Prologues vs. Flashbacks (Backstory Techniques, Pt. 1 of 3)

If you want to rev up a group of passionate writers, just bring up the topic of backstory. As much as we love our stories, we often love our backstories even more. If plot offers a what and a how, backstory is often the why. It can provide both context and subtext, bringing depth, understanding, and subtle nuance to a character’s journey through the main story. Handled well, backstory techniques can elevate your entire story. Handled poorly, backstory can ruin the entire experience for your audience.

I’ve written many posts about important considerations such as:

What is the best way to interpolate backstory into the main plot? Today, I want to talk about specific backstory techniques you will need to choose between when sharing your characters’ histories with your audience. The goal should be to fully satisfy your audience’s curiosity without slowing down the momentum of the main plot. This can be easier said than done, and largely comes down to the right choice of one of five techniques: prologue, flashback, backstory-as-story, alternating timelines, or linear timeline. We will discuss the first two in today’s post, the second two in next week’s post, and the final (most common and utilitarian) practice in the third post.

This discussion was inspired by Amazon’s recent limited neo-western series The English, starring Emily Blunt, about an Englishwoman on a mission of revenge who becomes the unlikely travelling companion of a decommissioned Pawnee Cavalry Scout.

Backstory techniques are extremely important in The English, both because they influence the entire plot and because the methods used to share them with readers were not the best choice for the story’s overall pacing. (The English (2022), BBC Two.)

On the whole, I quite liked the show, particularly the relationship between the two leads. But one area in which I felt it faltered was its execution of backstory. The backstory reveal is a huge moment that changes everything in the plot, but both its timing and the chosen technique of a lengthy flashback (comprising an entire episode) muddied the story’s pacing and momentum. I will discuss what went wrong in the section below about flashbacks, as well as sharing how the other potential backstory techniques might have been better choices.

Needless to say, the entire post will be filled with SPOILERS for The English.

What Is a Complex Backstory?

First, let us examine the differences between a complex backstory and a simple backstory. When the events of your characters’ pasts are incidental to the events of the main plot or the characters’ personal development in that plot, your story isn’t likely to require any particular technique to share it with readers. This is a simple backstory.

A complex backstory, on the other hand, is backstory that greatly impacts the events and development in the main plot. Indeed, as in The English, the backstory may be driving everything that happens in the main plot.

Complex backstories are often used in stories that feature one or more of the following:

  • Complicated Motivations: the characters’ reasons for pursuing their main plot goals are not straightforward or are born out of the characters’ inner conflict (e.g., in The English, Cornelia Locke seeks vengeance against the father of her dead child, whom she holds responsible for his death).

The backstory in The English revolves around the reasons the protagonist is seeking vengeance against her dead child’s father. (The English (2022), BBC Two.)

  • Secrets Characters Are Keeping From Each Other: characters are not sharing important information (usually about their motivations) with other characters (e.g., Cornelia keeps many secrets from Eli Whipp, her travelling companion, including the truth about her child’s father and the child’s manner of death)

Backstory can often be shared in the form of secrets from one character to another. (The English (2022), BBC Two.)

  • Secrets Character Is “Keeping” From Self: characters may not know their own pasts as well as they believe, either because they are deluding themselves and cannot face the truth, or because they are missing key pieces of information (e.g., characters may learn the truth about a dead parent or grandparent, changing their perspective on their own journeys)
  • Secrets Author Is Keeping From Reader: characters know the truth of the past, but the author purposefully keeps the audience in the dark to allow for a reveal later on. This is the trickiest approach, since it can put audiences at a remove from characters’ development and sometimes even “played” by the author.

In all cases, backstory information will be shared as either context or a reveal.

If the backstory is simply contextual, then it is presented as basic information readers need to know in order to understand what is going on. For example, The English casually explains Cornelia’s rank as a “lady” in England, as well as Eli’s service in the U.S. Cavalry. Neither bits of info are reveals; they are simply information necessary to build the story world.

