On Backstory, Flashbacks and Character Memories

On Backstory, Flashbacks and Character Memories

Writing question: When and how do I use backstory, flashbacks and character memories?

To bring a character to life, to make them complex, sympathetic and richly conceived, they need context and history. We want to know where they’ve been, what they’ve experienced and witnessed. Knowing a villain was an abandoned orphan gives the reader a completely different emotional reaction to a character.

There are three tools we have as writers to achieve this:
1. Backstory
2. Flashback
3. Character memories

When we write, there are two tracks we are working with: the front story and the back story. These are two different stories and we can think of them as parallel lines, that at some point, will intersect and bring the two stories together.

So we see a character trying to do something in the front story, say, lose weight, or help her client get out of an abusive relationship, or get her daughter to talk to her after she has lost her boyfriend (examples from some of my books).

For each of these, there will be a parallel backstory: leaving a homeland to escape violence; losing a baby brother as a child; a date rape when she was a young woman. These are different stories from the character’s past and ostensibly, have nothing to do with the front story. Of course, these backstories provide our characters with their backstory wound – the piece of their history puzzle that helps the reader to understand them emotionally, their motivations, their fears, their longings. So it is vitally important that these backstories are as completely formed as the front story.

Backstory, however is often buried, and slowly revealed. This is a masterful way of releasing your character onto the page so that your reader is gently brought into emotional synchronicity with a character she or he may not fully understand upfront. When I teach writing character, I talk about each character having a ‘secret’ – this is often their backstory wound.

We want our reader to know that our character has something tucked away in his or her past that is painful, and we may offer clues, and subliminally suggest the secret through setting, or object placement or significance, or symbolism. Sometimes we don’t know yet what our character’s backstory wound is when we begin (this happened to me when I wrote Things Without A Name -I only worked it out eight months after I began to write the book.) We may not even fully comprehend what that backstory wound is when writing memoir. Often, in the writing, we stumble across a memory that we identify in the words of Leonard Cohen as ‘the place where the suffering began.’

When we write fiction, generally we want to begin with the front story – the action. The mistake many of us make is to begin with backstory or to get into backstory too soon. Think of that as ‘over-explaining.’  If we can hold off from bringing in backstory for the first few chapters, we give our readers a chance to ‘get into the story,’ to get caught up in the character’s conflict, and to care about the character’s predicament. We should aim to stay true to the front storyline for a good few chapters before we stray into history.

Often writers resort to backstory because their front story is not strong enough. So watch out for that. If the backstory is stronger than the front story, it may be your main story. Backstory is there to provide insight to the reader and to show our character’s wounding and motivation for their behaviour in the front story. This allows our readers to deeply connect with and understand our character. It is the ‘why’ of your story – why your character is the way he or she is and will be deeply connected to the themes of your book.

How can we bring in backstory? We insert it in what our character says. It slips into conversation; it pushes its way through into the front story.

E.g. ‘Ughh,’ Janet shuddered. ‘I don’t ever want to go back there again.’ Beads of sweat broke out on her brow.

‘You okay?’ Trent asked.

‘I thought I was done with that place. Happiness never had a chance there.’

At some point we will have to employ a flashback to reveal to our reader what happened to Janet ‘there.’

Flashbacks

Flashbacks are stories from the character’s past where we take our readers back into a moment from our character’s lives. They might be moments from childhood, or scenes from another relationship. They must of course be thematically linked to the plot of your front story. They must shed some light or insight into the main story. A flashback is a dedicated scene which you enter and exit. It can be a stand alone chapter.

Some flashbacks are subplots and may work tangentially to the main story. Some will be directly related to the backstory. We don’t stumble into a flashback. They are clearly employed. Flashbacks will have their own emotional arcs and may even be paradoxically inclined against the main theme. E.g. if your main theme is betrayal, we may have a backstory moment where your character trusted someone for the first time.

