Do Flashbacks Make Your Butt Look Big? (aka, Baby Got Backstory…)

As you might remember from my beta reading experiment, my test readers wanted more character development in my novel. Specifically, several beta readers wanted more back story. Now my first reaction to this was skepticism.

"Oh no you DI’N’T,” I said, “I read about back-story on the internets and it’s like the evilest thing evar. It’ll bog your story down, make your readers fall asleep and make your butt look big. In fact, my critique partner added some back story to her WIP before she started querying agents and the next day she DIED.”

But then I realized that I didn’t actually know how much back story appears in your typical YA book. So, as I often do when I have questions about writing, I dug out Graceling and The Hunger Games for some analysis. They are my go-to books for several reasons:

1. So good! Not only did I love them, but they were well received by readers and critics, and both did well commercially.
2. They were published within the last five years (2008, to be exact).
3. They are in my genre (Young adult action-adventure in an alternate world).

I went through and underlined all the back story in the first few chapters. To make things more interesting, I classified back story into three types: exposition, summarized narrative, and detailed narrative.

Exposition is a simple statement of facts. For example, this passage from The Hunger Games.

When I was younger, I scared my mother to death, the things I would blurt out about District 12, about the people who rule our country, Panem, from the far-off city of the Capital. Eventually I understood this would only lead us to more trouble. So I learned to hold my tongue and to turn my features into an indifferent mask so that no one could ever read my thoughts…

A summarized narrative is a story told in a compressed timeline. Like this passage, again from The Hunger Games:

"Hey, Catnip," says Gail.

My real name is Katniss, but when I first told him, I had barely whispered it. So he thought I'd said Catnip. Then when this crazy lynx started following me around the woods looking for handouts, it became his official nickname for me. I finally had to kill the lynx because he scared off game. I almost regretted it because he wasn't bad company. But I got a decent price for his pelt.

A detailed narrative is back story told with the same detail and pacing as the rest of the story. Like this passage from Graceling.

Oll and Giddon, and most of the rest of the secret Counsel, had wanted her to kill them. But at the meeting to plan this mission, she'd argued that killing them would gain no time.

"What if they wake?" Giddon had said.

Prince Raffin had been offended. "You'd doubt my medicine. They won't wake."

"It would be faster to kill them," Giddon had said, his brown eyes insistent. Heads in the dark room had nodded.

"I can do it in the time allotted," Katsa had said, and when Giddon had started to protest, she held up her hand. "Enough. I won't kill them. If you want them killed, you can send someone else.”

So here's what the first three chapters for Graceling look like. Blue is everything in the present time. Exposition is red, summarized narrative is orange, and detailed backstory is yellow. Every unit on the x-axis is roughly a page, although they don’t match the page numbers exactly because I made this graph by counting lines and didn’t take into account page breaks at the end of chapters.

Here is a more detailed listing of the backstory sections. The story starts on page 3, and the main narrative describes Katsa on a mission to rescue a prisoner named Grandfather Tealiff.

p.3 Start of story – Katsa in the dungeons.

p.7 One paragraph summarizing how she had set off for the dungeons this morning. Narrative then spends 2 paragraphs in the present, and then there are several paragraphs of detailed flashback describing the planning session for this dungeon raid (this is the example quoted above).

p.9-11 Three pages of detailed and summarized narrative describing Katsa’s childhood, how she discovered her ability to kill, and her training.

p.17-19 Three pages of exposition on the history of the seven kingdoms and the kidnapping of Grandfather Tealiff.

p.27 One paragraph of exposition about why Katsa started the Council that organized this rescue.

p.28-32 Four pages of summarized narrative continuing the story of Katsa's childhood, starting from where the story left off on page 11. Tells of how she started to work for her uncle as a thug, and how the resulting guilt spurred her to form the Council.

So what does The Hunger Games look like? Same color scheme.