On the other hand, if the backstory is used to create a reveal, then it must bear much much more weight within the main story. It becomes a pivot point. The very act and timing of its revelation changes the perception of the audience and/or the characters—preferably both. For example, The English saves up several important pieces of information, but none so shocking as the identity of Cornelia’s child’s father—whom audiences were led to believe was someone else.

When planning your backstory, a good rule of thumb is that complex backstories are best for simple stories; simple backstories are best for complex stories. If your main plot is complicated in its own right, then a complex backstory that requires much explanation and many reveals may not be the best choice. But if your main plot is relatively simple with a straight throughline, a complex backstory can add depth and nuance.

When Flashbacks Work Best

Backstory and flashbacks are synonymous in some writers’ minds. The flashback is the technique of interjecting a dramatized scene from a character’s past into the main part of the story.

The Advantages: Flashbacks are visceral and immediate, allowing audiences to experience the backstory with just as much potency as any of the scenes in the main part of the story. They are also detailed, which ensures complicated events can be fully explored and explained.

The Disadvantages: Flashbacks necessarily stop the progression of the main part of the story. They require audiences to be patient while a new scene(s) is carefully fleshed out, sometimes with an entirely different or altered cast of characters.

Tips: Short flashbacks are usually best, especially if you’re introducing them late into the story with no foreshadowing of a time shift (such as you would have in a story with an alternating timeline, as we’ll discuss in next week’s post). However, if you do decide you want to include a lengthy flashback (of more than short scene), make sure it is dramatic enough to carry its own weight. The longer a flashback, the more dramatic it should be.

Avoid exposition; flashbacks should not be about explaining things to audiences, but only about providing answers to questions that have already been set up to hook their curiosity. Flashbacks need to introduce new information that turns the main plot. By nature, flashbacks pull audiences out of the main story, which means whatever you share in the flashback should be riveting enough to pull them right back in.

Example: The English shares its major backstory reveal in a lengthy flashback that comprises an entire episode (which, in this story, is an entire sixth of its overall length). In this instance, the flashback was arguably not the right choice. One of the main reasons for this is that the episode focuses primarily on the antagonist, rather than the protagonists. In this instance, the problem is compounded further by the fact that the antagonist was never introduced in the story up to this point. In fact, he had been barely acknowledged beyond a few mentions of his name and a vague indication that minor characters dislike him.

Because this flashback was poorly set up, it interrupts the pacing and momentum of the main story. It forces the audience to leave behind the story they have so far invested in (the relationship between the two leads) to spend a great deal of time with characters whom they neither know nor like. Had the antagonist been better set up, the flashback would have felt more important to the story, rather than coming as a bolt from the blue that audiences don’t really care about until after it’s over.

The English shares its backstory by telling the history of a previously unintroduced antagonist (played by Rafe Spall) in an episode than spans 1/6th of the story’s overall running time. (The English (2022), BBC Two.)

When Prologues Work Best

Prologues can take many forms. Sometimes they might be a “flash forward” to show an event from later in the story. Other times, they are used as an atmospheric hook to set the tone and plant a quick bit of foreshadowing to be paid off later in the story. Most often, however, they are used as a sort of flashback in their own right, to show a glimpse into an important moment in the characters’ backstory before the audience flips ahead to the main plot.

The Advantages: Thanks to their positioning at the very beginning of the story, prologues set the stage. This means they never need to be foreshadowed or set up, as do flashbacks; they are the set up. If the prologue is effective (i.e, more than just an info dump), it can frame the story by hinting at what important revelation the entire story is building toward. Prologues are also relatively “short, quick, and dirty.” They let authors get the backstory out of the way, so they then can then pursue the main plot uninterrupted.

The Disadvantages: Like flashbacks, prologues live apart from the main narrative and can therefore create a bit of a “bump” for readers as they transition from past to present within the story. Used well prologues can create subtext; used poorly, they can destroy opportunities for tasty subtext that might otherwise have existed within the story. The main challenge they create is that they force readers to begin a story twice—which means you must hook them twice.