Example: Chapter 68 from my book Things Without A Name
Chapter 68: Suitcase

‘It’s only for a few weeks,’ my mother said to me. She was standing next to a large brown suitcase on wheels. Nonna was holding my hand, tightly, as though I was a kite the wind might rip from her grasp at any moment.
‘But that’s a long time,’ I said. ‘Seven days in a week, times by a few is about fourteen or fifteen or even more . . .’
‘You’re my clever girl,’ my mother said, kissing the top of my head. ‘I just need to go and have a bit of time to myself . . . to . . . feel better . . .’
‘Are you feeling sick?’ I asked her.
‘A little. I’ve got a sore place in my heart, and I have to go and get it better, so I can be a good mother to you and Liberty.’
‘But you are a good mother,’ I said.
My mother’s eyes filled with tears. ‘Darling girl,’ she said in a whisper.
‘Please don’t go, Mummy,’ I said. I felt Nonna’s grip on my hand tightening.
‘I have to.’
‘I promise I’ll be good if you stay . . . What if you don’t come back?’ I asked her.
‘I will be back, and when I do, I will be much stronger, and a mummy has to be strong, for her children . . . and besides, Dad, Nonna and Nonno Antonio will be here too, so you will have lots of people to look after you.’
‘Si,’ Nonna said.
I reached out to my mother, pulling my hand from Nonna’s, and clung to her. I buried my face in her skirt which smelled of the heart-break of tangerine and honeysuckle.
Gently, she untangled me. Holding my hand, she led me to the cupboard in the lounge room where she opened the chess set she had got as a little girl. She removed the black queen and held it out to me.
‘I have a very important job for you—will you look after my black queen while I’m gone? Mummy needs her black queen, it’s her lucky charm, it always helps her win. Will you keep her safe and give her back to me when I come back?’
I took the black queen from her and closed my fist around it. It felt hard and cold in my palm. I clutched it for dear life.

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

Character Memories

We can also employ the technique of character memories where our characters reveal themselves, their vulnerabilities, their stories through remembering their past. These moments will often happen in scenes where a character is sharing something from his or her past with another character. It’s a moment of vulnerability for our character. Our character may choose to share a secret, a story, a memory with another character. They tell us the story in their own words, using dialogue.

Here is an example from chapter 79 from my book Things Without A Name (warning, spoiler alert)

‘I also made a mistake,’ he says so quietly I wonder whether I have conjured it.

‘It was just another ordinary night out with our friends . . . We were hanging out at this bar called Friskies because we’d heard there was a team of Spanish netballers who were coming there after training. Noah was into Spanish girls. He was even taking classes. Just hearing Spanish made him horny. When you’re eighteen, you don’t think about anything except what’s under that little netball skirt. Like how many you’ve actually had, who’s driving . . . if you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist . . .’

I am holding my breath.

‘I didn’t see that Merc coming,’ he says. ‘I swear to God . . . I didn’t even see it.’

I let out a sigh. I sniff.

‘I didn’t see it . . .’

‘You didn’t,’ I say.

‘Trouble with mistakes is that they’re like things underwater. You can’t tell if they’re big or small or near or far, until you stick your hand in, and what seemed far away is actually near . . . little things . . . like forgetting to indicate.’ He exhales a little puff of what could have been a laugh in a different story. ‘Most of the time, you’ll get hooted at for that. Worst case—you get called an asshole . . . I got to bury my brother . . . the one person I loved and would have died for . . . I guess that’s what they call irony . . . except it’s my life.’

I take this information in, a tainted bequest, and clasp it close like a struggling creature. It beats against the walls of my ribs. It hurts.

‘We all make mistakes, Faith . . .’

I have nothing I can give him back that words can hold so I just sit in the silence. But I reach into it, and press my unlovely fingers on the source of his bleed, and I hold them there. He is quiet. For the first time since I was a little girl sitting birdwatching with my father, silence becomes a holding place, like water where things shift in suspension and not something that happens to you, forcing itself on you so that you are never the same again.

I hear him exhale. And then he says to me, ‘Maybe it’s time for you to think about doing something that isn’t so stressful.’

‘You just don’t like my chewed-up nails,’ I say.

‘I’ll match your chewed up nails and raise you an abdominal scar.’

I chuckle.

‘I’ll come and help you to scrub it off later,’ he says.

So now we’re having a date to remove misogynist graffiti from my car windscreen.

In my world, this is what is called making progress.

*****

We can use character memories in an interesting way – we can let the character ‘tell the memory’ in one way, and then we can write a flashback where the memory is told from a different point of view or with a different interpretation. This will allow our reader to question the credibility of the character, and if the main character is the narrator, he may subsequently become an ‘unreliable narrator,’ as our readers won’t be sure whether he is trustworthy or not. Our character may reveal himself as a liar, exaggerator or victim depending on how he chooses to talk about a memory. This in itself, sheds light on the character’s backstory – who he is as a result of what has happened to him.

