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Backstory: In Description, Dialogue, and Flashback


“Backstory: In Description, Dialogue, and Flashback” by Joan Y. Edwards.

When I did a workshop at the Muse Conference, participants wanted information about backstory and flashbacks in particular. I did a little research then. I did a bunch of research afterwards. I told the participants that I would write a blog post about them. I started to do two separate articles. However, they are all part of backstory. So here you are, as requested. My opinions and my research about backstory.

I’m going to tell you the fun part at the beginning. If you would like to copy and paste a sample Backstory in description or dialogue from your work in progress or a Flashback in a scene with your story’s dialogue and narration. Go for it. I’ll give you my feedback. Other readers are welcome to give their feedback, too.

If you find an excerpt from a book that you think is a good example, please post it in the comment section, too.

Backstory:

Backstory is all of the experiences of a character or the circumstances of events that took place before the action on page one of your book. If you make a timeline, in chronological order,  all of the backstory occurs before page one of your novel.

You want to drop it in your story at the right place to help move the plot along to its climax. Too much backstory leads to boredom. There’s no tension in the backstory…it’s finished and over with. Your story, however, is still going on. The reader doesn’t know the outcome of it yet. You want the backstory you insert to add more questions than it answers. You want it to add tension to your story.

When you wrote your novel, you included backstory information. This information was essential to help you,the writer, get the story down on paper. Not all back story information is necessary for the reader to understand the character’s present situation. So, when you revise your story, you want to delete unnecessary backstory information.If the reader doesn’t need to know it, cut it out and save it in a backstory folder. You can reactivate it later, if necessary. A reader might not need to know that Harry was in the armed services until he practices that special Green Beret’s  hold for his fight in Chapter 11.

There are three ways you can put backstory into your novel: in Description, Dialogue, and Flashback (narrated with flashback scene, inserted exactly as it happened).

  1. Description (sneak the facts in here and there)
  2. Dialogue (have characters mention the backstory facts; make it smooth)
  3. Flashback (narration with flashback scene, exactly as it happened)

Backstory in Description and Dialogue

In description of main character’s body or objects in the setting or in dialogue, needed backstory can be added in bits and pieces. Perhaps three sentences at one time or a short  paragraph at a time. Alicia Rasley says, “The purpose of backstory is to show how the past affects this character in the present.” Jason Black says, “Long passages of backstory interrupt the action. They kill the pacing. They bring the story to a dead stop.”  Your  backstory should explain the prior dangers, deaths, and losses that left your main character wounded emotionally.

Here’s a scene I made up to show emotions. It also has backstory in it in narrative description. Read it and tell me what you think.

Jake thought as he looked at the men pawing the waitress. “How can they do that?” His heart pounded inside his chest. He remembered his sister talking to him about the man who raped her. She said, “No one tried to stop him.”

Jake immediately left the bar stool. He stood in front of Preston Richards. “Take your two men and leave. Don’t ever come back.”

“You and whose army is going to make me leave,” Preston said as he blew smoke from his cigar into Jake’s face.

Jake’s three bouncers approached. They were six foot five and weighed 300 pounds. Their muscles were larger than Preston’s whole face.

Preston said, “Okay. We’re leaving. But, we’ll be back to get her later. You can count on it.”

In the above narration, I added backstory to the description of Jake. It was only two sentences. Did it add or detract from the story?

Suppose I went on and on about his sister and how she was in counseling, etc. It would have taken from the present scene. However, I only put enough to add fuel to the fire. It left questions for the reader, “How is his sister? Did she get pregnant by the rape? Is Jake going to get rid of these guys? How? No one helped his sister, was Jake going to be able to protect this girl in his bar? For now? What about later?