Tips: If you decide to utilize a prologue to share important backstory information, do it in a way that creates questions rather than offering all the answers upfront. If you’re giving readers a prologue, this means whatever happens in this scene must be important to pulling them into the story to follow. The prologue should create momentum, drawing readers into the need to know how the consequences of this backstory moment will play out.

Example: The English utilizes a very brief prologue, of sorts, in which protagonist Cornelia voices over a scene of remembrance about her time in Nebraska with Eli Whipp. By itself, the prologue is effective, since it teases what is to come, sets up the general vibe of the story, and pulls audiences into the narrative. However, in light of the fact that the backstory flashback halfway through the show ends up completely altering the context for what is initially set up, the prologue could have been better utilized.

The English opens with a prologue that is both a bit of a flash forward and flashback, as an older Cornelia speaks of memories. (The English (2022), BBC Two.)


Flashbacks and prologues are highly specialized techniques and will not be the right choices for every story. However, when used at exactly the right moment, they can allow an author to skillfully shape the audience’s experience. If flashbacks and prologues are not the right choice for your story, then don’t worry!

Stay Tuned: Next week, we will discuss backstory techniques for stories that utilize backstory-as-story and alternating timelines.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What backstory techniques have you used in your stories? Tell me in the comments!

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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.


  1. I agree wholeheartedly about flash forwards needing to pose tantalizing questions. I haven’t seen “The English,” but I did see “Chernobyl,” which made excellent use of a flash forward, which is one reason I like to recommend it.

    In the first few minutes of the very first episode, you see Valery Legosov go outside and carefully hide cassette tapes in a brick wall. He notices the “minders” the Soviet authorities sent to spy on him, then he returns home. He hangs himself the moment the clock strikes 1:23 am, on the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster.

    What’s on those tapes? Why did he have to hide them? Why are those people spying on him? Why did he kill himself at that specific time? As the series unfolds, it becomes clear Legosov was intentionally sending a message via suicide. Which is meant to be congruent with the motives of the real life Legosov who was trying to expose problems with the nuclear reactors used in the Soviet Union.

    The flash forward nicely set the tone, prompting the viewer to pay closer attention to what Legosov was experiencing. All to know why investigating Chernobyl would drive him to end his life, and why he had to work in secret. The series is a tribute to the ordinary men and women who lived through the Chernobyl catastrophe, but for writers it’s also a goldmine for storytelling lessons.

    On the topic of prologues, I think this video does a nice job underscoring what you said about making them sizzle. Best of all, the two movies it compares are apples to apples: The Fellowship of the Ring. The Peter Jackson version got the prologue right. The Ralph Bakshi version did not. Both are conveying the same information, but Jackson’s created intrigue and mystery, and made the stakes clear in seven minutes. In four succinct minutes … Bakshi did not. Jackson’s writers used glamor words, and Bakshi used more mundane word choices. A cool example of good & bad prologues.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Chernobyl was so good… in a horrible way. :p I never want to watch it again, but it was unforgettable.

  2. Richard Siers says

    Sometimes backstory is best served as small bits and bites, especially in written form. A story I have been working on is extremely long and drawn out over multiple books. Some of the characters, who span all the books, their backstory is dropped one sentence or reaction at a time sprinkled over a million words. others get a paragraph or so at the appropriate time. At one point we see a duplication of the same events, but from a completely different character set’s point of view, with only small hints of the backstory and events leading up to some of the decisions and reactions by the other characters.

    This is much harder to do in visual medium since we see everything, vs what they are thinking and feeling beyond the obvious.

    A friend of mine is a struggling author who still feels the backstory is vital and insists the reader get three full pages of it as the first three pages of the book, long before we know or care about the character.

    I look forward to the next piece on backstory. I can use all the tips, discussion and help as I try to move my writing forward.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally agree. I’ll be talking about the “bits and bites” approach in the third post in the series.

  3. A good summary, as always. One thing in particular: we always have to be careful judging flashbacks and prologues in a movie or show, because they work better in that medium than they do on a page. TV is already “showing” everything, so it’s more natural for it to make a complete jump into a separate scene that makes the most some material, and bite the bullet about how jarring the time jump can be. On the page we’re constantly using more subtle tools like casual thoughts (that don’t have to be voiceovers) or brief parts of conversation that don’t bother to paint a whole scene because they don’t need to, so we should be more reluctant to move past those tools into prologues or especially flashbacks.

