|Last weekend, a friend of forty years came to visit. We watched The Empire Strikes Back (best movie ever!), spoke in shorthand, and shared in that way that only happens when no backstory is required.
The best stories feel a lot like those friendships. But we often fear our journey’s aren’t enough. So we try to catch readers up on our lives by sharing our genealogy, peak moments, and deepest wounds, hoping that if they know everything, they’ll get us and our characters.
But writing well often requires us to minimize flashbacks in your writing.
Unnecessary flashbacks won’t just bloat your word count, they’ll delay the one thing the reader wants: the story your opening page or query letter promised.
That promise is
The period after Joan Didion’s husband, John, dies.
Cheryl Strayed’s actual hike along the Pacific Crest Trail.
Stephanie Foo’s adult struggle with Complex PTSD.
Laura Cathcart Robbin’s battle with Ambien addiction.
One of the most efficient ways to get to your story’s promise is to act as if.
In twelve-step communities, acting as if means you operate as if you already have what it takes to be successful. This slogan is often coupled with the phrase “fake it ‘til you make it,” because even if you’re not feeling successful, acting as if you already are will motivate you to do what’s required to achieve your goals.
As someone working toward publication, acting as if means tending to your author platform in the ways that make you attractive to agents and publishers. It also means being humble enough to recognize when more work is required—and then doing it, because you have confidence that it will one day pay off.
But on the page, acting as if means something slightly different.
When you act as if in a draft, you’re making sure your characters behave as if their backstory affects them in the present moment.
If this sounds easy, it’s not. Our brains are extremely associative—meaning they like to link the past and present together. On top of that, many of us fear readers will fail to see the significance of our moments if we don’t contextualize them.
That’s why flashbacks are so tempting. But flashbacks are static and an over-reliance on them can prevent you from understanding your front story’s significance.
If you find you’re a backstory junkie, you’re in good company.
We all get caught up in backstory reveries or become attached to aspects of our history we’re absolutely certain belong. One of the reasons why I re-wrote my opening one hundred times is that I struggled to figure out which parts of my backstory were essential.
To tamp down this temptation, I sometimes put clients in a “backstory boot camp” where writing flashbacks isn’t allowed. It’s a challenge I took on while completing the draft of my book that got me an agent.
The boot camp’s goal is to bring the participant’s stories to life by showing how their wounds and strengths manifest in the present moment rather than focusing so much on their origins.
If you know this is something you struggle with, I’d like you to take on this challenge: For the next three months, write as if flashbacks and “this is how we got here” chapters don’t exist.
Whenever you feel that deep urge to write a flashback, and , I know you will, pause, and ask yourself how you could show this problem occurring in your front story.
To help you minimize flashbacks in your writing, here are a few steps you can take:
Whenever the urge to flashback occurs, stop.
Instead of writing the flashback, identify the wound or strength your flashback will uncover. If this feels impossible, write the flashback so you can figure this out. But DON’T add it to your piece.
Do some research to see how a wound like this might affect someone later in life
Incorporate the effects into your character’s behavior.
For example, let’s say your main character is an adult child of an alcoholic (ACOA). As you research, you learn that ACOAs tend to worry about the future and how people will react. To manage this fear, they try to control situations and fix people.
While writing a scene with this ACOA character, SHOW their worry, desire to control, or attempts to fix others as these behaviors relate to your scene’s primary conflict. Then keep going until the backstory urge hits you again.
If you feel stuck, or like something will be missing if this essential flashback isn’t included, keep in mind that you’ll be able to insert them into a future draft. But before you do, send your flashback-free draft to a few beta readers and see what questions they have. You might be surprised by how little backstory they need to know.
After you’ve tried this for a few days, hit reply and let me know what you discovered both about yourself and your writing process.
As we prepare for the week ahead, may acting as if bring your stories—and your life—into sharper focus as you always write on.
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