If you want to rev up a group of passionate writers, just bring up the topic of backstory. As much as we love our stories, we often love our backstories even more. If plot offers a what and a how, backstory is often the why. It can provide both context and subtext, bringing depth, understanding, and subtle nuance to a character’s journey through the main story. Handled well, backstory techniques can elevate your entire story. Handled poorly, backstory can ruin the entire experience for your audience.
I’ve written many posts about important considerations such as:
- How to Discover Your Character’s Backstory
- The Right Time to Share Backstory
- When to Avoid Backstory Altogether
- What to Do When Your Backstory Becomes Your Story
What is the best way to interpolate backstory into the main plot? Today, I want to talk about specific backstory techniques you will need to choose between when sharing your characters’ histories with your audience. The goal should be to fully satisfy your audience’s curiosity without slowing down the momentum of the main plot. This can be easier said than done, and largely comes down to the right choice of one of five techniques: prologue, flashback, backstory-as-story, alternating timelines, or linear timeline. We will discuss the first two in today’s post, the second two in next week’s post, and the final (most common and utilitarian) practice in the third post.
This discussion was inspired by Amazon’s recent limited neo-western series The English, starring Emily Blunt, about an Englishwoman on a mission of revenge who becomes the unlikely travelling companion of a decommissioned Pawnee Cavalry Scout.
On the whole, I quite liked the show, particularly the relationship between the two leads. But one area in which I felt it faltered was its execution of backstory. The backstory reveal is a huge moment that changes everything in the plot, but both its timing and the chosen technique of a lengthy flashback (comprising an entire episode) muddied the story’s pacing and momentum. I will discuss what went wrong in the section below about flashbacks, as well as sharing how the other potential backstory techniques might have been better choices.
Needless to say, the entire post will be filled with SPOILERS for The English.
What Is a Complex Backstory?
First, let us examine the differences between a complex backstory and a simple backstory. When the events of your characters’ pasts are incidental to the events of the main plot or the characters’ personal development in that plot, your story isn’t likely to require any particular technique to share it with readers. This is a simple backstory.
A complex backstory, on the other hand, is backstory that greatly impacts the events and development in the main plot. Indeed, as in The English, the backstory may be driving everything that happens in the main plot.
Complex backstories are often used in stories that feature one or more of the following:
- Complicated Motivations: the characters’ reasons for pursuing their main plot goals are not straightforward or are born out of the characters’ inner conflict (e.g., in The English, Cornelia Locke seeks vengeance against the father of her dead child, whom she holds responsible for his death).
- Secrets Characters Are Keeping From Each Other: characters are not sharing important information (usually about their motivations) with other characters (e.g., Cornelia keeps many secrets from Eli Whipp, her travelling companion, including the truth about her child’s father and the child’s manner of death)
- Secrets Character Is “Keeping” From Self: characters may not know their own pasts as well as they believe, either because they are deluding themselves and cannot face the truth, or because they are missing key pieces of information (e.g., characters may learn the truth about a dead parent or grandparent, changing their perspective on their own journeys)
- Secrets Author Is Keeping From Reader: characters know the truth of the past, but the author purposefully keeps the audience in the dark to allow for a reveal later on. This is the trickiest approach, since it can put audiences at a remove from characters’ development and sometimes even “played” by the author.
In all cases, backstory information will be shared as either context or a reveal.
If the backstory is simply contextual, then it is presented as basic information readers need to know in order to understand what is going on. For example, The English casually explains Cornelia’s rank as a “lady” in England, as well as Eli’s service in the U.S. Cavalry. Neither bits of info are reveals; they are simply information necessary to build the story world.
On the other hand, if the backstory is used to create a reveal, then it must bear much much more weight within the main story. It becomes a pivot point. The very act and timing of its revelation changes the perception of the audience and/or the characters—preferably both. For example, The English saves up several important pieces of information, but none so shocking as the identity of Cornelia’s child’s father—whom audiences were led to believe was someone else.
When planning your backstory, a good rule of thumb is that complex backstories are best for simple stories; simple backstories are best for complex stories. If your main plot is complicated in its own right, then a complex backstory that requires much explanation and many reveals may not be the best choice. But if your main plot is relatively simple with a straight throughline, a complex backstory can add depth and nuance.
