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Bob Nailor




Flashbacks

I read this someplace and truly wish I could remember where: “A good rule of thumb for characters is simple—if they can't stand on their own without a backstory, then develop them more as a person.”

Truer words have never been spoken. Perhaps it was my mentor who told me that when I started writing.

Backstory should facilitate your character, not define your character. Backstory is sugar in the cake. What your character does during the story is the cake.

Forget the brooding, tortured soul. It's an overused and oh-so-familiar archetype so many people are annoyed with for that very reason. The only thing defining the character is their past. They don't do anything of value in the story. They sit there and brood, re-hashing the past to the reader with their backstory. Unfortunately, this is NOT the character to have.

A character can definitely have a tortured past, but they also have to do something substantial during the story. Many writers seem to think giving a character "a past full of dark secrets" will make them interesting. Many readers find this mega-dark secrets thing… well, boring. Think about it. Doesn't it seem logical it would be more interesting for the character to generate those dark secrets during the story process?

Let's analyze why this dark secret/tortured past scenario is so boring. What is the most common way for people to get across this past to the reader? They use: a) Flashbacks or b) The character bluntly tells us what happened to them. Listen. Boring!

Flashbacks

Flashbacks are not effective at holding our attention because it slows the forward momentum of the story by going back to rehash the past. As a reader, we don't want to stop that momentum. We want to keep going forward. Flashbacks don't progress the story other than providing trivial or, sometimes, vital information. There's no action associated with a flashback since it moves the reader to another period of time in the past, rather than forward.

The character bluntly tells us what happened to them.

Talk about telling rather than showing! By doing that, it automatically is dull, flat and boring. Period.

You can definitely use flashbacks of the backstory, but attempt to keep it to a minimum. Every character has a backstory, so don't think this means you need to leave out a character's backstory. A cake without sugar would be tasteless. Also, a cake with too much sugar would be sickeningly sweet—you need to find that happy medium of how much backstory is needed. Remember, it will be different for each story and each character.

Backstories can be the vehicle to show your character’s motive. How? The most important thing to making an interesting character is for them to participate in the action of the story, to move forward with a motive. All characters have a history. If a character’s parents were killed, have the character take action to actively find the killer and enact revenge. Even better, have the character help someone else who experienced the same thing. If the character has made mistakes in the past, that’s fine. Let the character make amends to fix those mistakes.

Backstories are a double-edged sword. It is your job to hone it properly without slicing up the story.




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~ COMMENTS ~

Elyse Salpeter
2013-10-28
I'm going to cry - I love my flashbacks! I'm 11 books into a series of my favorite authors and I wish they'd make the entire 12th book a flashback! I just love them. But, you're so right - flashbacks stop the flow of a story, they wrench a reader right out of the action. I do understand this - it's just that I need to get hit over the head by my editor a few times to get it through my skull.
~ Reply to this comment ~

Onisha Ellis
2013-10-28
So just to be sure I am clear, let them eat cake, but make sure it is perfect cake, not too sweet, not too bland. I really enjoy your writing tips. I'm sure they make me a better editor.
~ Reply to this comment ~

Bob
2013-10-28
Onisha: Marie A. don't have a thing on you. LOL. That's correct, tho, you must make sure the cake is just perfect otherwise the peasants will revolt.
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Bob
2013-10-28
Elyse: You have flashbacks. I wrote a story and had a flashback that was 5 pages. My beta-reader got so wrapped up in the flashback he forgot it wasn't part of the current story. Not good. If I remember correctly, in "The Princess Bride" I believe Inigo Montoya actually uses conversation to give the flashback information of how his father was killed. I believe it was the duel between Inigo and Count Rygen. There is more than one way to get your flashback into the story - be inventive but keep the story moving forward.
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Sonya Contreras
2013-10-29
Thanks Bob for the visual description. Helps to MAKE me remember.
"Double-edged sword---without slicing up the story."

(The cake is sweet any way you cut it.)
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