    And a bigger difference yet: on screen you might get away with a protagonist deliberately keeping secrets from the audience, because we’re “watching” her instead of inside her head. On the page, cheating the reader is almost sure to backfire.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Definitely different techniques for each medium. However, the main point here holds, in that interrupting a novel with a lengthy flashback can be even more destructive to the momentum than in a visual medium.

  4. I’ve used flashbacks and backstory as story as story. For my WIP, I’m using a prologue. My question is, must I call it a prologue? At the moment, I’m simply calling it Chapter 1. It’s the third book in a trilogy in which I haven’t used prologues before.

    • Interesting thought, Sionnach. It brings up the question of what a prologue actually is.
      I think it’s information that needs to be told, but is not a part of the current action. Like a historical event, or something either in the past, or in the present, but not involving the current characters, but that has, or will have, a direct bearing on the story being told.
      So if your prologue/chapter 1 fulfills those criteria, I would call it a prologue, otherwise I think it would be Chapter 1.
      As to whether you can have a prologue in one book in a series, but not others, I’ve not heard of any rules about it. But anyway, aren’t rules there to be broken? Go for it!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ll be talking about backstory-as-story in next week’s post. As for the prologue, you definitely don’t have to label it that. In fact, I often recommend that writers just call it Chapter 1, since this can actually help readers sink right into the story faster. However, the caveat would be that if its content is too far removed from the main story, then readers might get confused about the timeline–and labeling the opening scene a prologue can help set up their expectations.

      • Thanks! I think it’s okay as Chapter 1, then. It’s a brief scene showing the first time the 23 yo medium saw a ghost. He was 10, and it’s his little brother, whom he loved deeply, so it’s dramatic in spite of its length. The little brother tells the MC he was murdered, and the scene ends with the MC believing he can help. The reader already knows no one believed him. It’s part of his Ghost that has been mentioned in the other two books but never dramatized.

  5. I use prologues in my Wolves of Vimar series, but the first one, while delving into the past, has delved into the distant past to set up some historical background.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This can work great in some stories, although I always encourage writers to open with their best hook–and historical context can sometimes have a difficult time providing that. It just depends on the story.

  6. andrewmfriday says

    Prologues, backstory, flashbacks: these are all topics I’ve been wondering about lately. Looking forward to the rest of the series.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Great! I hope you enjoy the series, Andrew. 🙂

    • Now I’m worried – well I’m certainly going to check. I have a back story in the middle, One of my characters who has been mentioned before, but really has only just come into the picture because she is having an affair with another character. It is a complicated back story and it explains why she does what she does later with her adopted brother and ultimately sets out what they are capable of doing – they are both antagonists. I am pretty sure there is no other way of doing this and in a way it makes sense of the whole plot,
      I hope that makes sense! AArgh!

  7. C. O. Merp says

    I’m curious about your thoughts on the flashbacks in the recent Marvel movie “Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings.” They’re extensively utilized, sometimes oddly placed, and essentially create a second story that is (for my money) sometimes more interesting than the film’s nominal story. I think they were designed to reveal important backstory elements as late as possible, but in my opinion they missed some good opportunities for subtext in the main story. Thoughts on whether this film represents a good or bad use of flashbacks?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’m trying to remember the specifics. I do remember thinking that, although I enjoyed the film, it could have been crafted with more strength in certain areas. I can’t remember if I was thinking about the backstory techniques or not.

  8. Earl F. Cater says

    The English lost me in the same place. I thought the backstory was poorly introduced and ill placed. But what if the backstory is used as a prequel to an existing story…A separate story that steps back to reveal the secrets that lead to the second story? Maybe it fills in the gaps not explained in the original story and becomes a must read that rises out of curiosity.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Agree. The best prologues are always those that provide killer hooks. If they don’t, it’s always questionable if they should be in the story at all.

