PhD in Clinical Social Work and has been a therapist, teacher, researcher, and advocate for out-of-the-box kids and their families. When not writing, she’s a serious amateur pianist. Learn more on her website.