Written by Addicted to Edward
A well-developed character has a backstory, the events that happened in his life before the current story. These past events helped shape the character into who he is today and influence his motivations and why he makes the decisions he does.
Sometimes pieces of that backstory are important enough to pass along to the reader. Sometimes those backstories can be mentioned in dialogue. The Twilight series makes a lot of use of dialogue for telling backstory. In the meadow scene in Twilight, Edward explains his actions from earlier in the story as well as some of his family’s history. When Bella goes to the Cullen house the first time, he tells her about Carlisle’s transformation and early years as a vampire. There are three long backstories told in dialogue in Eclipse: Jasper’s story, Rosalie’s story, and Quiluete legends.
For a few sentences of backstory that are from the point-of-view character, you can use inner monologue and narrative.
But dialogue and narrative don’t always work. Sometimes the backstory isn’t one the character would tell another person. Or maybe the other person was there and doesn’t need to be reminded of what happened. Using dialogue gets monotonous as well. Narrative only works for short backstories and often at the cost of emotional impact. Using dialogue and narrative to tell backstory are both examples of telling.
For longer backstories, flashbacks are the way to go. Flashbacks show the backstory instead of telling, but there are still some caveats to keep in mind:
- Flashbacks can only show backstory from the point-of-view character. For all other characters, you’ll have to use dialogue or some other “trick”: reading a story in a newspaper perhaps or a clever device like the Pensieve in the Harry Potter books.
- You won’t be showing your character’s entire backstory, only what the reader needs to know because it’s relevant to the story you’re telling.
- Keep your flashback as short as you can while still telling the story you want to tell. You don’t want the tension of your main story to be disrupted too long.
- The flashback should supplement the current story, not make the reader wonder why you didn’t just start your story with those events.
The best place to use a flashback is when it’s relevant to your story and you absolutely can’t go further into the story without your reader knowing what happened in the past. Your reader has to already be invested in your characters to care about the flashback, so you want to avoid flashbacks early in the story. This may be why Eclipse can get away with so much backstory in dialogue. By the time we’ve gotten to Eclipse, we’ve come to know and love the characters so much we want to know their histories, so we’ll put up with a less-than-exciting way of learning about them.
A flashback isn’t that much different from other parts of your story. It has dialogue, narrative, and action. The only differences are the transitions: getting into the flashback and then out again without confusing your reader.
To get into a flashback:
- Make some kind of reference to the memory to let the reader know the point-of-view character is thinking about something in the past. Using a sensory trigger (ie, the character sees or smells something that reminds him) is a nice touch, but not required.
- Change the verb tense for the first sentence or paragraph of the flashback. If the main story is written in present tense, start your flashback in past tense. For example, “I see” becomes “I saw.” If the main story is written in past tense, start your flashback in past perfect tense: “I saw” becomes “I had seen.”
- Now that your flashback has been established, switch back to the tense of your main story. Why? You could write the entire flashback in past tense if your main story is in present without much of a problem. However, if your main story is written in past, your entire flashback in past perfect will get tedious to read.
Now write the rest of your flashback just as you would any other part of your story. When you’re ready to return to the main story, it’s very simple:
- If you can, repeat some detail you mentioned when you entered the flashback. If you used a sensory trigger, reference it again in some way.
- You can switch the tense for the last paragraph or sentence of your flashback the same way you did when you started the flashback. (Go to past tense if your main story is in present tense, or go to past perfect tense if your main story is in past tense.) Once the flashback is over, you’ll go back to the tense of your main story. This change in tense will alert your reader that the flashback is ending.
- Use a time reference as a further clue to your reader that you’re back to the main story.
That’s it! There’s no need to put flashbacks into italics or put notes in such as “Begin Flashback” or “End Flashback.” Give your readers a couple of clues and they will follow along just fine.
Example of a Flashback
I use a flashback in chapter four of my Twilight fan fiction story Music of My Soul. This is an all-human story (ie, Edward isn’t a vampire). Edward is the point-of-view character. Bella was killed while they were in college, three years before the story begins. In this scene, Edward is at the public library when a memory of Bella is triggered.
Once I could stand straight again, I wandered aimlessly around the perimeter until I spotted a group of computers arranged in a ring around a circular table. I sat at an available one and clicked the “Log in as Guest” button. While I waited for the computer to finish doing its thing, I gazed at the shelves across from me. “Classic Literature” read the sign above the shelves.
A small smile formed on my lips.
I’d been walking by the narrow aisle of Classic Literature books in library at Forks High School when I’d noticed a girl with long brown hair stretching to reach a book on the very top shelf. She was standing on her tiptoes on a small step stool, apparently not realizing her feet were off-center and causing the stool to begin to tip.