  9. In my book, “Merry Friggin’ Christmas: An Edgy Christmas Comedy,” I used a flashback as a reveal. The narrator refers to the incidents from his past throughout the narrative with a jaundiced, self-righteous attitude toward his father. His father had given him his share of his inheritance and sent him away, in a twist on the prodigal son parable. The narrator’s goal in the beginning of the story is to become a successful comedian by mocking his father’s religious beliefs.

    After the events of the book, the narrator relates the full version of his encounter with his father, in which the father is viewed more accurately from his new perspective. This revelatory flashback is placed as the narrator realizes that he needs to repair his relationship with his father and explains more fully, and in a more proper light, the nature of the rupture in their relationship and the motivations of the characters. The revelation is really only in gaining a more accurate view of events generally referred to throughout the narrative, but never with an accurate view of the father’s motivation and perspective.

    I originally wrote this story as a screenplay focusing on an anti-religious comedian having a near death experience and coming to terms with the reality of his afterlife experience. In converting it to a novel, I changed it to a Christmas story, and added the backstory elements like the death of the narrator’s brother and his relationship with his father as motivators. The idea of adding a “ghost” came from one of those old Helping Writers Become Authors posts or videos, so thanks again for helping me create a better story. The book is far more layered and interesting than the screenplay was.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think it was John Truby who originated the term “ghost.” I’ve always liked it much better than “wound” for the motivating catalyst in the character’s backstory. 🙂

  10. Colleen Janik says

    I love that advice to make the flashback riveting enough to draw the reader back in. And perfect timing has got to be the trick. In a recent episode of Alfred Hitchcock’s, “The Woman Who Didn’t Want to Die” was fascinating because the woman was carjacked by an escaped convict with a slight bullet wound. The fascinating thing, to me, was that she was so calm and composed through the whole thing, and I kept wondering why? Honestly, I wondered if it was a matter of bad acting, but in the last two minutes, you find out that she had her own secret motivation and tricks up her sleeve. So I guess that was Hitchcock’s desired surprise ending. He wanted that surprise. I wondered if it would have been better to know her motivation as she was going through the road trip with Charles Bronson. So is the surprise factor always the best, the most fun?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Every story is different. It’s really about massaging the available character motivations, actions, etc., to create the most honest suspense for the reader.

  11. Good info as always. Another hazard for prologs is that I think they can deliver a false promise to your story. Brandon Sanderson in his writing seminar talks about how the opening makes a promise to the reader about the type of story they are going to experience. My concern is that if you open with a prolog showing a very action oriented scene, and then Act 1 moves on more of a literary direction, your reader may be disappointed and dump your book.
    However, on the other side, one of the critiques of prologs is that they require you to “double hook” your audience on the theory that some will skip the prolog. That can actually be an advantage by letting you get in two strong scenes up front. And I think your prolog needs to be an exceptionally strong scene.
    I’ve generally been in the anti-prolog camp, but I find myself taking a more balanced view.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree. Prologues are tricky beasts. A story is rarely worse off for excluding one, but can often be worse for including it.

      • Dave Wolf says

        For a while, I had a prologue in which two cops are at the scene of the crime. A body. Two gunshots. The more experienced cop makes a few observations, then they step outside for a smoke. There, I mention a small group of onlookers who speculate on who shot the victim , and I finish with the line, “None of them came within a mile of the truth.” A nice finish, maybe, but since my main character is the defense attorney and his client is the widow, I decided the prologue doesn’t really add anything important to the novel. We know within the first few sentences of the first chapter that the husband is dead.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          It *is* a nice finishing line. But it sounds like you made the right decision for the story.

  12. I recently read a novel where the “Secrets Authors Is Keeping from Reader” thing soured the experience. Yes, looking back, there was some foreshadowing, but not enough to ‘prepare’ me as a reader, and it still felt like a betrayal. Granted, the POV character was in a bit of denial about [backstory which is revealed at the end of the novel], but she understood it well enough that it affected her choices from the beginning. On top of that, if the author had revealed that backstory at the beginning, it would’ve make the novel more suspenseful because the reader would’ve been more aware of one of the protagonist’s weaknesses (so we would’ve been more worried about whether she’d prevail).

