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.