Let’s Talk Backstory and Flashbacks

I read A LOT. Probably five times as much as I write. Every day I spend at least an hour hanging out with my dog while I read. And I read at bedtime, too. But I’m not a pure reader, I’m a writer who reads.

And what I mean by that is that when I read a book, I not only see the story the author chose to put on the page, I see the story they could’ve written.

With really good authors, this generally doesn’t happen. I think I’ve read 50 JD Robb novels at this point and there was only one that made me wish she’d chosen to tell the story in a different way. For the rest of those books, I’m just along for the ride.

For pure readers, it’s always like that. The story is locked in cement. It is what it is and can’t be changed or fixed or improved.

If a pure reader reads a book they don’t like, they say it was boring. It wasn’t interesting enough. They didn’t like the ending. They were never able to get into the story. It’s too bad X happened.

They don’t see any of that as authorial choice. It’s just the story.

But underlying any of those types of reader comments is generally some sort of craft issue that could actually be fixed.

So I’m going to talk about one today that I ran into with the book I just finished reading. (A trade pub title from 2006.) And that’s the issue of backstory, flashbacks, and where to begin the novel.

This book I just read was 600 pages long. At page 180 I actually stopped reading it and swore I wouldn’t go back, but the characters were just interesting enough that I finally did. (I will not be reading the other three books in the series, though.)

So what made me stop reading?

In that first 180 pages, the story started probably six different times.

We had two prologues, one that was a straight info-dump, one that was a storyteller info dump. Then we had Character A. Then we had completely unrelated Character B who never actually shows up again even though it seems like this could be partially his story. (It’s actually Characters C and D who are in the background of Character B’s scenes who are a large part of the rest of the novel.)

Then we jumped ahead twenty years and had Character A again. And Character C. And Character E who never really needed any scenes at all. And then we jumped some more years and had more random, unrelated scenes.

Then the first part of the novel ended and the second part started. Literally, Part 2. And there was some whole introduction following a bird who flies all kinds of places which again read like the beginning of a novel not Part 2 150 pages into the novel.

That was about where I quit. Because I had nothing to hold onto. There was no story thread that connected everything that had happened in the first 150 pages. They were vignettes.

It turns out the author did have a story they wanted to tell. And that story was contained in the other 450 pages of the novel, pages that actually did hang together fairly well.

As I read those 450 pages I realized that what that first 150 pages represented was the backstory of the characters.

The author needed this information to write their novel, but instead of knowing this information and then doling it out during the main story as little snippets or flashbacks, the author had instead provided the reader with everything in straight chronological order.

So instead of a scene with two lines added to it that references that this character met that character when he saved their life, we got a chapter that showed them meeting and then the next chapter was a different character five years later.

When an author takes that approach they have to be damned good. Because for every break they insert in the story flow they have to be so compelling a writer that readers are willing to keep going. Each of those little vignettes needed to read like its own compelling short story.

But they didn’t. (And I checked reviews, there were a lot of DNFs on this book.)

Now, you might be thinking, but that backstory matters. It needs to be there.

And I’d agree. Backstory is what adds depth and layer to the present story. My reaction to X event is driven by my past. Someone else could experience X event and have the complete opposite reaction because of the life they’ve lived. So backstory matters a great deal.

But it doesn’t have to be on the page before the moment it matters. If it’s important enough, you can include a whole flashback scene at that moment. But until it then it’s just “oh great, I get to hear about that time you did something cool or stupid in college, please, tell me more.”

And usually you don’t even need a full flashback scene. A deft writer can drop backstory in a sentence or two at a time so the current story keeps flowing smoothly.

For example, this book had a whole convoluted history involving multiple races that was provided as an info dump in the prologue. It could have easily been dribbled out as part of the story when each race was introduced. And then we’d care. “Oh, it matters that this person is not like these people because of X, Y, and Z history between these peoples. Interesting.”

So it’s not that you shouldn’t include those details in your novel. It’s that you have to wait to include them until the reader wants them. Your primary goal at the beginning of your novel has to be to draw the reader into your story and make it so they want to continue. Just one more page, just one more chapter, what’s next. And you have to keep doing that for the entire length of the novel.

(As an aside, I’ve mentioned her books before and they’re fresh on my mind because I just read all of them, but someone who I think handles multiple points of view across an epic tale very well is Michelle West. Start with The Hidden City if you’re going to start reading her now, but then look up a reading order because you need to hop to a different series after book 3 in that series if you want to stay chronological.)

Author: M.L. Humphrey

M.L. Humphrey is a former securities regulator, registered stockbroker (although only briefly), and consultant on regulatory and risk-related matters for large financial institutions with expertise in the areas of anti-money laundering regulation, mutual funds, and credit rating agencies. Since 2013 M.L. has also been a published author under a variety of pen names and across a variety of subjects and genres. You can contact M.L. at mlhumphreywriter [at] gmail.com.

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