Critique Technique, Part 25 — Misused Backstory or Flashback

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Backstory and its kissing cousin flashback are techniques authors use to provide amplifying information about a situation, a location, or a character. Flashbacks and backstory differ from “front story” in that the author jumps away from the story’s current timeline to relate them, then returns to the story’s present to continue.

Jumping forward in time—a “flash forward”—can have the same purpose, and everything below also applies to it.

Good Backstory Technique

Flashing back is just a technique for relating backstory. A brief interruption of the story’s flow, it can be:

  • Initiated by the narrator to provide information not available to the characters or which would be unnatural for the characters to provide;
  • A character’s recollection; or
  • A conversation between two or more characters (“You remember when…?”), to name just three.

The words “flash” and “brief” are important here: flashbacks are over and done with quickly.

Backstory can be told more leisurely, as a stand-alone scene for example, but generally should not be. Any relating of backstory that takes long enough to derail the narrative flow of the story is known as an info-dump. I’ll say more about this a little later.

Backstory can take the form of just a single, telling detail. For example, there’s this line in a Robert Reed novella, “Murder Born,” which centers around a couple trying to bring back their murdered daughter: “But that didn’t stop [Lauren] from…curling up on the mattress cover that was washed every two weeks, the same as always.” That last phrase, “the same as always,” is the droplet of backstory that tells us so much about Lauren’s grief, expressed in her continuing care for her dead daughter’s bedclothes.

Sprinkling in nuggets of backstory like that is a highly effective technique. It gives the reader a piece of important information just at the moment it’s most needed and has the most impact, but doesn’t interrupt the flow of the story. In fact, the reader might not notice it consciously, even though they’ve just learned something important.

Poor Backstory Technique

So while “backstory” encompasses all the background information that doesn’t fit into a story’s or article’s primary timeline, here are four improper or ineffective techniques for presenting it.

  • Starting with backstory;
  • Using backstory too often;
  • Spending too much time in backstory; and
  • Using backstory as front story.

Starting With Backstory

We’ve all run into stories—maybe even written them ourselves—in which the author starts by explaining everything she feels the reader will need to know in order to “get” the story once it begins. I did that with the first drafts of my first book, The Eternity Plague, and ended up cutting out or drastically rewriting the first 100 pages.

You know, of course, to start in medias res and filter the backstory in later.

The next three techniques have an important element in common: they cause the reader to lose track of the primary story line. You don’t want a confused reader, unless you’re doing that just enough to keep pulling her through to the end, but that’s a pretty advanced technique and needs to be done with care. For our purposes here, confusing the reader is a bad thing.

Using Backstory Too Often

Using backstory too often is another case of the author wanting the reader to know everything she knows about the story, characters, setting, situation, etc. This time, the desire gets manifested as flashbacks or backstory details being inserted at every opportunity, whether they’re necessary or not. “Necessary” is the key word here. You, as the independent reviewer, aren’t emotionally invested in the story, so you have the ability to look at a detail, a flashback, even a whole chapter, and ask, “Do I need to know that?” The more often you find yourself asking that, the more likely it is the author is using backstory too much.

Too Much Backstory

Using backstory as front story and spending too much time in backstory mean the author isn’t clear on what information needs to be doled out in little pieces to deepen and enrich the story at key moments. Instead, he delivers info-dumps, which can take the form of lectures by the narrator, or speeches by characters, among others. I’ll discuss info-dumps, also known as expository lumps, in more detail in Part 42.

Yes, deciding how much is too much can be subjective but again, if you lose track of the main story line, the author is guilty of this error.

If the author is suffering from either of these problems, the flow of the story will come to a grinding halt as it wanders off into material that isn’t relevant to the story’s current moment. These aren’t quite the same things as tangents, which I’ll discuss in more detail in Part 26.

Questions for You

Here, then, are some questions you can ask yourself as you review someone’s work.

  • If you’re reading the beginning of a story or article, did the author start with background information that could have waited?
    • If so, where should the piece actually start?
    • What material could be removed? Where should it be moved to?
  • Is the author peppering me with so many background details that I get confused or lose track of the story line?
    • If so, what could be removed?
    • Can it be relocated, or should it be deleted entirely?
  • Later in the piece, is the author dumping information, either through the narrative or via her characters, and causing me to lose track of the storyline?
    • As before, what could be moved or removed?
    • Besides improving the story’s flow, how else would doing so improve the story?
  • Is the author spending so much time in backstory that I can’t tell what’s backstory and what’s front story anymore? In other words, has he lost track of his story?
    • What seems to be the main story, or what has he told you it’s supposed to be?
    • How can he return his and the reader’s focus to it?

What other things do you look for when determining if backstory and/or flashbacks are being misused? You don’t need to repeat what I’ve discussed when you put your suggestions in the comments box below.

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