The story starts on page 3. These opening chapters begin with Katniss waking up and going hunting with Gale. Then the town gathers for the Hunger Games lottery, where Katniss volunteers to take her sister's place in the deadly Hunger Games.

p.3 Story starts – Katniss wakes up. After she sees their cat, one paragraph of summarized narrative about how they found the cat.

p.5 One sentence about how Katniss’s father died.

p.6 One paragraph of exposition about how Katniss learn to hold her tongue about the government. (First example quoted above.)

p.7 One paragraph summarized narrative about how Katniss got the nickname Catnip. (Second example quoted above.)

p.8 One paragraph exposition about how Katniss’ parents met.

p.9 Half paragraph exposition about how Katniss met Gale.

p.13 Half paragraph exposition about how Katniss had to take extra entries into the Hunger Games lottery in return for food rations from the government.

p.14 One paragraph exposition on how Gale feels about the Hunger Games and the government.

p.15 One sentence on Katniss’s early relationship with her mother.

p.18 One paragraph on the history of their country and the Hunger Games, delivered as the mayor's speech.

p.21 One paragraph detailed narrative about a hunting experience.

p.23 One sentence about Katniss’ father's death.

p.26-32 Six and a half pages of detailed and summarized narrative describing Katniss' backstory with Peeta, the male protagonist.

So what did I learn from this analysis? Well, I think the most can be learned just by getting a feel for how the narratives are structured. I can draw a few generalizations:

1. I shouldn't be so scared of backstory. Both Suzanne Collins and Kristen Cashore include at least one extended chunk of backstory early on in the book. I suspect that the rise of in media res beginnings make backstory even more important.

2. There's more than one way to do it. Kristin Cashore uses larger chunks of backstory, while Suzanne Collins sprinkles in a paragraph here and there, with the exception of one long flashback (There's another one several chapters later that I didn't include, which is a continuation of the Peeta flashback). As a reader, both styles worked for me, with the exception of the three-page exposition in Graceling on the history of the seven kingdoms, which I remember skipping.

3. In particular, I appreciate how a short summarized story can add color and flavor to the text. For example, the Catnip story quoted above. I like how Suzanne Collins sprinkled in little stories throughout, and I wonder if there is something about a present tense first-person narrative that makes it easier to include small, short, flashbacks. From a purely technical standpoint, you don't have to worry about all that past perfect verb conjugation.  And I wonder if being so present in someone's head gives you more permission to go on tangents.

4.  I'm not sure if it's a coincidence or not, but both authors broke their most extended flashback (Katsa's childhood and Katniss and Peeta's story) into two halves of roughly 4 pages each. Is there a natural upper bound for flashback length?

Of course, simply looking at how much backstory there is isn't enough. Backstory has to be done well. So here's the question I will pose for you, dear readers. What are the characteristics of skillfully incorporated back story?

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  1. Great analysis. Very helpful. It's nice to *see* this stuff. I prefer the Hunger Games pattern visually, and I think in terms of its literary effects, too.

    I'm not sure how to form an answer to your closing question, but I will point to a couple resources. Two books by formalist literary critics who study time shifts and the handling of expository material.

    1. Gerard Genette's *Narrative Discourse* breaks down time in narrative in every which way imaginable:

    2. Meir Sternberg's *Expositional Modes and Temporal Ordering in Fiction.* Heavy title, I know, but brilliant stuff. Builds on Genette's work and the work of other formalists and pushes the conversation in a direction oriented toward the effect formal choices have on readers. Particularly useful are his thoughts about how exposition and temporal sequencing relate to characterization:

  2. Firstly, I hate writing flashbacks because of that past perfect verb conjugation.

    Back to the point, I think the best back story is put in in such a way that it doesn't slow down the main narrative (too much). Therefore, I must say that I like the way Hunger Games did it. Though there is a flashback (of some length), from what I can tell, it does have a forward moving element. I don't really know.

    In the end, I suppose the more you can imply the past rather than say it, the better.

    (Graphs were a nice touch.)

  3. As a reader, I prefer the brisk summary-type of backstory.

    Diving into a detailed flashback scene is a bit like changing POV character; it irritates me to be "changing the channel" away from the fictional present.

