Revision stage part four: flashbacks and back story
But how on Earth do you revise the things?
Flashbacks and backstory fall under the same category for one reason: Technically, they’re the same thing. Backstory happened in the past, and flashbacks happened in the past. The difference is that backstory isn’t always direct. I can provide backstory without it being a flashback. If this doesn’t make sense, I’ll provide a short example.
“The beach hadn’t changed in the twenty years she’d spent walking down the shores, listening to the waves move the sand as the wind drove it toward the land.”
In a way, this is back story. I didn’t jump into the past, but instead, I allowed the past to become part of the present. Back story is a history, but it’s not as direct as a flashback. It’s something that, in a story, can develop in a reader’s mind. It forms a mental image without spilling the contents of one’s past.
Flashbacks are pretty much the exact opposite.
Now that we know the difference, let’s get to revisions.
First, I want you to remember something. Flashbacks are part of back story, but back story is not a flashback. Flashbacks help form back story, which is the history or past as a whole. It’s a person’s background—why they are who/what they are. It’s developed, usually, and it can be shared without having to jump into the past in a scene.
The biggest thing about back story is there’s often too much of it. A writer who knows their main character’s past usually thinks so much of it is necessary for the reader to understand why the “now” is happening.
That’s not always true. Actually, it’s usually not true.
Realizing things after a friendship occurs
Ever meet someone and years after you become awesome friends, you learn a few things that make you snap your fingers and think, “That’s why you’re like that, you punk.”
Maybe your words are a bit different, but still. You don’t always realize things from the beginning, and sometimes, the information you learn later isn’t always as important as you’d think if you had known that. For example, your best friend might cheat on his girlfriends often because he can’t take a relationship seriously. Maybe he doesn’t take a relationship seriously because when he was younger, his aunt sexually assaulted him, and he was told many times that relationships weren’t real. The feeling he felt (with his aunt during intercourse) was the real part. So, it stuck.
Of course, some guys/girls are just jerks and cheating is an inexcusable thing, but I’m going to stay on the extreme side for the sake of easy explanation.
The past isn’t always necessary for a story
While this aunt part of the story might be necessary, depending on the plot, it isn’t always something that must be known. If the guy’s cheating is prevalent, fine. Maybe, his past with his aunt is important. But, if he’s the main character, and his lack of a desire for a steady relationship isn’t a major part of the plot, who cares why? Some things don’t need explanation, no matter how amazing that story is. Give it its own story if needed, but you don’t have to spill your main character’s past because it’s an interesting one.
If it’s bothering you that much, give it its own story
Seriously, what he said. I get it. There’s that feeling of “but it’s such a good story” rolling around in your head as you hover over that backspace button that you doubt you’ll actually press.
Just do it.
Or save it for another story. If the story makes sense without all that back story you thought you needed to dump on a reader, sometimes it’s best to let that stuff go. Fresh eyes are best when looking for things like this, but you can do this, too, if you think about it a bit.
Here’s a surprise: Add back story
A lot of what I post involves trimming, and even in last week’s post about secondary and tertiary characters, I touched on the idea of where back story might be needed and where it isn’t. Well, sometimes you’ll find out that you missed a spot. It’s usually with your main character, the revision stage of which I wrote about here in part two. You’ll find that much of what you discovered about your MC’s life came while you were writing, and that stuff didn’t get inserted where it might have been needed.
Maybe the story is about this guy who cheats and doesn’t stay in a relationship for long. Pretend this story is about him finding the woman who changes him and blah, blah, blah. Why he does this annoying, incessant thing called cheating is necessary, especially when he decides to do it and lose the lady in the book. We all know the lady in the book is the lady. And he cheated. Not intelligent. What’s his problem? Well, it might fit, putting in his back story. If you didn’t do it, and you think perhaps it’ll improve the storyline, add it in! Please don’t say “Here” and be done with it. Use better judgment. Put it where it fits. Back story isn’t like a flashback. It’s steady. It’s developed. So it doesn’t just get one scene.
What’s the main goal?
With back story, there are three I’ll mention. During your revision stage, just keep this in mind:
- Don’t have an excessive amount of back story. If your story doesn’t change much without it, remove it. It’s unnecessary and your story reads nicer.
- Don’t remove all back story just because you can. Think carefully or get a beta reader. Look for reasons back story is necessary. If it helps something more than it hurts it, keep the information or add it in.
- Backstories aren’t infodumps. If you provide all information in one scene, try to break it up if it’s a good amount of information. Your readers don’t need to play the can-you-remember-this game.
Yay, this thing I talk about a lot. Flashbacks are incredibly important to talk about, I think, because I’ve edited many books that rely on them when they shouldn’t or that use these when narrative back story would suffice.
