Backstory techniques are crucial to the success of any type of story. Whether you share all of your characters’ pertinent backstories or none, backstory still informs the entire story. What, when, and how to share backstory are important decisions for any writer. Making the right choices will determine not just whether or not your backstory works, but possibly even whether your entire story works.
Today’s post is the second in a three-part series discussing five important techniques for sharing backstory. Last week, we talked about the advantages and disadvantages of using flashbacks and prologues to dramatize segments of your characters’ histories. This week, we’re going to talk about two possible approaches to your story’s timeline—and how to identify which might be best for your story, based on the depth and importance of its backstory.
As I mentioned last week, these posts were inspired by Amazon’s limited series The English, a neo-western about a recently bereaved Englishwoman who partners with a decommissioned Pawnee scout while on a mission of vengeance against the father of her child, whom she blames for her son’s death. Although the show has a lot going for it, its greatest weakness was its delivery of certain crucial backstory reveals. Who was the child’s father? Why does the woman—Cornelia Locke—blame him for her son’s death? Why aren’t they together?
Aside from sloppy misdirection that leads audiences to believe the father is another character entirely, the main problem is the choice to insert a lengthy flashback in the middle of the story. The flashback, in which the two main characters are barely present, takes up an entire episode (which means it requires a full sixth of the overall story) and grinds the momentum of the main story to a halt. Granted, it packs a wallop of a reveal, but due to its poor execution, it saps itself of potential power.
As discussed last week, the backstory techniques of prologue and flashback are usually best when what you want to share either needs to be foreshadowing (i.e., a prologue) or needs to be foreshadowed (i.e., a flashback). They are not usually the best choices when what you need to share requires a lengthy chunk of dramatization that interrupts the main story. If you feel your backstory is so momentous it requires more than a very small percentage of the story’s overall length to show, you may be better off exploring one of the remaining three techniques:
1. Open with the backstory as the logical starting point for a linear timeline, essentially turning the backstory into the main story.
2. Split the story into alternating timelines, in which the backstory is prominently woven in with the main plot in alternating scenes or chapters.
3. Reveal the backstory gradually as you go and primarily through dialogue between characters.
When Backstory-as-Story Works Best
A linear timeline is one in which the story is told chronologically, from beginning to end. Most stories utilize a linear timeline. Even those that include large sections of dramatized backstory, via prologue and flashback, are usually still considered linear. The choice to utilize a linear timeline in your story (as you are very likely already doing) does not necessitate opening with the backstory. We will discuss this approach more thoroughly next week.
However, a linear approach to backstory can be used when the author recognizes the story’s proposed backstory is, in fact, important and interesting enough to become the front story. In this instance, the story opens with what would otherwise have been a historical event in the character’s past, which allows readers to experience the unfolding of events in “real time,” right alongside the characters.
In some ways, this is similar to opening with a backstory prologue that dramatizes an important catalyst in the character’s past. However, in a linear approach, the story does not then jump ahead to the “main” story. It uses what might otherwise have been backstory as the jumping-off point for a chronological account that shares the character’s experiences from that moment on.
The Advantages: Linear timelines allow events to build into each other, creating a tight line of cause and effect. Momentum is allowed to gather, with no need to slow down or interrupt the plotline in order to fill in audiences on characters’ motivations or secrets. This, in itself, is a high-level skill, since there is nowhere to hide in a strictly linear story. In this type of story, if the main plot isn’t working, then the whole story isn’t working. (However, it’s worth noting that if the main plot is not working, trying to distract audiences from the problem by interjecting flashbacks won’t work either.)
When you begin with what might otherwise have been backstory, you allow readers a front-row seat to the entire unfolding of the story. They get to experience the characters’ full arcs, to experience the characters’ motivations viscerally, and to understand the context of every choice and action. Although less flashy than some of the other techniques, it’s hard to beat this one for full-on tension and power, when it’s done well.
The Disadvantages: The major disadvantage of beginning with your backstory is that you may rob your story of depth. When you lay everything out in the open for readers to see right from the beginning, the story can end up feeling too on-the-nose. Revealing your backstory in the beginning can also rob you of the opportunity to create suspense and intrigue via backstory hooks, foreshadowing, and secrets.
Opening in medias res (“in the middle” of events) is a popular technique exactly because it skips the backstory and gets right down into the most interesting dynamics within the story. If, as in The English, the most interesting dynamic has to do with the protagonist in a particular relationship or place, then opening with a backstory that does not feature that dynamic will fail to properly frame the story. It will not only slow down the opening, but also fail to foreshadow what is to come.