Resources that tell you about backstory

 as used in description or dialogue:

a. Alicia Rasley. “Top Ten Plot Problems, Problem 1: Backstory” http://www.sff.net/people/alicia/prob1.htm (Examples of backstory in description)

b. Alicia Rasley. “Coherence in Backstory:” http://edittorrent.blogspot.com/2010/08/coherence-in-backstory.html

c. Jason Black, Book Doctor. “Six tips for using backstory to create compelling characters:” http://www.plottopunctuation.com/blog/show/24 (Gives you ideas on how to create backstory and make your characters compelling.)

d. Jason Black, Book Doctor. “Warning: Rookie Backstory Mistake Shown to Cause Rejection Letters:” http://www.plottopunctuation.com/blog/show/warning-rookie-backstory-mistake-shown-to-cause-rejection-letters

e. Kimberly Appelcline. “Backstory:” http://www.skotos.net/articles/Backstory.html

f. Orson Scott Card (1988). “Character & Viewpoint,” p. 113. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books. ISBN 0-89879-307-6.

g. Rebecca LuElla Miller. “Ins and Outs of Backstory, Part 1:” http://rewriterewordrework.wordpress.com/2011/08/13/ins-and-outs-of-backstory-part-1/

h. Rebecca LuElla Miller. “Ins and Outs of Backstory, Part 2:”

http://rewriterewordrework.wordpress.com/2011/08/20/the-ins-and-outs-of-backstory-part-2/

i. Rebecca LuElla Miller. “The Ins and Outs of Backstory, Part 3:” http://rewriterewordrework.wordpress.com/2011/08/27/the-ins-and-outs-of-backstory-part-3/

j. Wikipedia.org. “Back-story:” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Back-story#cite_note-0

Backstory as Flashback narrated in

 a scene with dialogue

just as it  happened.

A whole episode or scene of backstory inside a story. Usually, a flashback interrupts the main narrative with a whole episode or scene of backstory to relate an incident or series of events that happened earlier in the hero’s life.

To use or not to use a flashback; that is the question. Debatable. Some say use it. Others say don’t.

I’ve never written a manuscript with it. I’ve seen movies use it. I’ve read one or two of the picture books mentioned below that use it. If used improperly, it takes me out of the story. It may not work that way for everyone.

Read, study, and practice the flashback techniques found in the resources below. If you use a flashback, make it a well-written, effective one that enhances your manuscript not one that distracts from your story or stops it dead in its tracks.

Wiki answers gives the following example of a flashback: http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_is_an_example_of_flashback

For example, in Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon (first published in 1940) the hero, Rubashov, spends hours in his prison cell thinking about his own past and reliving it, so to speak.

Films that use flashback:

a. David M. Evans and Robert Gunter. Text for Screenplay for Movie: The Sandlot http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Sandlot-Kids,-The.html

b. Scott Frank. Text for the Screenplay for the Movie: The Lookout. http://www.dailyscript.com/scripts/The-Lookout.pdf

c. Orson Welles‘s film Citizen Kane (1941).

Stories that use Flashback:

a. Emily Brontë‘s Wuthering Heights, the housekeeper Ellen narrates the main story to overnight visitor Mr. Lockwood, who has witnessed Heathcliff’s frantic pursuit of what is apparently a ghost.

b. (text) Andrew Lang. “The Seven Voyages of Sinbad The Sailor.”an Arabian Nights tale http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/lang1k1/tale15.htm

c. Andrew Lang. “The Three Apples“, an Arabian Nights tale. The story begins with the discovery of a young woman’s dead body. After the murderer later reveals himself, he narrates his reasons for the murder as a flashback of events leading up to the discovery of her dead body at the beginning of the story

d. (text) William Faulkner. “A Rose for Emily.”
http://resources.mhs.vic.edu.au/creating/downloads/A_Rose_for_Emily.pdf

