Backstory-as-Story vs. Alternating Timelines (Backstory Techniques, Pt. 2 of 3)

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?

Backstory techniques are crucial in The English, since what happened in the past fuels the protagonist’s quest for vengeance. (The English (2022), BBC Two.)

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.

We will discuss the first two techniques today and the final (and usually best) technique next week.

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.)

Creating Character Arcs (Amazon affiliate link)

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.

The English rightly chooses not to open with its backstory, as its most important events are too far in the characters’ pasts. (The English (2022), BBC Two.)

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.

Writing Your Story’s Theme (Amazon affiliate link)

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.

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Structuring Your Novel (Amazon affiliate link)

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.

When choosing backstory techniques, the use of alternating timelines should only be used in stories in which the backstory timeline will fully complement the present-day timeline–which would not have been the case in a story such as The English. (The English (2022), BBC Two.)

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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 The Backstory Drip.

Previous Posts in This Series:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever tried the backstory techniques of backstory-as-story or alternating timelines? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in Apple Podcast or Amazon Music).

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Max Simmons says

    Uncannily, K.M, you seem to be totally in tune with my needs as a writer. Your recent posts on archetypes and now in backstory are relevant and have allowed me to take the MS out of the bottom drawer and recommence the writing with enthusiasm. Thank you.
    My story concerns an Australian tank Commander in Afghanistan who is very disabled by a roadside bomb. Apart from his chronic injuries, he has no memory (traumatic amnesia) prior to waking in an Allied hospital some weeks after the IED event.
    I’ve used back story techniques threaded into the main story to sketch his previous life by having his dead mother and his alcoholic, wasted father ( a Vietnam veteran), visit him in his dreams; dreams that he does not remember on awakening. The unconscious material, augmented by details of the IED explosion related to him by some of his combat team, bit by bit, leak into his consciousness and provides him with the motivation to attempt an unsuccessful mission back to Afghanistan.
    So the back story in this case, fills out the profile and characterises the protagonist. It seems to fit in with what you are writing as it keeps the story moving and builds the tension.
    Thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve always been a sucker for amnesia stories. 🙂 They’re a great example of backstory-driven fiction.

  2. Many of the books I’ve read on the subject of school shootings always start with the event or right after, which is why I avoided that when I wrote my book on the subject. Jodi Picoult’s “Nineteen Minutes” is a prime example of alternating back story and main plot.

  3. Jay Calhoun says

    Hey Miz Katie, thank you for this in-depth look at the several worlds of back-story. I have three stalled WIP’s, each with their own back-story issues. Your explanations have given me a significant nudge. I hope it’s back on the path, for me, and not over the cliff. 8~)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Backstory can be one of the trickiest parts of plot to execute. It’s a common reason for story stall-out! So don’t feel alone. I hope you figure out the right solutions soon!

  4. I wrote a story that requires one scene from the character’s childhood. I first put it in as a prologue. I wanted to build empathy for a character who acts despicably in present day by showing his true nature as a young teen. Is this more chronological story or true prologue?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If a good amount of time separates the two and/or the opening chapter is tonally different from what follows, then that sounds like it’s more of a true prologue.

  5. Good stuff as always. I think sometimes authors put too much emphasis on hiding things from the reader as a way of creating mystery and a puzzle – I’ve certainly caught myself doing that. But it’s definitely possible to create intriguing fiction while hiding nothing from the reader. I’d point to Edgar Allen Poe’s Telltale Heart and Cask of Amontillado as stories that take a very direct approach to back story, yet hold the reader’s interest quite effectively. I find myself thinking that if your characters are strong and your plot is sound, then the challenge with the backstory is to avoid doing something that messes everything up!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The payoff in the end has to be worth the buildup. It’s not a payoff *just* because it’s a secret. I always say a plot twist has to be so satisfying that readers would be *just* as excited to see it play out even if they figure it out ahead of time.

  6. KM You have stated very clearly the advantages and problems of dual timelines. The part I found most challenging was to make sure that developments in the later timeline doe not refer to incidents in the backstory chapters before they occur in those backstory chapters. And sometimes that’s hard to pick up. ie in my novel, there was a reference to the protagonist having no mother in the current chapters, but her death had not yet happened in the backstory chapters.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Dual timelines are tricky. I’ve played with a couple times. There’s a LOT to keep track of, for sure.