I was no physics genius, but it was beyond obvious that she was going to fall.
Moving faster than I thought possible, I was at her side before the stool completely tipped. She tried to catch herself as she fell, pulling a few books down with her. One hit her on the head and the other three pelted me in the shoulders. Still, I somehow managed to snake my arm around her waist and keep her upright without causing more injury to herself – or me.
“Oh,” she gasped when she felt my arm around her.
“Are you all right?” I tried to keep the smile out of my voice and off my face, but it was impossible.
She looked up at me and blushed as she rubbed the spot on her head where the book had hit her. “Yes, I’m fine. Thank you. I should have known better than to try to reach that book on my own.”
I didn’t release my hold on her right away. I was too busy staring into her large, brown eyes. They were the most beautiful eyes I’d ever seen. She simply stared back at me.
“Sorry,” I mumbled a minute later as I pulled my arm from her. As soon as she was out of my arms, I yearned to touch her again. I swallowed. “Which book did you want? I’d be happy to get it for you.”
She blinked several times. “Book? Oh, right! It’s this one,” she said as she bent to pick up one of the books that had fallen. “The books didn’t hit you when they fell, did they?”
I smirked. “I’ll live.”
She covered her face in embarrassment. “Oh, God! I’m so sorry!”
I resisted the urge to take her hand and pull it away from blocking my view of her eyes. “It’s not a big deal. Really. Here, let me put these back for you.”
“You really don’t have to do that…”
“I wouldn’t want you to fall again,” I teased.
She scowled at me, and I couldn’t hold back my laughter at her anger. She was just so …adorable. As if she could even hurt a fly.
I picked up the remaining books off the floor and righted the step stool. I replaced the books on the shelf easily and turned to face her again.
“I’m Edward Cullen,” I said, holding out my hand.
“Bella. Bella Swan.” She placed her small hand in mine, and my heartbeat immediately quickened with her touch.
“Excuse me, are you still using that computer?” a nasally voice said from behind me.
“What?” I said, confused as I slowly came out of my memories and back to reality. I blinked and stared at the computer screen in front of me.
Edward returns to the present story time and does the research on the internet he originally intended to do when he sat down at the computer. Then there’s another flashback, or rather a continuation of the same flashback:
I logged off the computer and walked down the Classic Literature aisle. My fingers trailed along the spines as I looked for one in particular.
“Catcher in the Rye?” I’d asked, pointing to the book in Bella’s hand.
She shrugged. “I need it for reference for my English Lit essay. I couldn’t bring all my books with me, just my very favorites. The rest are back home with my mom.”
I smirked. “Very studious for your first day.”
“How do you know it’s my first day?”
I resisted the urge to tuck a lock of hair behind her ear, just to see if it felt as soft as it looked. “It’s Forks High School. Look around, Bella. Everyone knows everyone. Except the new girl.” I winked.
Her cheeks had reddened ever so slightly. “Oh. Right.”
I pulled the book from the shelf and ran my fingers over the title. “I miss you,” I whispered.
How do these flashbacks work?
In the first flashback, it’s the “Classic Literature” sign that triggers the memory for Edward.
The main story is in past tense, so the first sentence of the paragraph is in past perfect:
I’d been walking by the narrow aisle of Classic Literature books in library at Forks High School when I’d noticed a girl with long brown hair stretching to reach a book on the very top shelf.
The second sentence of the flashback returns to past tense:
She was standing on her tiptoes on a small step stool, apparently not realizing her feet were off-center and causing the stool to begin to tip.
The flashback ends when someone speaks to Edward in the main story. The computer is referenced again, as that’s what Edward was doing before the flashback began. The phrase “as I slowly came out of my memories and back to reality” also reinforces the switch from flashback to main story. I admit it’s a bit heavy-handed, but I think it works since Edward is jolted from his reverie.
The second, much shorter, flashback has the same trigger: the Classical Literature aisle.
The first sentence is in past perfect tense:
“Catcher in the Rye?” I’d asked, pointing to the book in Bella’s hand.
The next sentence returns to past tense:
An additional clue that we’re in a flashback is that it picks up where the previous one left off.
To return to the main story, the last sentence of the flashback is written in past perfect tense:
Her cheeks had reddened ever so slightly.
The next sentence returns to past tense:
I pulled the book from the shelf and ran my fingers over the title.
We also know we’re back to the main story because Edward is back to looking at books on the shelf and he says, “I miss you.”
For More Information
Writing Fiction for Dummies by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy
For an interesting example that uses a compromise between telling a backstory in dialogue and using a flashback, see The Quilter’s Apprentice by Jennifer Chiaverini.