Picture Books that use Flashback:

a. Barbara Cooney Miss Rumphius: http://www.amazon.com/Miss-Rumphius-Barbara-Cooney/dp/0140505393

b. Bonnie Pryor. The House on Maple Street: http://www.amazon.com/House-Maple-Street-Bonnie-Pryor/dp/0688120318

c. Byrd Baylor. One Small Bead: http://www.amazon.com/Small-Blue-Bead-Byrd-Baylor/dp/0684193345

d. David Macaulay. Why the Chicken Crossed the Road: http://www.amazon.com/Chicken-Crossed-Road-David-Macaulay/dp/0395442419

e.  Deborah Grate Frinks. Blinded by Colors: http://www.amazon.com/Blinded-Colors-Deborah-Grate-Fink/dp/1413794637

f.  Judi Kurjian. In My Own Backyard: http://www.amazon.com/My-Own-Backyard-Judi-Kurjian/dp/0881064440

g. Jon Scieszka. The True Story of the Three Little Pigs: http://www.amazon.com/True-Story-Three-Little-Pigs/dp/0140544518. Hear it read aloud: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vcsUfYBHhm4&feature=related

h. Patricia Polacco. Pink and Say: http://www.amazon.com/Pink-Say-Patricia-Polacco/dp/0399226710

Resources  about Flashback:

a. Bardicblogger. “Using Flashbacks.” http://bardicblogger.wordpress.com/2011/11/24/writing-tip-using-flashbacks/

b. Brook Monfort “Using Flashbacks in Storytelling – Fiction & Film.” http://brookemonfort.wordpress.com/2011/01/21/using-flashbacks-in-storytelling-fiction-film/

c. Pearl Luke “Flashback:” http://www.be-a-better-writer.com/flashback.html

d. Darcy Pattison. “Scene 18: Special Scenes: Flashback Scenes: Dos and Don’ts.” http://www.darcypattison.com/revision/scene-18-special-scenes-flashback-scenes-dos-and-donts/

e. Darcy Pattison. “Backstory’s Emotional Weight:” http://www.darcypattison.com/revision/backstorys-emotional-weight 

f. Deborah Grate Frink. “Flashback:” http://deborah-grate-frink.tripod.com/sitebuildercontent/sitebuilderfiles/flashback.pdf

g. Elaine Radford, Scriptologist.com. “Flashbacks:” http://www.scriptologist.com/Magazine/Formatting/Flashbacks/flashbacks.html

h. FreeDictionary.com. “Flashback:”  http://www.thefreedictionary.com/flashback.

i. Kim’sKorner4TeacherTalk.com. “Flashback:”
http://www.kimskorner4teachertalk.com/readingliterature/literary_elements_devices/flashback.htm

j. Proteacher.net. Discussions, “Flashback Picture Books:” http://www.proteacher.net/discussions/showthread.php?t=74603g.

k. Sandy Tritt “Flashbacks and Foreshadowing: http://users.wirefire.com/tritt/tip11.html

l. Syd Field. “The Use of Flashbacks.” http://www.writersstore.com/the-use-of-flashbacks

m. Wiki.Answers.com. “What is an example of flashback?http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_is_an_example_of_flashback#ixzz1awPR4y00

n. Wikipedia.org. Wiki. “Flashback (narrative)” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flashback_(narrative)

Resources to Help You

 Revise Your Manuscript

a. Claire Kehrwald Cook. Line by Line. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0395393914

b. Dwight V. Swain. Techniques of the Selling Writer: http://www.amazon.com/Techniques-Selling-Writer-Dwight-Swain/dp/0806111917

c. Elizabeth Lyon. Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0399533958

—————————————————————

Please leave a comment along with your sample  backstory as description, dialogue, or flashback scene. I’d love to hear from you.

***I hope you’ll consider signing up for an email subscription to my blog from the left hand column. If you’re the 50th subscriber, you will win a choice of a free paperback copy of Flip Flap Floodle or a 1001 Ways to Market Your Books by John Kremer.  Thank you to everyone who has signed up for an email subscription.

Never Give Up
Joan Y. Edwards
Copyright © 2011 Joan Y. Edwards

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14 Responses

  1. Joan, thanks for your comments during the conference. Here’s the latest version of the first part of chapter 1.

    Orodi stopped pacing to glare at me as I entered Ardaval’s library. “Keth, Are you ready to pledge now?” Her hands fisted on her hips and her gray eyes emitted sparks. Orodi hungered to move our relationship forward, now that I’d identified the third participant in what would be our group of four. I kept resisting.