    • There was a tv drama in the UK several years ago called The Promise set in israel and Palestine which was dual timeline. The present day grandaughter was reading dying grandfather’s diary (the events were dramatised). She breaks off from reading and visits a graveyard and accidentally finds the graves of some of the people mentioned in the diary. Dates on the graves showed they died in the next few (unread) pages of the diary. It was shocking as she and viewer had no expectation they died young and raised the question what happened (which was revealed as she carried on reading). Very clever technique of scriptwriter deliberately having timelines overtake each other for dramatic effect.

  7. What about a fourth option: forget the frontstory and dive into the backstory by itself?

    I discovered this option when a minor character, a cowardly washerwoman named Kissla, took over my perennially-in-progress novel. She turned out to actually be the most aggressive and powerful person in the duchy–barely second to the Duke she serves. (Head of security for the castle, the duke’s right hand, and also having an inherited criminal empire to manage. Not to mention a capable second-story girl with the ability to take out any of the soldiers unarmed.)

    How did this powerhouse get to skulking around the castle playing like a shellshocked charity case? I found this story both easier and even more interesting to write than the apocalyptic epic Kissla appeared in first.

    The thing I found out is that backstory creates arcs. The change in the hero might not happen during the event but is likely to be obvious as a consequence.

    For example, the brash young Kissla stole a cursed magical item that had been her family signet. After barely saving her boyfriend-the duke-from the possession by her (dark lord) grandfather’s ghost, she found it not so bad that her boyfriend married her girlfriend. She took a job in the castle and her proper place as the power behind the throne.

    At least, that’s the plan–if only the dragons didn’t start hunting down humanity before the duke could rise to king. But that’s the novel–still in progress.

  8. Great advice as always. I’ve noticed alternating timelines are popular in historical novels. Typically there are two protagonists. The one in modern world is often having a crisis/facing a life changing decision and accidentally finds something eg a letter in a dead person’s belongings and while they struggle to resolve present day crisis they go off on a quest to discover what happened to dead person. The historical story is told from the POV of the dead person. Sometimes what binds the two stories and protagonists is a theme ie facing similar challenges. BUT the historical story might be considered backstory if it has a direct bearing on why things have happened to the modern day protagonist eg the dead person was a parent or grandparent and understanding the past helps the modern protagonist resolve their own challenges. Lots of stories involving Second World War seem to adopt this approach. I often find the historical story is stronger than the modern one though.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, alternating timelines can sometimes be an interesting way of commenting on how the past affects the presents.

  9. chrisian632f565818 says

    Thank you for a great article. I am writing historical fiction with a linear timeline and have been toying with the idea of inserting a second timeline to deal with some backstory. The article has made me think about the necessity and virtue of taking this approach and take a second look at the linear timeline with insertion of relevant backstory in the main story line, not as flashback but by allowing the back story to emerge as and when necessary. I look forward to next weel’s article.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      So glad it was helpful! Timeline decisions are so important since they affect the entire writing the book.

  10. I’ve been carrying around the email with the link to this post & podcast for months as I began writing the 4th (and final) story in the series I am writing. I think it is finally time to stop, read, and listen to determine if my alternating timeline is really the best approach. I’m so glad I save the emails!

    So far, yes, I think I am on the right track based on this post. My alternate timeline (that is the backstory) also features a hefty amount of dialogue between characters, so now I need to jump to the next post in this three-part series. No doubt it will add still more clarification. Thanks for adding the third one. I’ll be headed there next.

    Here’s my question: does the alternating timeline that features the backstory need to be a single timeline? Specifically, besides the importance of continuity (revealing information out of order in the story, but in consistent order when all the flashbacks are laid chronologically end-to-end), is it okay if the backstory timeline is not a single line? (I think The Joy Luck Club, and possibly Saving Mr. Banks, are similar.)

    The main plot of the story takes place over a three-day weekend and involves escaping from a forest fire and deep-seated doubts about family and parenthood. The alternating timeline contains backstory that spreads over six years, and is not completely linear, but all include the main character as she faces a series of decisions as she navigates the main plot (and current timeline).

    The events in the alternating timeline also are periods of time not critical to the three previous stories in the series, but reference events in those stories. I think it will help this story be a stand-alone story, but also one that gives previous readers extra nuggets to the stories they have already read.

    Maybe my question should also be, am I biting off more than readers want to chew?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Obviously, the more convoluted anything is, the more complex it becomes to manage it. But there’s no reason you can’t mix up either timeline–as long as readers understand what you’re doing. In this case, it might be simpler to think of the past scenes as flashbacks rather than an alternate timeline. Really, it’s just semantics though.

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