1. Lilith MoonWater
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    Lilith MoonWater New Member

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    A book with a lot of flashbacks/backstory.

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Lilith MoonWater, Nov 30, 2010.

    I have an idea for a fantasy book series I want to write that follows the life of a particular character from childhood and on through adulthood as she follows the route of a basically good person who turns to evil and then goes back to good and seeks to redeem herself and make-up for what she's done.

    I was having trouble coming up with ideas for stories in her early life but then my boyfriend gave me the idea of starting the first book with as a teenager when she gets captured by slavers(since this is the next part after the death of her parents when she was 5 that has the most development and the most for me to go off of. Starting it there I could have the story of how she escapes from servitude and have the whole dilemna of whether or not she should return to her people or remain with the wizard who has been training her since her parents died. However I could also interject scenes from her childhood and adolescence throughout the first 1/3-1/2 of the book to reveal backstory, where she comes from, and how she wound up where she is, as well as revealing the kind of relationship she has with the wizard I mentioned.

    I was wondering if anyone here might have any tips on how to write a story that delves a lot into a character's past or even if it's a good idea to write a story like this. Are there any books out there that have a lot of flashbacks or backstory in them that I could read to give me an idea of how to go about it?

    Any advice or help would be much appreciated. Thanks.
     
  2. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Lilith - just one opinion, but personally I don't like books that have a lot of flashbacks or dream sequences (I know you're only talking about flashbacks, but I thought I'd throw the other one out there). I tend to want to skip over them, and sometimes I do if they get really tedious. If I notice, in the store, that the book has these I probably won't buy it. There are some exceptions, but as a general rule I have found them to be unnecessary and to detract from the ongoing story that I am trying to get into :)

    Other people may have a different view. I feel more or less the same about backstory that isn't essential to the understanding of the story I am reading, but I'm more forgiving about too much backstory than I am about too many flashbacks.
     
  3. markimedes
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    markimedes New Member

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    I've recently had a similar dilemma, and all the books I've read on creative writing all say pretty much the same thing, which is if you can invent some other device to reveal backstory then use it, only use flashbacks as a last resort.

    A first draft I recently completed I wrote in a similar fashion to what it sounds like you want to do. I wrote one chapter in the present, then the next in the past, and alternated chapters like that. Every other chapter was a flashback, in essence.

    When I got round to the second draft, I immediately realised what all the books were saying - I got to the end of the first chapter and as a reader I wanted to find out what happens next, but then all of a sudden I'm faced with a chapter from the past. Needless to say my second draft is now all linear, and I slip in a paragraph here and there to (hopefully) give the reader just enough information to accurately assume the bits of backstory, and ultimately the pace is a lot better.

    Hope this helps, though you may find you'll have to do what I did, write it the way you want and see if it works.
     
  4. Peerie Pict
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    Peerie Pict Contributing Member Contributor

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    I suppose if you think about your story as a train chugging along, exposition thrown on the tracks will only slow it down and diffuse momentum. However, if done well then backstory can really enhance the current plot and can add to the tension if historic facts are revealed at key stages.

    I can't see why backstory would be boring as long as it is revealed to be important to the current character's circumstances.
     
  5. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    My personal preference is that if you can't give a character's history via context and subtext, then one should probably be writing for TV and not fiction. TV interrupts the action in the middle of a scene because the view can't be privy (usually) to a characters internal reaction to something. It's a limitation TV has to overcome, so they use flashbacks as a gimmick. Fiction needs no such gimmick.

    What I mean is if you have a character see a dog, a TV show may flash back to a childhood memory of their dog being hit by a car so we understand the meaning of the character now seeing a similar dog. In fiction, we can simply give the characters direct reaction to the dog, so it's clumsy and contrived to have the character go into some sort of trance. And it's usually not necessary, and 99% of the time flashbacks triggered by something in the real-time storyline could have been handled by staying in that time-line and giving the honest, real reaction of the character, and with much fewer words.

    If an extended flashback is really absolutely necessary, just make scene breaks and have it be a scene, being sure to ground that scene in a different time-line so the reader doesn't get confused.

    There is always back-story and history that is meaningful to a character. The best writers handle that history in subtle ways that we understand it based on the current time-line and don't need a block of past-action exposition or a flashback to explain things. Usually this is sort of writing is done by insecure writers who think they need to include every detail or the reader won't 'get' it, and flashbacks aren't the only exposition-related issues.

    Good exercises are to come up with a set of conditions for a character (40 year old man with no arms stuck in an elevator hiding from a verbally abusive wife, for random example) and then try to write that character in a single moment and creating the feel of a real character with real history via real context, no backstory or flashback or exposition allowed. Once one gets used to it, it's embarrassing that we ever thought we'd need long passages of exposition or flashback, because it's not only tedious to read (usually), not remembered well by the reader (we learn/remember via interaction, not information), but it takes so many more words and ends up only distancing the reader from the actual action/plot/story that's going on... or rather on pause as the writer insecurely tries to ensure the writer has all the information they'll need.

    The only time a character should have a flashback is if they're, get this, literally having a flashback. :p

    Opinions!
     
  6. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Not to be overly technical, but that's [usually] not a flashback so much as a separate time-line occurring in a story. Dual time-lines can work perfectly well and contain none of the trappings of a flashback.

    A great example of this done (right, imo) is Tony Doer's story The Hunter's Wife, which can be found/read for free online (or used to be). He's also amazing with his use of compressed time (summary) without it feeling at all like summary with it's typical trappings.

    Just like a story that progresses backwards didn't reverse the passage of time, it simply broke up the order in which events are presented. ;)
     
  7. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    Just slip in details here and there without going on a diatribe whenever you can. Backstory can be expressed way more compactly than people think.
     
  8. Lilith MoonWater
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    Lilith MoonWater New Member

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    I actually do like this idea of having a chapter in the present and a chapter in the past. As I've been reading here and in other threads about flashbacks I can certainly see how they are best avoided. I can also see how the above technique could be very annoying and get in the way if not implemented properly. But it certainly seems like it would be a better method than lots of flashbacks. How did Tony Doer make it work in his book?
     
  9. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Not too bad, I suppose. Published in The Atlantic Monthly. Not my favorite of his stories, but still good for analyzing the methods in question.

    The Hunter's Wife


    edit: They borked the formatting at some point (used to be nice). You can still find the scene breaks, because the first letters of what used to be enlarged images are all missing. Blech.
     
  10. Lilith MoonWater
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    Lilith MoonWater New Member

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    k, thanks. I'll give it a read.
     

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