    A great example of ‘flash forward’ is the beginning of the movie No Puedo Vivir Sin Ti. At the beginning of the movie, a father holds his daughter (less than 10 years old) and threatens to jump off a bridge as a crowd watches them. Then the movie goes back to the father and daughter living a peaceful life, albeit in poverty, and then continues in a linear fashion up to the dramatic moment at the bridge. Without that flash forward, the beginning of the story (where the father and daughter are living happily) would’ve been boring.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The trick to flashfowards is that whatever hooks the reader has to be paid off in kind. If it sets up a question (why would the father jump off the bridge with his daughter?) only to quickly diffuse all the built up suspense when it gets to that moment (either the father is quickly talked out of the decision or it turns out he never intended to jump in first place, or something like that), it can destroy reader trust in a flash (pun not intended). 😉

  13. Victoria C Leo says

    Yeah, important question, thanks for the great post!
    I started with Prolog and Epilog in the first novel in my current series, as a way to highlight as a hero someone who turns out wasn’t- big plot event when he is revealed. And the war he was saving the nation in – was a traitorous act.
    The Epilog ties up loose ends and positions for the next book.
    But the Prologs of the other books don’t have that setup for a major reveal (readers would figure it out after the first book), but have a bit of backstory and mostly setups to intrigue the reader. Somehow, the prolog device just ‘feels’ right vs. doing that in Chapter 1 for my SF story arc (CH 1 has a bit of backstory as well… I drip it. You don’t need to know what the protagonist looks like for the plot, for instance, so you get little bits in various scenes for the first few chapters.)

    Looking forward to learning more! Dripping backstory is always a challenge.

    Another thing that I think occurs in historical fiction as well as SF is explaining the world for a 21st C reader. In my case, I need a place to put a bunch of stuff about Admiral Tama’s species, the Fareha. Her species specs predict a lot of her motivation, so I need it, but putting it in a lump always slows down the plot. So I am taking notes on how to break it into smaller lumps, easier to digest, LOL!
    Not exactly backstory but same issues, I think.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, dispersal of info uses the same techniques, regardless if the info is backstory or something else. I’ll talk about the backstory drip in part 3. It’s the best technique by far–which is not to diss the other techniques, just to say that they are far more specialized.

  14. Ugh, I have a short digression in my WIP that exists solely to give backstory on an important minor character and I’ve been thinking I probably need to cut it. I think it’s there mainly because I like it rather than because it serves the story. You’ve pretty much confirmed for me here that it needs to go. I’ll stick it in my deleted scenes file and see if I can work little bits in more naturally. It’s so hard to decide what backstory the reader needs and how much was just important for me to be able to understand the characters so I can write them!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Less is more when it comes to backstory. Readers–especially those well-versed in a genre’s tropes–often need much less context than writers sometimes think. I recommend keeping the backstory as trim as possible, then running the story by beta readers to see if they were confused or needed more info.

  15. Thanks for another thoughtful article. I’ve long been an anti-prolog guy, but I’m beginning to see how it could be used to put in two really strong scenes right at the start.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’m “prologue-cautious” let’s say. :p But there’s a time and a place for every technique. What’s important is understanding the causal significance of what you’re doing. What effect does a prologue have on readers? And is that the exact effect you’re going for?

  16. Love this thoughtful post and look forward to Parts 1 and 2. I wrassled with the backstory/prolog(ue) question in my current WIP, a twisty metaphysical/fantasy suspense where the whole premise of the mystery unspools as my close-in first-person POV protagonist bumbles through it all, level by level. Keeping the POV very tight on his moment-by-moment experience and musings was important but also felt a bit claustrophobic. So I have exactly one chapter about 25% of the way in that is complete flashback, in present tense, to a pivotal moment in his childhood in which the WIP’s villain makes his first appearance. Elsewhere, backstory is just scattered here and there in a few sentences at a time. For the opener, I settled on the “prelogue” tactic, choosing a very tight, evocative and mysterious key scene from late in the book and “previewing” it at the beginning – then repeating it, word for word, in its rightful chronological place. So … kind of a reverse backstory, right? (Is there such a thing as front-story?🤨) Again, thanks so much for your incredible story-theory work – so much appreciated!