    I shook my head. “You know I’m not ready.”

    “I told you I’d be here this morning. You’re late.” She stopped in front of one of the dark wood, book-laden shelves that flanked the window that overlooked the street.

    “I went for a walk.” I clenched my jaw to stop my teeth from chattering and wiped my sweaty palms on my pants.

    Orodi stared at me, her head tipped up. She stood a good half a head shorter than I. “You’re afraid. You don’t want to take a chance. Well, I’m sick of it. I need to move on with my life. You’ve seen four of us in spirit dreams. You discovered who the third is. Yet, you won’t commit.” Her dark skin gleamed in the bright sun that slanted through the open window.

    “It’s not that.” I took a deep breath, held it for several seconds, and slowly let it out.”I know Aleyni relationships, commited relationships, are usually four. That doesn’t bother me.”

    Orodi shook her head. “Keth, I know something is bothering you. What else would it be? You lived your whole life on Terra, except for the last four years. You didn’t even realize you were part Aleyni until after you arrived here. I’ve asked you why you won’t pledge, and you just won’t answer.”

    “Pledge what?” Darus, who sat at one of the wooden tables in the library, glanced up from the book he studied. Written in old Aleyni, it had linen sheets bound in leather. Ardaval’s master had passed a goodly number of tomes down to him. Ardaval, my grandfather, studied and wrote about Aleyni literature, especially Old Aleyni poets like Raketh Namar, an ancestor of Ardaval’s and my namesake. Darus had worked with Ardaval since before I’d come to live here, first as a student, now as a valued colleague

    “Pledge rolor,” Orodi glared at me. Her foul mood surrounded her like a dark cloud.

    Darus stared at me, then at Orodi, his thoughts murky enough that I
    couldn’t read his mood. “So who are the other two? Is the third another guy? Who is it?” Darus swallowed a few times. “Tagga?”

    Was he actually that dense? “Tagga’s Sovan’s son.” Sovan was Ardaval’s sha — son, in Terran terms, which made Tagga my cousin. “I don’t think of him that way.”

    “Who, then?” Darus asked.

    I turned to Orodi. She shook her head. No hope she’d bail me out.

    I hesitated. “Darus, you don’t even like me.”

    Darus turned bright red, visible even against his almost-black skin, and dropped his eyes to the table. “I never said that.”

    “You did. Four years ago”

    “Keth, I’d just met you four years ago, and I simply said I didn’t like Terrans. I didn’t say anything about you. Perhaps I was hasty.”

    I took a deep breath. The scent of old wood and dry books drifted towards. Nothing in Aleyne’s desert air turned musty. “Maybe.”

    “I don’t dislike you.”

    My heart pounded, and I swallowed past the dry lump in my throat. My own confused emotions prevented me from reading his. “You’ve been avoiding me. In the past couple of weeks, you’ve barely spoken to me.”

    Darus lifted one shoulder and let it drop. “I’ve had a lot on my mind.”

    “You don’t like Terrans, whatever you say. I’m a cross. I’m only a quarter Aleyni. I can’t help that.”

    “You might be more. You said yourself that you know nothing about your mother’s family.”

    I shrugged. My mother died when I was seven. She’d been raised in state homes, so I had no idea of her background.

    “Anyway, you have Aleyni mind touch.”

    I nodded. Every Aleyni had mind touch ability. I’d been freaked when mine started to develop at age 13 or thereabouts, I’d freaked. The teacher at the port school, John, had been ready to turn me in for illegal use of psi, and my father wanted to lock me in my room. I’d been terrified I’d be arrested and thrown in prison, and I’d run to Ardaval. At the time, I hadn’t been aware that Ardaval was Dad’s biological father.

