A common compliant I see whenever a story or chapter is critiqued in my writers group is the writer has put in too much backstory. But when I think about it, some incidents of what I and others think are backstory may indeed be flashbacks. While similar, they are different. So what’s the difference? Is one better than the other? How much is too much?
First, let’s look at flashbacks. A flashback is a scene inserted to quickly recount an event that happened before the current point in the story or before the story begins. Something causes a flashback be it a certain scent, a sound, a phrase, or something visual that sparks the character to remember a pivotal event in the past. This can be done via a variety of ways: through a character’s thoughts or actions or through dialogue as they tell someone else the event.
With flashbacks, I think it’s easier for most people to see it such as in visual mediums rather than when we read it. I think this is where some confusion comes in. What might actually be a flashback gets mistaken for backstory. And while flashbacks are one way to include backstory, they are indeed different.
What makes them different is backstory encompasses a vast array of techniques to tell the history of a character. It’s all the events which the author and the character know lurks in the background before the story the reader is given. In other words, what has happened to shape a character into the person the reader sees today.
Backstory can be told through flashbacks, dialogue, a prologue, exposition, internal thoughts, etc. Since backstory is the history of a character, it is an important literary device. It gives the reader a character’s motivation, what haunts him or her, the why of what they are doing or not doing. This is addition to the character telling and showing who they are to other characters.
A big reason why so writers struggle with backstory is because we know, or should know, the history of our character. We spend hours either thinking or writing that history down. There are countless worksheets floating about which can help with this. It’s because we’ve spent so long working on backstory that we want to use it. We also want to give the reader all the reasons why they should be sympathetic and understand this character.
The thing, though, with backstory and every other literary device, is to know how and when to use it. It should be used sparingly and only when it is needed for the story and in a variety of ways. Flashbacks help with this and are best when used to provide the reader an important event which shaped the character. They should be quick as our own memories of events tend to be fleeting. Same thing for all the other ways to incorporate backstory because too much, usually in the guise of info dumps, slows down the story’s pacing. There are times, though, we want to slow the pace down. Perhaps before or after a dramatic event in an effort to calm things down.
So while flashbacks and backstory are similar, they are different. Both should be sprinkled in. Not every story needs a flashback. Not every story needs a lot of backstory. The trick is to resist the urge to put in a lot of either. The analogy frequently used for backstory is to think of it as an iceberg. What we can see above the surface is a small percentage of the actual iceberg. Most of it lies below the surface.