The Non-Fiction Novelist

Helping at-work writers to become novelists

The Trouble With Flashbacks and Backstories

By Larry Kahaner

One of the best things about writing this blog is that it forces me to confront my own writing issues. Currently, I’m wrestling with a particular flashback in my current novel. You probably know that flashbacks and backstories are different although they are similar. Both devices occur in the past and writers use them to give readers a better understanding of a character or situation through past history and behavior.320px-Flashback

Backstories usually are standalone narratives whereas flashbacks are a character’s recollection. (I know that some will argue these definitions but I’m going to move on anyway as you consult your dictionaries.) Both suffer from the same malady, however. They interrupt the forward movement of your story.

In my particular case, the flashback is way cool. I’ve written it well and in real time. It moves like the wind and gives a great insight into my main character. On the minus side, it stops the main story dead in its tracks. The forward motion that I’ve worked so hard to achieve is halted, and I will have to work even harder to build up acceleration again.

The questions I have to ask myself is: Is it worth it? Cut out or leave in?

Actually, there’s a third choice. I could make the flashback shorter in hopes that the reader will speed over it. Nah. I either want to tell the whole flashback story or not at all.

Because I come from a journalism/non-fiction writer background I opted to brutally cut the flashback. Here’s the section under discussion:

“As the minister spoke, Mike remembered the funerals in Iraq. They were not ceremonies like today’s but what they called ‘ramp funerals’ where caskets containing service personnel were wheeled onto military transports for burial back in the States. Their buddies stood and watched as the caskets disappeared into the belly of a cargo plane. That’s what passed for funerals during the war.

He had his fill of death in Iraq. Mike saw too many pals die, too many ramp funerals, and the memories made him sick to his stomach.”

[Right here I had the rather long but again, very exciting flashback incident that occurred during the First Iraq War. It’s too lengthy to show. So, assume that you did read it and continue with the current day’s scene.]

“Now, here he was once more, watching the burial of one more comrade who died in the line of duty. Comrade? She was more than a comrade.

Did you miss reading the flashback? If I didn’t say anything, you wouldn’t have noticed anything was missing. I added “Comrade? She was more than a comrade.” to highlight my main character’s emotional state and offer a bit of backstory, as it were, about their relationship.

In summary, I cut several pages of flashback and replaced it with seven words.

My word count took a hit, but I have a better book.

How do you handle flashbacks and backstories? Any advice for others facing the keep-or-cut dilemma?

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