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Backstory: In Description, Dialogue, and Flashback

“Backstory: In Description, Dialogue, and Flashback” by Joan Y. Edwards

When I did a workshop at the Muse Conference, participants wanted information about backstory and flashbacks in particular. I did a little research then. I did a bunch of research afterwards. I told the participants that I would write a blog post about them. I started to do two separate articles. However, they are all part of backstory. So here you are, as requested. My opinions and my research about backstory.

I’m going to tell you the fun part at the beginning. If you would like to copy and paste a sample Backstory in description or dialogue from your work in progress or a Flashback in a scene with your story’s dialogue and narration. Go for it. I’ll give you my feedback. Other readers are welcome to give their feedback, too.

If you find an excerpt from a book that you think is a good example, please post it in the comment section, too.


Backstory is all of the experiences of a character or the circumstances of events that took place before the action on page one of your book. If you make a timeline, in chronological order,  all of the backstory occurs before page one of your novel.

You want to drop it in your story at the right place to help move the plot along to its climax. Too much backstory leads to boredom. There’s no tension in the backstory…it’s finished and over with. Your story, however, is still going on. The reader doesn’t know the outcome of it yet. You want the backstory you insert to add more questions than it answers. You want it to add tension to your story.

When you wrote your novel, you included backstory information. This information was essential to help you,the writer, get the story down on paper. Not all back story information is necessary for the reader to understand the character’s present situation. So, when you revise your story, you want to delete unnecessary backstory information.If the reader doesn’t need to know it, cut it out and save it in a backstory folder. You can reactivate it later, if necessary. A reader might not need to know that Harry was in the armed services until he practices that special Green Beret’s  hold for his fight in Chapter 11.

There are three ways you can put backstory into your novel: in Description, Dialogue, and Flashback (narrated with flashback scene, inserted exactly as it happened).

  1. Description (sneak the facts in here and there)

  2. Dialogue (have characters mention the backstory facts; make it smooth)

  3. Flashback (narration with flashback scene, exactly as it happened)

 Backstory in Description and Dialogue

In description of main character’s body or objects in the setting or in dialogue, needed backstory can be added in bits and pieces. Perhaps three sentences at one time or a short  paragraph at a time. Alicia Rasley says, “The purpose of backstory is to show how the past affects this character in the present.” Jason Black says, “Long passages of backstory interrupt the action. They kill the pacing. They bring the story to a dead stop.”  Your  backstory should explain the prior dangers, deaths, and losses that left your main character wounded emotionally.

Here’s a scene I made up to show emotions. It also has backstory in it in narrative description. Read it and tell me what you think.

Jake thought as he looked at the men pawing the waitress. “How can they do that?” His heart pounded inside his chest. He remembered his sister talking to him about the man who raped her. She said, “No one tried to stop him.”

Jake immediately left the bar stool. He stood in front of Preston Richards. “Take your two men and leave. Don’t ever come back.”

“You and whose army is going to make me leave,” Preston said as he blew smoke from his cigar into Jake’s face.

Jake’s three bouncers approached. They were six foot five and weighed 300 pounds. Their muscles were larger than Preston’s whole face.

Preston said, “Okay. We’re leaving. But, we’ll be back to get her later. You can count on it.”

In the above narration, I added backstory to the description of Jake. It was only two sentences. Did it add or detract from the story?

Suppose I went on and on about his sister and how she was in counseling, etc. It would have taken from the present scene. However, I only put enough to add fuel to the fire. It left questions for the reader, “How is his sister? Did she get pregnant by the rape? Is Jake going to get rid of these guys? How? No one helped his sister, was Jake going to be able to protect this girl in his bar? For now? What about later?

Resources that tell you about backstory

 as used in description or dialogue:

a. Alicia Rasley. “Top Ten Plot Problems, Problem 1: Backstory” http://www.sff.net/people/alicia/prob1.htm (Examples of backstory in description)

b. Alicia Rasley. “Coherence in Backstory:” http://edittorrent.blogspot.com/2010/08/coherence-in-backstory.html

c. Kimberly Appelcline. “Backstory:” http://www.skotos.net/articles/Backstory.html

f. Orson Scott Card (1988). “Character & Viewpoint,” p. 113. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books. ISBN 0-89879-307-6.

g. Rebecca LuElla Miller. “Ins and Outs of Backstory, Part 1:” http://rewriterewordrework.wordpress.com/2011/08/13/ins-and-outs-of-backstory-part-1/

h. Rebecca LuElla Miller. “Ins and Outs of Backstory, Part 2:”


i. Rebecca LuElla Miller. “The Ins and Outs of Backstory, Part 3:” http://rewriterewordrework.wordpress.com/2011/08/27/the-ins-and-outs-of-backstory-part-3/

j. Wikipedia.org. “Back-story:” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Back-story#cite_note-0

 Backstory as Flashback narrated in

 a scene with dialogue just as it  happened.

A whole episode or scene of backstory inside a story. Usually, a flashback interrupts the main narrative with a whole episode or scene of backstory to relate an incident or series of events that happened earlier in the hero’s life.