Tips: The major factor in deciding whether or not to tell your backstory as part of the main story will be whether or not the events in your story happen within a cohesive timeline. For instance, if the major backstory event happens when your protagonist is a child, while the main plot does not begin until after high school, you will not have enough pertinent events in between to fully dramatize. In this case, you’re better off using one of the other techniques.
A second factor is whether the events of the backstory are truly interesting enough to open your story. Your first chapter is your story’s Hook, which means its first job is to grab readers’ attention. If it cannot hook readers, it won’t matter how well it sets up what is to follow.
Finally, consider whether the events have more weight when told upfront, so readers are aware of their impact throughout, or if they actually have more weight when held in reserve for a big reveal.
Example: The English does not open with its backstory—which is the best choice in this instance. Its backstory (in which both main characters encounter the antagonist in separate traumatic moments) is removed from the main part of the story by over a dozen years. Although Pawnee scout Eli Whipp’s encounter occurs in the main setting of Wyoming, Cornelia’s backstory encounter takes place in her home in England.
Opening with the backstory here would have meant opening the story with events that do not properly frame the main plot—which focuses on a mission of revenge, the unlikely bond between an English lady and a Native American soldier, and the harrowing landscape of the American West.
In this story, much of the tension arises from the fact that Cornelia does not tell Eli about her past—her reasons for wanting to kill her child’s father, what happened to her child, or why she is willing to risk her life to hunt this man through a strange wilderness. Had these questions been answered upfront for audiences, they would not have shared Eli’s growing confusion, interest, and understanding for Cornelia.
When Alternating Timelines Work Best
An alternating timeline is one in which the story is split into two different stories—the backstory and the main story—which are both dramatized and equally interspersed throughout the story. This is a complicated approach that requires two structurally complete stories that twine around each other until they finally come together to mutually inform the Climax.
The Advantages: The main attraction of alternating timelines is that they allow you to fully dramatize an interesting backstory without losing any of the suspense or subtext, as you might if you began with the entire backstory. Alternating timelines can also bring a good deal of complexity to a story’s presentation, layering the events and perspectives of one timeline onto the other. They work best when the backstory is dense, featuring many reveals that can be dramatized at exactly the right moment, allowing readers to learn important backstory details that enhance understanding, irony, or subtext in the present-story timeline.
The Disadvantages: As with any complex technique, the more working pieces you’re dealing with, the more there is that can go wrong. The primary challenge of alternating timelines is that both timelines must be equally interesting to audiences. If readers like one timeline significantly better, then they may grow impatient with the other one.
Alternating timelines require from authors a sure sense of the story’s larger picture, not just chronologically, but also thematically. The best alternating-timeline stories are those that use the contrasting timelines not just to drive the plot, but to deepen the thematic exploration.
A final consideration should be the fact that alternating timelines can obviously double your story’s word count, which may be problematic for a number of reasons.
Tips: The only time you should ever consider an alternating timeline is when the backstory is just as momentous as the main story. Every scene in the backstory section must inform the main story timeline. If you find you are fleshing out backstory scenes just to make sure the number of scenes in your past timeline equals those in your present timeline, that could be a sign the backstory is not meaty enough to merit this technique.
Structurally, each timeline should present a full set of plot points that braid together to reach a single conclusion. The backstory timeline may not focus on events as much as the main timeline, but it should at least offer important information reveals that tie in with or influence the plot points in the main section. To the degree irony arises between the two contrasting timelines, the more subtext and interest you will create.
Ultimately, this is a style all its own, which should not be attempted unless you are quite sure this is the flavor and format you want for your story. If your only motivation for choosing alternating timelines is that you want to dramatize the backstory, you may be better off using one of the other, simpler techniques.
Example: The English does not use an alternating timeline—and that, too, is the best choice in this instance. Why? Because aside from the two important backstory moments (when the two main characters respectively encounter the antagonist), nothing that happens in the backstory is directly pertinent to the main plot. More than that, the larger backstory here could not have been told in the same style as the main story. Cornelia nursing her son back in England and Eli scouting for the U.S. Cavalry have nothing to do with Cornelia and Eli’s mutual dynamic which is central to the main story.
So what backstory techniques should have been used in The English? When I first started writing these posts, I originally intended just a two-part series contrasting the specialized backstory techniques of prologue vs. flashback vs. backstory-as-story vs. alternating timelines. But I’ve decided to add a third and final part, discussing general backstory techniques within a linear timeline. This is the most widely used approach to backstory for the simple reason that it is the most utilitarian and effective.
So stay tuned: Next week, we will round out the series with a discussion of Backstory in a Linear Timeline.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever tried the backstory techniques of backstory-as-story or alternating timelines? Tell me in the comments!
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