Monday, October 10, 2011

MFA Monday: Blast to the Past (Incorporating flashbacks without your agent hating you)

If you're a writer and you've been around the block a while, you've probably heard the advice to nix the backstory in your stories. Flashbacks stop the forward movement of the narrative, slowing down the reader and bringing the action to a screeching halt. It's considered bad writing, and I've heard agents go so far as to say they won't read more of a manuscript if it has backstory in those first pages.

But rules are meant to be broken, right? The trick is to learn to do it well.

A few years after I started writing in earnest, a friend game me The Friday Night Knitting Club, and as I read it I felt like banging my head on the wall. This whole book is a series of flashbacks! How did she get published?? I screamed in my head.

This semester I've read a number of other books that rely heavily on flashbacks as well. Russo's That Old Cape Magic is a story where the real story is in the character's past, one he distills through his present. Cleave's Little Bee is another where the important events of the past unfold in the present. In Franklin's Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, the characters' history are far more important than their present. All of these books have at the heart of their plot and structure personal history influencing a character's modern life.

Two weeks ago I read Elizabeth Strout's novel Abide with Me, and although the story itself takes place in the character's present, Strout used extensive flashbacks to fill in the details of how the characters had arrived at this place in their lives.

So I did what I've been doing lately in my program and stopped to figure out how Strout, along with all these other authors, was breaking the rules so successfully. If everyone seems to be saying we shouldn't include backstory, why do we do it anyway, and how can we do it well?

So in short, this is what I've come up with.

First off, what's the difference between backstory and flashback? 

A flashback is an interjected scene that takes the reader back in time to a point before where the current story is taking place.

Backstory is the history of characters or elements that underlie the situation that currently exists.

Sound confusing? Look at it this way: backstory is like telling, where flashbacks are like showing. A flashback will give you the backstory by putting it in a specific context through actions or dialogue.

When should you use flashbacks and backstory?

Backstory should be included when it adds historical and emotional context or develops character, enlivens the narrative with specificity, and knowingly controls the pace (by slowing it down), but it is most interestingly doled out through flashbacks - scenes or mini-scenes. Those flashback mini-scenes can be as short as just a line of dialogue, or as long as a chapter.

In the book Abide with Me, the story is about a pastor whose wife has died about a year before the story starts. The dead wife is as much a character as her husband, but as she's dead, the only way to know her is through flashbacks. One very early one is when the pastor looks down and notices the frayed cuffs of his dress shirt - a detail that brings out how neglectful he is of himself now that she is gone. In noticing them, though, he reflects that they "had reached the point where his wife would have taken it for herself, cutting the sleeves off midway and wearing it with her bright pink ballet tights that had not feet."  A mini mini scene! This is one of our first glimpses of his wife, and in just that short memory we get a feel for the kind of free-spirit she was.

How do you include flashbacks without jolting the reader?

The most seamless way I've seen it done is by association. In the above example of the shirt cuffs, Strout used one physical object in the present (the frayed cuffs) to bring to mind a memory of another (his wife wearing his shirts with ballet tights). If you read that chapter, you'd find that flashback continues for several pages, describing a confrontation he had with her once about how her wearing his shirt reflected on her as a pastor’s wife, and how she had hated the restrictions that imposed. Then, just as easily, Strout slips the narrative back into the present day as Tyler asks his housecleaner what he should do about the cuffs.

 My brilliant advisor also taught me something she calls "the secret of once." By using the word "once," - or a variation on that which shows a specific time period - the writer can slip mini-scenes in without hardly slowing the narrative down at all.

In one of my own recent chapters, my character Kat was standing watching her brother fall apart after the death of their parents. It was the perfect opportunity to reveal some of her backstory:

Kat leaned against the wall watching her brother. She wanted him to turn the sound on, let the monotonous roar of the game drown out the silence that filled the house – and her – but instead, the quiet grew.

Once, just a week after he was born, she’d done this same thing, leaning against the door jam to his nursery and watching his tiny chest rise and fall, the room smelling like baby powder and Dreft. Her mom had found her there and shooed her off. “If you wake him, you’re the one holding him until he goes back to sleep,” she’d said crossly. Gladly she’d have held him, if anyone had let her.

She took a step towards him and waited to see him turn and acknowledge her, but his eyes never left the screen. 

Orient your reader with the words. Indicate the time shift by verb tense. If you are writing in the present, flashbacks will be in the past, but if you are already writing in the past tense, indicate the flashbacks by use of the past perfect form of the verb (had found, had worn). If it's a longer scene, just use the past perfect very at the beginning and end of the flashback, kind of like parenthesis cordoning off the passage as something from the past.

Flashbacks are not evil. They are such a powerful tool to enrich your character's lives and add depth to a story. They can even become the story. The trick, like all writing, is to do it well. 


  1. Water for Elephants is one of those books where MOST of the story is flashback.

    The Summer series by Jenny Han did a masterful job with flashbacks.

    I'm working on one now where it starts at a certain point in time, and then flashes back over the weekend before this huge chunk of news was dropped. You know the girl doesn't believe what's being said, so hopefully, the reader will be looking for clues.
    OR it completely sucks, and I re-write the story. Again . . .

    I have a book I've wanted to write since I started writing, but the flashbacks that I know need to be done have prevented me. I think it takes a pretty skilled author to do them well.
    LOVE your tips on here :D

  2. Nice job of describing the difference between flashbacks and backstory. Kristin Cashore wove in backstory rather seamlessly in Chapter One of GRACELING. I came up with a prologue for my fantasy, and realized that, while thrilling, it was all backstory. Oh well, I had fun writing it! ;-)

  3. I glanced at The Friday Night Knitting Club recently while browsing a used book store but decided to get Mary Lawson's Crow Lake instead. Sounds like that was a good choice, yes? :)

    One of my favourite authors that deals with flashbacks amazingly well is Joseph Boyden (Three Day Road). But you have done an excellent job of explaining the technique. Thanks!!

  4. Great explanation. I find that I like to use flashbacks because usually in most of my books, the character is thinking about someone who already died or a past relationship.

  5. Thank you thank you for this! It's so clear and also reassures me of how to break the rules correctly (in a rule-following way, I guess? :P)