Thursday, November 5, 2009

Flashback or Backstory? What's the Difference?

A question came up the other day about Flashback and Backstory. Backstory, as you know, is considered a bad thing to include in a story—or at least in the opening pages—and yet many writers use flashbacks.  If you look at Where the Red Fern Grows, which is always a great example to use when talking about how to write a novel, the vast majority of the book is flashback. We, obviously, can’t be talking about the same thing with these two terms, but where do we draw the line and what’s the difference.

A Couple of Definitions

Before we talk about the differences, we need a couple of definitions. Some people define backstory as narrative interjected into a story that tells what happened before the current action. That definition makes it sound an awful lot like flashback. That isn’t very helpful for our purposes. I prefer the Merriam-Webster definitions:

backstory
a story that tells what led up to the main story or plot (as of a film)
flashback
interruption of chronological sequence (as in a film or literary work) by interjection of events of earlier occurrence; also : an instance of flashback

What They Are

Look at those definitions carefully. Backstory is another story that tells about things that happened before the current story. Flashback is an interruption in the chronological sequence. Unlike backstory, flashback is part of our current story. To say that any narrative telling of events before the current action is backstory is to assume that a story must be in the correct chronological order. Such is not the case.  Both have already occurred, but one is from another story and the other is part of our current story. What that means for us is that if we find ourselves reaching back into events that have nothing to do with our current story then it is backstory. But if what we are writing is still part of the current story but it happened previously then it is flashback. In terms of what we should and should not do, we should stick to one story and not try to tell more than one story at the same time.

An Example

Clear as mud? Yeah, that’s what I thought. Let’s look at a couple of examples. The first is of backstory:

When I woke on Saturday morning, I was starving and the refrigerator was bare. I hopped in the car and drove to the store. I had just gotten inside when I saw her, the lady of my dreams.

I started shopping at this store ten years ago. I had just moved to town and I didn't know where anything was, so I drove around town until I found a grocery store. I went in and liked it, so I've been shopping here ever since.

The lady smiled at me and quickly moved her cart out of the way, when I said hello. It was a sad sort of smile and I wondered what could possibly be behind that expression. We broke eye contact and we went on about our business.

The second is of flashback:

When I woke on Saturday morning, I was starving and the refrigerator was bare. I hopped in the car and drove to the store. I had just gotten inside when I saw her, the lady of my dreams.

The first time I saw her, it was also at this store. I was looking for coffee and she was looking for creamer, when I slammed my cart into hers. I apologized, of course, but I sometimes wonder if she'll ever thing of me as someone other than the guy who can't push a cart.

The lady smiled at me and quickly moved her cart out of the way, when I said hello. It was a sad sort of smile and I wondered what could possibly be behind that expression. We broke eye contact and we went on about our business.

Notice the difference in what the second paragraph does to this segment of a story. In the first example, we jump completely out of the story into a story that we could easily delete without doing any harm to the story. But in the second, the middle paragraph gives us more insight into this budding relationship between two characters. When even understand why she moved her cart out of the way.

Conclusion

Keep in mind that we have to scale the example up when talking about a novel. Instead of a paragraph of backstory or flashback, written in narrative form, we could be talking about chapters of backstory or flashback, written in extensive dialogue. But the principles are the same. Backstory tends to pull us out of a story into another and usually can as well as should be deleted. Flashback stays within the current story and is a way of telling the story out of chronological order. Because it is part of the story and an important piece of the story, it adds value to the story, giving us a better understanding of why the characters are doing what they are doing.

4 comments :

Lady Glamis said...

So I get the feeling that you're saying within our flashback narrative we need to refer consistently to the current moving storyline as well? That makes sense.

I like this post. It's got me thinking about some great things! Thank you for sharing.

Timothy Fish said...

Lady Glamis,

To some extent, that may be what I'm saying, but I see it more as being that a story works best when it has a sort of eb and flow, but the chronological order of events may not match the ideal for the story. Suppose we have a story about a teenager who has someone encouraging him to do drugs. To get the timing right in the story, we want to have a few paragraphs of him debating whether he should or not, but to be consistent with the character, there would be no debate because he already made that decision two years ago. We have several options. We could pretend he is rethinking his decision. We could ignore the need for a debate section. We could tell the story in chronological order, so that we begin with him at a church meeting where someone is talking about all of the reasons to stay away from drugs. But I don't care for any of those options. What I would like to see us do is in that section where we need some internal debate, we insert a flashback to the time just before he made his decision, show the internal debate he had then and then come back to normal story time and have him refuse drugs because of what he decided to do back then.

Heart of Wisdom said...

I just finished reading a book with an entire chapter of back story for six characters: mother, father, aunt, uncle, and son's stories were told by the the Aunt explaining the stories to the heroine (actually 5 chapters as the aunt and uncle was one). Each was packaged as story within the story.
Pieces of several mysteries were revealed in each back story. It flowed and transitioned really well.
Toward the end the hero's story was told when the heroine finds his journal, then finally the heroine reveals her secret past to the aunt andthe whole thing makes sense. The book is "Hidden Places" http://amzn.to/16x3Jpd
I really like this technique and think it would work for my book.
OR Since this is interruption of chronological sequence is it considered flashback?

Timothy Fish said...

Heart of Wisdom,

The most important question to ask is whether this is part of the story or not. There is no reason why a story can't be told from several points of view that eventually merge to give us a better understanding of what happened in the story. In a murder mystery, one method of telling the story is to bring the cast of characters together for some purpose, kill off one of the characters, and then spend the rest of the book figuring out why he was killed. The events that come after the murder won't tell us that, so the gumshoe asks a bunch of questions that causes the suspects to tell about the events that occurred before the murder. This may or may not come in the form of flashback. It is not, however, backstory because the events leading up to the murder are as much a part of the story as the murder itself.