    Sometimes, however, it can work really well to have two timelines woven together. "The Old Brown Suitcase" is about a girl's life as a new immigrant to Canada as well as her recent past, being imprisoned during the holocaust. Knowing what the character has been through brings more gravity to her experiences of prejudice in her new country.

    Just like any other scene, a flashback has to deliver the goods: advance understanding of character, advance plot, or raise tension.

  4. You actually don't have to use past perfect throughout a flashback usually. The general convention is to use past perfect to slide into the flashback, but then portray the flashback as a fully realized scene. (Past perfect throughout the flashback holds the reader at arms' length, too, keeping it to narration rather than a scene.)

    However, tense isn't always that challenging. I don't know about Graceling but Hunger Games is present tense, so simple past is easy for flashbacks.

    I think the purposes of the backstory are important, too. I'm struggling through the early chapters of a book. The "story" has already started, but hasn't reached the main characters yet, so when we're with the main characters, we're being subjected to backstory of the poor-pitiful-me-don't-you-sympathize-with-me-because-bad-stuff-happened-ten-years-ago-but-it-wasn't-my-fault-so-you-should-still-like-me-and-now-my-life-is-good variety. Ugh.

  5. This is just so awesomely nerdy :D

    ...and now I don't feel quite so strange that I color-code my text when editing so I can visually understand where the biggest problems are.

    Based on your description and the examples given, I tend to use exposition or summarized narrative. Detailed backstory always feel clunky to me and pull me out of the story (as I clearly remember happening in the Graceling example).

  6. I would just like to say that your post title wins. :)

  7. James – thanks for the references. I'll check them out.

    Jake – glad you liked the graph :-) so I used to be in the "backstory should be implied"camp, but speaking only from my own experience, it wasn't enough. People were not getting enough of a sense of the characters and their relationships to really connect with them. I've also found that to be the case with several self published books I've read, where it just feels very two-dimensional because the author jumps right into the story. So now I find myself a little more pro-explicit backstory. I guess it's a matter of how you do it.

    Tamara -- I can see how changing the channel might be kind of jarring. Although I personally have the opposite preference. If there is a flashback, I would rather it be told like a real story, rather than summarized. Suzanne Collins does do the summarized flashback really skillfully though, so I love the way she does it.

    Jordan – yeah, I struggle with past perfect. Theoretically I know that you should just transition in, but whenever I edit my own writing, I start with a one sentence transition, and then it never looks quite right so I just keep on adding more and more past perfect until we have "had" soup. It never bothers me and other books, so I might just be being too anal.

    1000th monkey - that's awesome that you colorcode your text. What do you colorcode it as?

    Shoshana – I was actually thinking about you when I wrote that title -- because you liked my other joke about adverbs and erectile dysfunction.

  8. Livia - this is fantastic! Graph nerds unite! I was just having the 'where is backstory appropriate' conversation yesterday. I had been told that backstory shouldn't appear in the first 25 pages but my editor had me insert a bit of back story on the second page (!) and I'm sure she knows more than I do. We'll see what the critics say when my book comes out but for now - I think my new rule is whatever serves the story best.

  9. I quite enjoyed this! I love charts and thinking in terms like this. :)

  10. What a helpful post! I love how you have broken it down into useful graphs, as most humans are visual learners (from my experience, anyway). Personally, back story doesn't bother me too much, unless it slows the pace of the story and the information isn't pertinent. Thanks for sharing!

  11. I am so this way too. "But but's a RULE!" Awesome post -- totally saving it. Hopefully, it will help me chillax about this kind of stuff as well.

  12. I don't think backstory is presented as the most evil thing ever, in fact it's a necessary part of all long form fiction. What isn't good is having large chunks of it right at the start of a story, and both examples you use clearly don't do this. If earlier than shorter. If longer then later.