To use or not to use a flashback; that is the question. Debatable. Some say use it. Others say don’t.

I’ve never written a manuscript with it. I’ve seen movies use it. I’ve read one or two of the picture books mentioned below that use it. If used improperly, it takes me out of the story. It may not work that way for everyone.

Read, study, and practice the flashback techniques found in the resources below. If you use a flashback, make it a well-written, effective one that enhances your manuscript not one that distracts from your story or stops it dead in its tracks.

Wiki answers gives the following example of a flashback: http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_is_an_example_of_flashback

For example, in Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon (first published in 1940) the hero, Rubashov, spends hours in his prison cell thinking about his own past and reliving it, so to speak.

Films that use flashback:

a. David M. Evans and Robert Gunter. Text for Screenplay for Movie: The Sandlot http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Sandlot-Kids,-The.html

c. Orson Welles‘s film Citizen Kane (1941).

Stories that use Flashback

a. Emily Brontë‘s Wuthering Heights, the housekeeper Ellen narrates the main story to overnight visitor Mr. Lockwood, who has witnessed Heathcliff’s frantic pursuit of what is apparently a ghost.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Three_Apples

b. (text) Andrew Lang. “The Seven Voyages of Sinbad The Sailor.”an Arabian Nights tale http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/lang1k1/tale15.htm

c. Andrew Lang. “The Three Apples“, an Arabian Nights tale. The story begins with the discovery of a young woman’s dead body. After the murderer later reveals himself, he narrates his reasons for the murder as a flashback of events leading up to the discovery of her dead body at the beginning of the story

Picture Books that use Flashback

a. Barbara Cooney Miss Rumphius: http://www.amazon.com/Miss-Rumphius-Barbara-Cooney/dp/0140505393

b. Bonnie Pryor. The House on Maple Street: http://www.amazon.com/House-Maple-Street-Bonnie-Pryor/dp/0688120318

c. Byrd Baylor. One Small Bead: http://www.amazon.com/Small-Blue-Bead-Byrd-Baylor/dp/0684193345

d. David Macaulay. Why the Chicken Crossed the Road: http://www.amazon.com/Chicken-Crossed-Road-David-Macaulay/dp/0395442419

e.  Deborah Grate Frinks. Blinded by Colors: http://www.amazon.com/Blinded-Colors-Deborah-Grate-Fink/dp/1413794637

f.  Judi Kurjian. In My Own Backyard: http://www.amazon.com/My-Own-Backyard-Judi-Kurjian/dp/0881064440

g. Jon Scieszka. The True Story of the Three Little Pigs: http://www.amazon.com/True-Story-Three-Little-Pigs/dp/0140544518. Hear it read aloud: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vcsUfYBHhm4&feature=related

h. Patricia Polacco. Pink and Say: http://www.amazon.com/Pink-Say-Patricia-Polacco/dp/0399226710

 Resources  about Flashback

a. Bardicblogger. “Using Flashbacks.” http://bardicblogger.wordpress.com/2011/11/24/writing-tip-using-flashbacks/

b. Brook Monfort “Using Flashbacks in Storytelling – Fiction & Film.” http://brookemonfort.wordpress.com/2011/01/21/using-flashbacks-in-storytelling-fiction-film/

c. Pearl Luke “Flashback:” http://www.be-a-better-writer.com/flashback.html

d. Darcy Pattison. “Scene 18: Special Scenes: Flashback Scenes: Dos and Don’ts.” http://www.darcypattison.com/revision/scene-18-special-scenes-flashback-scenes-dos-and-donts/

e. Darcy Pattison. “Backstory’s Emotional Weight:” http://www.darcypattison.com/revision/backstorys-emotional-weight 

f. Deborah Grate Frink. “Flashback:” http://deborah-grate-frink.tripod.com/sitebuildercontent/sitebuilderfiles/flashback.pdf

g. Elaine Radford, Scriptologist.com. “Flashbacks:” http://www.scriptologist.com/Magazine/Formatting/Flashbacks/flashbacks.html

h. FreeDictionary.com. “Flashback:”  http://www.thefreedictionary.com/flashback.

i. Kim’sKorner4TeacherTalk.com. “Flashback:”

j. Proteacher.net. Discussions, “Flashback Picture Books:” http://www.proteacher.net/discussions/showthread.php?t=74603g.

k. Wiki.Answers.com. “What is an example of flashback?http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_is_an_example_of_flashback#ixzz1awPR4y00

l. Wikipedia.org. Wiki. “Flashback (narrative)” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flashback_(narrative)

Resources to Help You

 Revise Your Manuscript

a. Claire Kehrwald Cook. Line by Line. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0395393914

b. Dwight V. Swain. Techniques of the Selling Writer: http://www.amazon.com/Techniques-Selling-Writer-Dwight-Swain/dp/0806111917

c. Elizabeth Lyon. Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0399533958

Never Give Up

Please check out my books:
Flip Flap Floodle, Will this little duck’s song save him from Mr. Fox?
Joan’s Elder Care Guide A guide to help caregivers and elders never give up

Joan Y. Edwards
Copyright © 2011-2018 Joan Y. Edwards