First, ask yourself whether the flashback is necessary
Of course. If you can remove it and it doesn’t affect the story, you should take it out. The funny thing about reading is that you don’t want to read too much information or you’ll get confused or bored, but you want information. You want enough information. That’s why I talk so much about trimming. If you provide your reader with a lot of unnecessary information, you’re leaving them hanging too much.
A reader doesn’t remember everything they read. That’s in italics. Know why? Because it’s one-hundred percent true. They never will. If you have to put information in there and say “Now if they’ll just remember this . . .” you just set off ten alarms. This happens often with flashback. You throw that scene in there and expect your reader to remember the big juicy pile of information like it’s a “no duh” gold nugget. Don’t do that. Avoid it. Well, that’s not entirely true. But don’t try to throw everything at the reader at once, and definitely don’t take your flashbacks for granted.
Keep in mind that your reader won’t remember everything, so if you’re depending on a flashback to deliver important information, don’t have a bunch of surrounding flashbacks with useless information. First, if I read a flashback that doesn’t matter, I’m likely going to skim through the next one because it happened in the past. As a reader, I don’t care. I want what’s happening now.
So make it worth my time. Me being the reader. As an editor, make those words worth what you’re paying me (if you’re paying me) to edit. I do charge by the word, after all.
Why a flashback?
As I mentioned, flashbacks sometimes deliver a certain amount of information that must be understood in the context in which it first occurred. Most of the time, it’s the emotional pull of it. If someone got raped or hurt or maybe if someone lost a loved one, it might not suffice to put that news in context. Maybe, the main character suffers the scene and plays it out. Some flashbacks are summarized a bit like:
He folded his arms across his chest, the memory fresh again in his mind. He hadn’t moved the first time he stood here and realized what had taken place. He couldn’t have moved. Blood covered the floor, and where there wasn’t blood, he knew there was a body spilling it. He had tried to move, but his arms were like a barrier across his body, holding him back. Then, he heard a familiar, small voice, a whisper that barely sounded like a word at all. “Bubba?”
That’s a flashback, but see how short it was? You don’t have the rest of the story to care about his character and feel the pain he’s feeling in whatever story this is, but if you did, you’d cry. Trust me. You would. Maybe.
That said, this is what I mean by a summarized flashback. There are other ways to do this, but this is one way. I didn’t go over the entire scene. I could have gone through the moment he walked in the door and the part where he was locked out of the bedroom this happened in so when he heard the door unlock and the window break, he opened the door but couldn’t move in. It’s ten years later or whatever when he’s back at the house where this happened. All that good stuff.
So, which one do you need? That’s your question. Don’t just write out the whole scene because it’s a scene. Go only as far as you need to.
Transitions! Transitions! Transitions!
Flashbacks don’t always need entry transitions (if it starts at the beginning of a chapter, for example) but they almost always need exit transitions. Whatever the case, make sure you do it right. Can you tell you’re in the past and then can you tell when you leave the flashback? At the beginning of this post, I offered two links for writing flashbacks. Check those out.
Do you need the flashback in the first place?
I didn’t put this question first because I want to assume you wrote that flashback because you needed it. I know that’s not always the case, though. The easiest way to figure out whether the flashback is needed is to take it out and note what information leaves with it. Does it matter that the information is gone? For example, in that above impulsive masterpiece I wrote, I don’t need a flashback about how close the kid at the door and the kid on the floor were. (Yeah, they’re kids. Actually, let’s make them brothers.) I don’t need a flashback to show them playing or show how much he cared about him, even if this story is about him getting over his brother’s murder.
Sometimes, it’s good to have. Not in my story. Why? Because I can show his love for his brother in context. I can use references to his past to develop his character and current state of mind, and I can use current actions to form, in a reader’s mind, the strength of the bond he had with his brother.
Some stories call for that, and some don’t. You’re the writer and you can decide that for yourself. If you need help, ask a beta reader. Or a fellow writer.
Just make sure your flashback does its job, and make sure it’s there for a purpose other than convenience or your desire to provide your reader with as much information as possible.
So, to recap, these are the things you need to consider when revising your flashbacks:
- Why did you put a flashback here? Is it worth jumping back in time or can you easily summarize this or even hint at it within your scenes?
- Does the flashback have emotional impact that can’t be shown in context?
- Do you transition in and out of your flashback well?
- Are you using a flashback because it gets information out quicker? If so, try removing it.
- Is this flashback necessary at all? What if your readers don’t know about this. Will it change the story?
I talk about plot and flow. I underestimate my ability to write an in-depth article about things, so again, I didn’t get to put a topic in my post. That’s okay, though! A plot includes the main events of your story. It’s the reason your story exists. Flow is what keeps your story at a good pace, whether fast or slow.