  17. Sarah Markle says

    This is very informative, and definitely helps when trying to decide about flashbacks. I keep going back and forth on them. My WIP features a sibling rivalry and I’ve been debating about including flashbacks that might help explain why the sisters’ relationship is where it is.
    Also, unrelated, and maybe you’re already aware of this, but when reading your blog on a computer, everything is fine, but when reading it on my phone, the pictures and captions get cut off.

    • Hi Sarah! It might be something to do with your phone. Everything’s fine on my Apple 12. Have you tried rebooting it or updating your system/browser/mail? I hope something helps. Maybe Katie will have other ideas. Good luck!

      • Sarah Markle says

        Hi! I’ve restarted my phone and everything is updated. I have an iPhone SE from 2020, so maybe the formatting isn’t optimized for smaller phone sizes. Who knows? Haha

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Thanks, Sarah! I just checked on my Android, and it seems to be having the same problem. I will have to look into that…

  18. Every time I enter the world of Weiland I feel as if I am sitting in a master’s class. However, I do admit I learn more here than I did in my Master’s writing classes. Ha! I am trying a new technique in my WIP. The plot is simple, basically two people have to adjust to their new lives caused by a town’s culture. The backstory is revealed through interviews by my main character (a tv producer) and her reporter. This post has given me the understanding of what I am doing. As usual, I will be going back to other posts for more information and ideas.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Oh, the World of Weiland gets pretty wacky behind the scenes sometimes. 😉 Glad you’re enjoying it! Your approach to this story sounds well thought out, with a “gimmick” that actually makes sense within the thematic overtones and focus of the story. Sounds interesting!

  19. Asha Lark says

    Hello, I missed you for those few weeks! Excited to get back into some of the mechanics after your adventure in archetypes (I have the book). You mentioned flashbacks can be a pivot point. Two of my POV characters have a flashback up their sleeves to bring their ghosts out, and I’m thinking that these might serve well at a first pinch point. Could you please go into some more detail about how to use flashbacks as a pivot point? I know to connect it to the real time events so that it feels like the right moment to bring it forward. What else? Is it weaker to have a flashback as a pivot point, or not necessarily? Any other tips about how to make this work?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      In regards to impact on the main plot, flashbacks are no different than any other revelation of information; the only difference is how much depth you’re going into to dramatize it. For any piece of backstory info to move the plot, it must change something within the main narrative. It isn’t enough to just share the info with readers if the *revelation* of it does not change the characters–i.e., if the characters already know the info shared in the flashback, then it doesn’t change anything. But if the act of remembering either introduces new information that changes things to changes a character’s perspective of the memory in a way that prompts heretofore unavailable actions, then it’s turning the plot.

      • Asha Lark says

        Thank you, that is so helpful, especially what you said about the act of remembering needing to prompt an otherwise ‘unavailable’ action. My star characters are not remembering new information, so it will need to be about a change in perspective. I’m going to put them in an emotionally difficult situation, prompting a visceral reaction to when they’d felt that way before (ghost), and have them try to make a different decision for themselves this time around (truth!).