    It's all in how you integrate it so it doesn't feel like someone lecturing you about their life story. And the content of the backstory is also important. An interesting anecdote is more effective than a listing of previous events like a resume.

    Great post by the way, very interesting.

    Moody Writing

  13. Kiki -- I recently added a bit of back story into my second page as well :-) fingers crossed…

    Michelle – thank you! Glad you liked it.

    Gina – I think one of the most important things I've learned as a scientist is that the presentation of data really matters. The way you organize things can really affect how much you take away from the data.

    Ricki -- Lol! We're such good obedient girls. :-)

    Mooderino -- I think the problem is often that people give advice, but because of the limited space inherent in blog posts, or even in a book chapter, they don't go deeply into their reasoning and don't define their terms. So instead of a thoughtful discussion, we end up with vague notions that "backstory is bad.". And definitions can make a huge difference. For example, the first extended flashback in Graceling takes place six pages into the story, in the middle of the first action scene. You don't consider that the very beginning, but others might, and if you don't make yourselves clear, you could end up arguing over something that you actually agree on. I have a particular pet peeve in this vein about "show don't tell" as well. Ask 10 writers about this, and you get 10 writers who agree that showing is good, but talk further, and you get 10 different definitions of what constitutes showing and what constitutes telling.

  14. One of the characteristics of skillfully added back story is that it relates to what is going on in the current-time story. If a woman is waiting to meet her boyfriend, I don't have any patience with a back story about her shoe fetish. Back story most often should illuminate what is happening at that moment.

    And I, too, love your title.

  15. Livia, I've been a regular reader for a several months now. Things like your Beta Reading Experiment and this post are why. Lovely work!

    - emc

  16. Veeery interesting. And excellent use of graphs! Visualizing aspects of a story this way really brings new things to light. I never would have thought that these books had so much backstory plonked in, but there you have it.

    I too have been fighting to paint a picture of my protagonist's backstory. I would have considered these approaches taboo, but... Interesting to note that both drop the backstory in chunks after grabbing your attention.

    Still very hard to do well. I love when backstory appears to be innocuous, but on closer examination sheds light on, and adds depth to, the current narrative.

  17. Great post. It's such a difficult question - how much backstory is enough? Where should I use it? Should I sprinkle it in like salt or have it as a full slice of its own? In my novel, I have two detailed backflashes about five chapters in, which I feel are necessary to understand my two MCs' histories, but I'll be interested to see what beta readers have to say about them.

    Loved the humour in this post too, by the way.

  18. wow you did a lot of work on this and you picked two great go-to books. I definitely agree that their should be some back story, but whatever you do don't make it boring and it has to be relevant. It has to be weaved in bits and pieces at a time so that we know the character better and it has to fit the moment.

  19. I love the graphs. I want graphs like these for all my favorite books. Did you use any particular software to create them?

    For me, flashbacks, along with any other part of a book, only work if I care (aka they don't bore me enough to inspire skipping). And the author's best tool to cajole me into caring about anything in a book is to put the essence of the character into it, usually through voice and conflict borne of character goals.

    Flashbacks I skip are the same as overly long explanations of anything not immediately connected to the character...Unless I am passionate about that topic myself. I also skim nation-level histories, but I'd devour a tangent on existentialism. Sometimes whether a flashback works or not is purely a matter of taste.

  20. Suzie -- good point about relevance. I think a natural transition in this very important to making the backstory good.

    Eric – thank you for reading! It's always nice to hear about which specific posts resonate with readers.

    Brendan -- yes, I like it to one the backstory comes to bite you in some way, or sneaks up on you with some crucial information. Can you think of any books that do that?

    Cally -- beta readers are great for something like this. Everybody will have different opinions, but perhaps there will be trends.

    Mary -- that might be the only universal: keep the reader interested.

    Eleven eleven – I used Excel. Not the best for the chart, but it was the one I had at hand.

  21. Just dropped by from INTERN's, and thanks for easing a fear of mine, as well as cluing us into your research.

    And hey to Boston - I miss that town and walking the Mass Ave bridge.