When Flashbacks Work Best
Backstory and flashbacks are synonymous in some writers’ minds. The flashback is the technique of interjecting a dramatized scene from a character’s past into the main part of the story.
The Advantages: Flashbacks are visceral and immediate, allowing audiences to experience the backstory with just as much potency as any of the scenes in the main part of the story. They are also detailed, which ensures complicated events can be fully explored and explained.
The Disadvantages: Flashbacks necessarily stop the progression of the main part of the story. They require audiences to be patient while a new scene(s) is carefully fleshed out, sometimes with an entirely different or altered cast of characters.
Tips: Short flashbacks are usually best, especially if you’re introducing them late into the story with no foreshadowing of a time shift (such as you would have in a story with an alternating timeline, as we’ll discuss in next week’s post). However, if you do decide you want to include a lengthy flashback (of more than short scene), make sure it is dramatic enough to carry its own weight. The longer a flashback, the more dramatic it should be.
Avoid exposition; flashbacks should not be about explaining things to audiences, but only about providing answers to questions that have already been set up to hook their curiosity. Flashbacks need to introduce new information that turns the main plot. By nature, flashbacks pull audiences out of the main story, which means whatever you share in the flashback should be riveting enough to pull them right back in.
Example: The English shares its major backstory reveal in a lengthy flashback that comprises an entire episode (which, in this story, is an entire sixth of its overall length). In this instance, the flashback was arguably not the right choice. One of the main reasons for this is that the episode focuses primarily on the antagonist, rather than the protagonists. In this instance, the problem is compounded further by the fact that the antagonist was never introduced in the story up to this point. In fact, he had been barely acknowledged beyond a few mentions of his name and a vague indication that minor characters dislike him.
Because this flashback was poorly set up, it interrupts the pacing and momentum of the main story. It forces the audience to leave behind the story they have so far invested in (the relationship between the two leads) to spend a great deal of time with characters whom they neither know nor like. Had the antagonist been better set up, the flashback would have felt more important to the story, rather than coming as a bolt from the blue that audiences don’t really care about until after it’s over.
When Prologues Work Best
Prologues can take many forms. Sometimes they might be a “flash forward” to show an event from later in the story. Other times, they are used as an atmospheric hook to set the tone and plant a quick bit of foreshadowing to be paid off later in the story. Most often, however, they are used as a sort of flashback in their own right, to show a glimpse into an important moment in the characters’ backstory before the audience flips ahead to the main plot.
The Advantages: Thanks to their positioning at the very beginning of the story, prologues set the stage. This means they never need to be foreshadowed or set up, as do flashbacks; they are the set up. If the prologue is effective (i.e, more than just an info dump), it can frame the story by hinting at what important revelation the entire story is building toward. Prologues are also relatively “short, quick, and dirty.” They let authors get the backstory out of the way, so they then can then pursue the main plot uninterrupted.
The Disadvantages: Like flashbacks, prologues live apart from the main narrative and can therefore create a bit of a “bump” for readers as they transition from past to present within the story. Used well prologues can create subtext; used poorly, they can destroy opportunities for tasty subtext that might otherwise have existed within the story. The main challenge they create is that they force readers to begin a story twice—which means you must hook them twice.
Tips: If you decide to utilize a prologue to share important backstory information, do it in a way that creates questions rather than offering all the answers upfront. If you’re giving readers a prologue, this means whatever happens in this scene must be important to pulling them into the story to follow. The prologue should create momentum, drawing readers into the need to know how the consequences of this backstory moment will play out.
Example: The English utilizes a very brief prologue, of sorts, in which protagonist Cornelia voices over a scene of remembrance about her time in Nebraska with Eli Whipp. By itself, the prologue is effective, since it teases what is to come, sets up the general vibe of the story, and pulls audiences into the narrative. However, in light of the fact that the backstory flashback halfway through the show ends up completely altering the context for what is initially set up, the prologue could have been better utilized.
Flashbacks and prologues are highly specialized techniques and will not be the right choices for every story. However, when used at exactly the right moment, they can allow an author to skillfully shape the audience’s experience. If flashbacks and prologues are not the right choice for your story, then don’t worry! Next week, we will discuss backstory techniques for stories that utilize backstory-as-story and alternating timelines.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What backstory techniques have you used in your stories? Tell me in the comments!
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Author: K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland