In your novel, how do you include backstory from the remote past? Is that even legit? If so, how do you do it? And is that called a flashback or something else?
Eric posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
Hi Randy, I’m trying to learn how to word flashbacks for a fiction, mystery and adventure novel I am writing. There is a woman that inherits a castle/estate in England which has a long history dating back to the 14th century. The story takes place in 2016. In chapter two she starts to explore the estate and one of the places she goes into is one of the remaining towers of the castle remains. I wrote a great chapter more than a year ago which describes a fictitious battle that takes place in a real place of a real battle between England and France.
I have been advised by writers not to use it as my first chapter but use it to show the reader flashbacks to indicate backstory and in the end of the book have the main character find an ancient document describing the battle.
So my question is: how to word it? How do I word transitioning the reader temporarily to talk about the 14th century of this place then bring them back to the present?
Can you provide an example? Once I get the hang of it I can proceed. Hard to find how to word these things online.
Randy sez: The immediate question is a “how-to” question, which I can answer pretty quickly. You want to show a scene from the remote past (before any of the characters in your main story were alive). You can easily do this using a “dateline”. This tells the year and possibly the calendar date of the story, and also might include the location. Typically, you put a dateline at the very beginning of a scene, usually centered or right-justified.
Here are some example datelines:
- Oxford, September 16, 1325
- June 21, 2035, 13:05 Mars Local Time
- Friday, April 3, AD 33
- Captain’s Log, Star Date 31.41.59
- 18 years earlier
A dateline is simple and clear and quickly puts the reader exactly where and when you want. Some novels have a dateline for every single scene. Most novels don’t use any datelines at all. You get to decide which scenes, if any, need a dateline, and how you’ll format them. There aren’t a lot of rules here. I recommend you keep it as simple as possible, but no simpler.
It’s not uncommon for novels to begin with a prologue set much earlier than the main story. In this case, the chapter is explicitly labeled “Prologue” and the author may include a dateline.
Eric, if you really want your battle scene at the beginning of your book, a Prologue would be a simple and effective way to do it. Then Chapter 1 could use a dateline (which might be as simple as “Present day”), or you might choose to not use a dateline because the way your characters act and talk makes it clear that they’re in the present day. You really have a lot of latitude here.
There are a couple of other issues to discuss here.
First is the meaning of the word “flashback.” I don’t know if this has an official definition, but I’ve always understood this word to mean a scene or partial scene written in the point of view of one of your main characters but set in an earlier time.
Usually, the way you handle a flashback is that your character is in the middle of a scene in the main story. Then something triggers a memory from some earlier period. You show this trigger, then write a transitional phrase or sentence or paragraph that indicates that the character is about to experience a memory from the past. Then you show the flashback using all the immediate-scene techniques that you normally would—the flashback happens in real-time, and the reader lives it through the eyes, ears, mind, etc. of the point-of-view character. At the end of the flashback, you write another transitional phrase or sentence or paragraph to show that the point-of-view character is coming back to the main story. Then you just continue on.
The Harry Potter series used a number of flashbacks with a slight modification of this technique. Professor Dumbledore had a “Pensieve” in his office that allowed Harry to experience a flashback using the memories of some other character.
Flashbacks are a valuable method of giving the reader essential backstory by “showing” rather than “telling.” It’s possible to misuse flashbacks or overuse them, but they’re a powerful technique that should be in every writer’s arsenal.
So for your example, I wouldn’t use the term “flashback” because it’s not experienced by any of your point-of-view characters in your main story. It’s just a scene written in an earlier time period.
Showing Versus Narrative Summary
The second issue is the advice you’re getting from other writers. I don’t have enough information to know if I agree with their advice. You’re proposing to show an exciting battle in real-time. They’re proposing that you tell this in narrative summary in an ancient document at the end of the book.
I don’t see the reason for this advice. It might be based on good reasons that I don’t know. I don’t have much information about your story. But let me spell out the issues for making a decision.
Narrative summary is boring. It has its place in your toolkit, because narrative summary is efficient. But it’s boring.
Showing a scene in real-time is exciting. It’s not an efficient way to give the reader information, but it’s still exciting.
So your decision of whether to show this battle as a scene or to tell it as narrative summary in a document comes down to questions like these:
- How essential is that information to your readers?
- How important is that ancient battle within the story?
- In giving that information, is it more important to be efficient or to be entertaining?
I can’t answer these questions because I don’t know your story. But you do, so the decision is on you.
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