Thursday, 30 June 2011

Flashback and Backstory 1

Flashback and backstory are often confused but they are two different things. Flashback is this:

In the morning Dolores stared at herself in the mirror. Last night it had all been so different. She'd walked into the bar and seen Emilio glowering at a table in the corner, so she'd gone over to him.
'Hello, Emilio,' she'd said.
Emilio looked up. 'Dolores! What are you doing here?'
'I came in looking for Juan - have you seen him?'
'No. Have you seen Conchita?'
'Not since this morning.' Dolores licked her lips. 'How about buying me a drink?'
etc etc etc until
Dolores shook her head. Thinking about last night wouldn't make any difference. She began to slowly, sadly peel her false eyelashes off.

And this is Backstory:

In the morning Dolores stared at herself in the mirror. Last night it had all been so different, so different from West Whimpering, the place she'd grown up in. She lived there for her earliest years. West Whimpering was a sleepy little town, and the inhabitants liked it that way, but Dolores had always yearned for something better. She finally left to go to the University of Watereddown to read History, but there she'd met Alberto and ended up in this one horse town. It was just like West Whimpering, but with rancheros, she thought, peeling off her false eyelashes.

Both have their place, which is often the dustbin in my opinion. At which point, if I'm teaching this in class, some students look aghast and clutch their manuscripts to their chest, fretting at the thought of ditching most of their work.

So, why don't I like them?

Flashback stops the action. If you look at the example above, what is Dolores actually DOING while she's having this long thought about the night before? Staring at herself in the mirror. It's hardly the most dramatic writing. But but but, the student stutters, there's lots of action in the bar with Emilio. Yes - but it's all in her head. What is actually going on in the narrative present? Nothing! Nada! Niente! Zilch!

Other negatives about flashback include confusing the reader as to where they are in both time (this morning or last night?) or location (the mirror or the bar?), and confused readers become non-readers in a surprisingly short space of time. Also, by definition, the action contained within the flashback has already happened and is now over. This makes it intrinsically less interesting, like listening to a friend's story about the dream they had last night. What is interesting is what is happening in the present story ie what is happening now.

But but but, the student stutters again. What about XYZ who does flashback brilliantly? Which may well be true. There are writers who handle flashback well. But is the student XYZ? Probably not. Most students use flashback as a means of writing themselves into the story. They have their character sitting on a plane, train, in front of a mirror and remembering back to the action, and it's just boring.

The simple solution is to start with the action. Start with Dolores walking into the bar. If you want to flag up that things are going to go wrong for Dolores, why not begin:

It all seemed so promising when she walked into the bar and saw Emilio sitting there.


This is going to be a great night, Dolores thought as she walked into the bar and spotted Emilio.

This is getting to be a long post. So, having finished off Flashback, I'll tackle Backstory tomorrow.


Jim Murdoch said...

I think the point is, as you say, not to insert a flashback in the middle of a stream of action but to use a flashback when there's nothing really happening. Your hero is on a train journey, a journey necessary to the plot, so delve into his thoughts and into his past while he's doing it.

Fiona Faith Maddock said...

This post is very helpful, thank you. It's especially useful to have an illustration of each one. I recently followed other advice and moved all my back story to the second half of my novel. I'm not confident with flashback so I haven't tried it. Perhaps it's just as well!

I'd be interested to know, Sarah, under which circumstances you use them, or do you endeavour to avoid them altogether?

womagwriter said...

I would agree flashback like that should be carefully used in novels. However a 'standard' short story structure is to open with a scene in the present, go into flashback for perhaps half the length of the story, then come back to the present to resolve the situation. I think this works well for a short (1000 word) story. If you started with the action in the flashback isn't there a danger you'll take too long to get to the hook?

Sarah Duncan said...

Jim, if there's nothing really happening, then that scene doesn't deserve a place in your writing! If the hero has to make a train journey, then you end scene A with them at the station, and start scene B with them getting off the train. Never write the boring bits, that's my motto.

Fiona - I never use flashback. In real life, when we drift off into re-playing scenes from our past it's because nothing exciting is happening in the present. Seems to me a pretty big hint for what to avoid in fiction.

And I try to avoid backstory in the 'and now here's a paragraph of back story' form. Most of the stuff readers need to know can be slotted in seamlessly within the action and dialogue of characters. I'm looking at backstory tomorrow in more detail.

Kath, I know that that's a tried and tested format for the 1000 word short story. I suspect it works because the time span of the story has to be short eg an afternoon, and that's a way of bringing the problem from the past that needs resolving into the story without having a longer time span.

-A is worried about a forthcoming meeting.
-Why A is worried about the forthcoming meeting (because of something in the past - cue flashback)
-It's time for A's meeting, and the problem they were anxious about gets resolved.
Narrative time spanned could be as little as 10 minutes.

But in longer pieces of writing you have more time and space, even in longer short stories, and I don't think flashback works as well. But, of course, if the writer is skilled, they can do anything and it'll work.

womagwriter said...

Yes, I'm suspecting it doesn't work as well in longer fiction. With a novel you have more time to hook the reader and get them interested, so you can tell the events in sequence rather than start at the end and use flashback.

Now I'm realising I've used flashback in chapter 1 of my novel - doh. Was probably still in short story mode when I wrote that. You'll see on Sunday!

Sarah Duncan said...

Looking forward to it Kath!