    Like

    • Dear Maggie,
      This is much better. You have really studied and revamped this. Only in the last paragraph, you used freaked twice. Good revision.
      Every Aleyni has mind touch ability. (Question: in reader’s mind, What is mind touch ability – This is good. Be sure and answer later, not now. Keep their curiosity going.) I freaked when mine started to develop at age 13.
      Thanks for writing and sharing your work. You’re a jewel.

      Do something good for you!

      Like

  2. Joan,

    I wonder if any writers ever took backstory intended for the first novel in a series and created a novel set earlier in time. Thus what was intended as novel #1 became novel #2. Stranger things have happened, I’m sure.

    Linda A.

    Like

    • Dear Linda,
      Thanks for writing and asking a question. It gets our brains going. Widder wrote that the first book she wrote in a series turned out to be Book 3 because of backstory, sidestory, and doe-see-doe-story. George Lucas wrote the fourth one in the Star Wars Series first. He knew the others in his mind, but hadn’t written it in screenplay format. Imagine all the backstory characters and notes he had stored in his brain.

      This is the order they came out: Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. Then in 1994, the new trilogy of the prequel movies: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. All three of these take place before Star Wars (which was my personal favorite).

      Do something good for you.
      Celebrate you at this very moment!
      Joan

      Like

  3. Joan – Great article.

    Linda – The first book in my series has turned out to be Book 3 because of backstory, and then side-story, and doe-see-doe-story!

    Now that the (official) first book in the series has been published, I do have to stick fairly close to my story arc in order for it to make sense … mind you, there’s always room for one more!

    Like

    • Dear Widder,
      Thanks for writing. I’m glad you liked the article. How clever that the backstory in your first book was so intriguing that it filled two books before it in a series. In one of the articles I read, it said, if the backstory is demanding more attention than what you’re telling now, perhaps it needs to be in the book instead. Making a series out of it sounds really good to me. Smart thinking on your part. The What ifs make the writers and their readers want more…more…more.
      Good luck with all your writing and publication dreams.

      Celebrate you today!
      Joan Y. Edwards

      Like

  4. Lots of meaty info here. I love that backstory should “add more questions than it answers”. That’s got me thinking….

    Thanks so much Joan!

    Like

    • Dear Joyce,
      It’s really good to hear from you. Thanks for saying there’s “lots of meaty info here.” Backstory is not very simple. I figure the more “meaty” resources, the better picture we would have of backstory. This will enable us to have a head start on others who don’t have a clue. At least we’ll have a half-of-a-clue. We’ll have enough information to form an opinion and courage to try to implement backstory to enhance our manuscripts. We’ll have the wisdom of where to leave it out when it distracts and pulls us away from the tension of the story at the present time.

      Good luck with all your writing and publication dreams,
      Do something fun to celebrate you
      Joan Y. Edwards

      Like

  5. Joan, great article. Thanks for all the backup resources.

    Like

    • Dear Karen,
      Thanks for writing. I’m glad you thought this was a great article. You’re welcome for the backup resources. I put the ones that I thought explained it well. They say you really understand something when you can explain it to someonelse. I’m getting closer to understanding it. If there are any places where I wasn’t clear, I’ll try to simplify it. Just let me know what you want to know more about.

      Do something fun to celebrate you!
      Enjoy your many gifts.
      Joan Y. Edwards