  20. Can your flashback change the perception of the character to the readers? Or the culture of the setting?

  21. Jonathan Davis says

    I read an article recently that questioned the use of backstory at all. The point made was that it is only recently that we require knowing why characters do what they do, the reason someone is a cold hearted killer, what made them like that and an explanation behind it. I have found myself doing this, in fact my novel has begun going further and further backwards towards its starting point because I don’t want to explain a character’s ‘reasons’ for being the way they are but to show it in a linear way. However I have noticed the trend in television writing for ever more complicated shifts forward and backward in time, repeatedly, ‘6 months previously’ and I can only explain this as a device for adding ‘suspense’, a kind of constant deferral from the resolution, sometimes leading one to think that certain series are deliberately spun out over 18 episodes when 6 would do.
    There is a definite trend particularly with the cash strapped BBC to make 6 part series because the budget dictates strict and limited shooting schedules whereas certain streaming companies like Netflix have budgets that allow much ‘flabbier’ story telling. ‘The English’ would have easily sustained a few more episodes perhaps eliminating the need for a whole episode of flashback in order to make sense of the characters and many other series are doing the opposite, ie spinning the story out in order to justify full use of the budget and retaining it for a possible second series.
    I am suggesting that the skills of writers are being constricted by the dictates of ‘bean counters’ (accountants) who are on an ever downward race to bring programmes in at minimal expense while others are given huge budgets that are not justified and turn out to be complete flops. Nothing new there except the proliferation of streaming services now in competition with each other. This has been a trend for as long as I can remember but it is reaching a point of critical mass, yes the pursuit of profit permeates everything but it will be at the expense of quality. I believe that is really at the heart of this excellent article, it is as ever creatives fighting for the time and space to do what they do best and those who make ill informed decisions based only on numbers and profits.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I see backstory as a crucial element, but it can *easily* be overdone. Less is almost always more. And I agree that storytelling is often compromised (though also sometimes challenged in good ways) by the constraints of certain mediums.

  22. So timely a topic for me! I have written a narrative biography in which I structured Part i (50 pages) as a series of short story vignettes about the character’ life. Part ii (190 pages) is the main event, the activity that made him famous/significant. Now I am editing for self publication and am in a quandary. 4/5 beta readers say the Main event is a quick fun read that pulls them along, but Part i is a slog. However, 3/5 of them say the background is still necessary, and should be kept in the book. So the struggle is whether to strip down Part i, use the material in likely detrimental flashbacks, put it in an appendix so the book is chronologically backward, or try to dispose of it altogether, and just stick to the main event.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      My advice would be to strip it down. You can keep what’s crucial and intersperse it via the backstory drip that we will be talking about in Part 3.

  23. Another great article. 🙂
    I generally try to present backstory in bits and pieces where relevant, though in a recent manuscript I did have the main character flash back to her college years because the teacher-student relationship with one of her professors is important to the main plot. I also went back and cut some fluff out of the flashback during a rewrite. (And now that I think about it, I should probably have another look at it.)

    As for prologues, I have used a prologue twice. In one manuscript, I had a minor character give a POV declaration of seeking revenge for the murder of her uncle. 132 words. Short and sweet. A more recent manuscript has a 106-word prologue that is a quote from Anne Ross’ book “Everyday Life of the Pagan Celts” about how the Celtic Ideal and the Celtic way of life have always been at odds, and if their theories had been put into practice in everyday life the disintegration which is always apparent in Celtic society under pressure from outside would not have occurred. This prologue, then, serves to (hopefully) hook the readers interest and provide a bit of back story (this is not the universe to which you are accustomed).

  24. On a writing course I was told agents and editors are wary of prologues but no satisfactory reason was provided as to why. This confused me because there are many good/best selling books being published today which feature prologues. After reading this great post I think the answer is that prologues are tricky. If executed well and appropriate for a particular book they pay off but that too many prologues fail to deliver. I’ve probably been focused on the books where they work.
    Agree the backstory treatment in The English didn’t work which was a shame as the story was interesting, acting was good and the cinematography was fabulous.
    Looking forward to reading rest of this series.

  25. Based on your post, I watched “The English”. For all the reasons stated earlier, the acting, cinematography and gripping (and shocking) good vs. evil storytelling made for an excellent series. The English seemed to be a fine entry in the revisionist western genre.

    I’m not sure the one episode flashback in itself was a bad idea. It was just poorly written, poorly introduced and it fell flat. You’re right that it needed to be set-up better. We were just kind of thrown into a parlor in Victorian London. This part of the story was also a bit convoluted and anti-climactic in my opinion.

    Perhaps it would have been better to define the antagonist a bit more beforehand. Sometimes writers can be too clever holding back so they can launch the big reveals.

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