      Like

  6. 
    I jump off the last step of the bus and begin the three block walk to home. In my mind
    I’m already tasting the biscuits and jam. School is over, summer has begun and today is ballet.
    My spirits are high.
    Entering the apartment I throw my books on the table and call out, “I’m home.” No
    answer. Strange, where could mum be? She knows we must be to ballet. We’re always in a
    rush. “Mum. . . where?” I walk down the hallway. It’s not like her to be anything but
    punctual. “I can’t find you. Where are you?” In the kitchen I see that nothing has been
    prepared. No biscuits, nothing, the room is empty. “Where are you?” I walk down the hallway
    looking in each room expecting to find her engrossed in something. “Hello? Are you here?” I
    walk back to the lounge and look at the flower box. Then to the back door, her car is gone.
    “How. . .bizarre.” The apartment is completely silent. The ringing of the phone causes me to
    jump.
    “Hello?”
    “May I speak with Lola Yoslanavich, please?”
    “This is her speaking.”
    “Are you the daughter of Lea Yoslanavich?”
    “Yes.”
    “This is Central Memorial Hospital calling to tell you there has been an accident. Your
    Mother Lea Yoslanavich is here….”
    I drop the phone and run out of the apartment. I didn’t even bother to hang to the phone
    up. Whatever else that was said is of little importance. Just as I rounded the corner the bus was
    there. “Oh please, wait for me.” I scrambled on board and found the first seat. Then I turned
    toward the window. I didn’t want them to see my face. Maybe they could tell that inside I was
    screaming at the people getting on, yelling for the cars to get out of the way. How could they be
    so unaware of my crashing world?? How can they have such a normal world when a bomb had
    just detonated in mine? Every stop light, every intersection, was excruciating. Inside I was
    bursting, screaming and exploding.
    When I entered the room I saw that her face was swollen beyond recognition, her breath
    laboring and raspy. Time seemed to stand still as I sat in the chair. Every now and then nurses
    would enter to make a routine check and swap the IV bag. They tell me it was a head on
    collision. A hit and run.
    Hours or maybe minutes went by I couldn’t tell. I watched and waited and willed for her
    to live. Slowly the never ending tormented death rattles came to a stop. I looked around the
    room at the equipment and the IV hanging from a tree. Adrenaline began to throb and beat
    through my arteries. The panic rose to my throat. I clenched my teeth holding back my shriek. I
    can’t stay here. Where will I go? I can’t go home. I just got to get out. That’s all. Get out now.
    Everything of value came to an end in that moment. I couldn’t go home. Everything of
    value had left and flown away. Thinking about where to go was not important as going. I had to
    leave.
    The sun had set and the parking lot is dark except for the lamp lights. My pace
    quickens, I start running fast. My running turns into a sprint so fast that I can’t look back. I will
    never look back.

    Like

    • Dear Joy,
      Thank you for sharing the passage from your manuscript. It takes a lot of courage to share what you write with others. I applaud you for sharing on my blog.
      From what I’ve read, this is a scene from your young adult novel. It would be good to know more about what you would like for me to do. Without such direction, I’ll give you my gut opinion.
      I think it would be better if you rewrote it using the simple past tense:
      “I jumped off the last step of the bus and began the three block walk to home. In my mind
      I already tasted Mum’s biscuits and jam. School was over; summer began. This afternoon I’d go to ballet.
      My spirits were high.”
      It doesn’t seem like this is backstory. This seems like it’s just your main character telling what happened. If she remembered how your Mum had an another accident earlier before this time, then that would be backstory.
      Instead of

    • “They tell me it was a head on collision. A hit and run.”
    • My suggestion you could show the dialogue and the main character’s emotional response:

    • The doctor said, “It was a head-on collision. A hit and run. Her kidneys aren’t functioning and she has a brain concussion”
      I dropped into the closest chair. “Will she make it?”
      The doctor said, “The next three hours are critical. If she makes it through them, she has a chance to live.”
      I didn’t hear what else he said, they faded into nothingness and fear.
    • Unless you agree with my suggestions 100%, don’t use them.
      I hope other readers will give you their opinions, too.
      Good luck with your writing. You have a great spirit in your words.
      Thanks again for sharing with me. Do something to celebrate you and your writing gift.

      Joan Y. Edwards

      Like

  • Dear Joan,

    Thank you for taking the time to give me your comments and impressions. Your right I did not give you much to go on. Sorry about that.

    I related the back story through a dream.

    It was such a gift for you to help me.

    Thank you very much,
    Joy Moore

    Like

    • Dear Joy, You’re welcome. I was glad to give you my comments and impressions. I hope they helped you have a clearer vision for your book. Enjoy your writing. Reward yourself for taking a chance on you. Have a fun day. Play. Laugh. Smile. Joan Y. Edwards http://www.joanyedwards.com

      Like

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