Have fun exploring and experimenting with these writing techniques to build up a complex character with a rich and interesting history you reveal slowly and strategically depending on the emotional journey you want to take your reader on.

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The Recipe for Becoming a Successfully Published Author

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I often get asked how I became a published author. How did 600 000 copies of my books get sold? How come publishers now approach me to write books for them? I wish I had a recipe I could share like Jamie Oliver so that everyone out there could do the same.

But life recipes turn out differently in the kitchens of each of our hearts and circumstances.

Though we control our own effort, grace also weighs in there to some mysterious degree. I suspect the personality of our effort – open, humble and resilient as opposed to attached, needy and desperate may have something to do with success – but who knows? We all do our best.

I’ve reached a place in my own writing career where I feel that if I don’t write any more books, it will be okay. I have said much of what I want to share. The next phase of my life is about helping others to find their authentic writing voices and get their books published.

But I see aspiring authors stumble over the same problems. So I’m going to identify the most common ones and offer suggestions for getting past them.

First up: most beginner writers don’t understand the writing process or where they are in it. They’re lost. They don’t know where or how to start.

Writing a book is daunting. The task can feel overwhelming. Most people have no clue what writing a book entails. Many people start, and don’t get very far. Or they don’t start at all. Or they write a whole lot of bits and don’t know how to put them all together. Or they get stuck. Or they finish and they can’t get published. So let’s just begin with the beginning. Getting some sentences down on the page every day.

Try these:

  • Read books that can guide you and give you specific writing exercises to start the writing process – I recommend Julia Cameron’s The Right to Write or Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind.
  • Just start writing anywhere: the itch on your nose; the jackhammering outside your window, the temperature gauge on your fridge that’s stuck and freezing the milk. Don’t worry about where it will go.
  • Draw it – draw your story or book as a map. You can always stray from the map.
  • Write on index cards – bits you can write in one-hour increments.
  • Don’t worry about the beginning, middle and end. Just write. Structuring comes much later. You need to know where you are in the process and trust that what comes next will in fact, come next.
  • Break the immense task down into small-bite sized chunks. You aren’t a python, you don’t need to swallow the thing whole — you don’t need to know how your book ends, or even what will happen. You just need to start it. And keep working away at it, scene by scene, or chapter by chapter. Shawshank it. You can tunnel your way out of a maximum-security prison one pocketful of dirt at a time.
  • If you get stuck, use this as inspiration: ‘Write hard and clear about what hurts.’ Ernest Hemingway said that.

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Our books will bear witness for or against us, our books
reflect who we are and who we have been….
By the books we call ours we will be judged.”
― Alberto Manguel

I’m a self-help book junkie.

I started reading them in my early twenties, and I’ve never stopped.

As soon as I finish one, I’m ready for the next. They’re like fries that way. Except without the guilt – in fact, they leave me on a high. When I read a book in which someone has figured out one of the many problems I’m facing (emotional, spiritual, psychological, financial, business, writing), I begin to feel the stretch of an emotional muscle; the flicker of light inside me as someone illuminates a path through my tunnel of darkness.

Self-help books help us solve problems.

They’re glorious because there are as many ways to solve a problem as there are human natures and perceptions. That’s why every single one is different – because as the poet Mark Nepo writers, ‘If I’d experienced different things, I’d have different things to say.’

A self-help book is a wise guide by someone who has already walked the path I am stuck on. They point out to me where I am stumbling. They tell me stories that show me how others healed, worked through the pain, survived, overcame. I put one down, and I sigh. “I will get through this problem. I see it can be done.”

But there are good self-help books and there are poor ones.

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What distinguishes a great self-help book from a crap one?

I’ve analyzed the hundreds of self-help books I’ve read and worked out that there are two fundamental issues an author must address, and that, for each of those, there are eleven areas an author must tackle to ensure the book does what it’s meant to do.

And I’ve created a guide for anyone who is writing or who wants to write a self-help book called How To Write A Self-Help Book – ingenious title, right? But the first lesson of a great self-help book is just this – keep your message simple – make sure your book tells people what problem you are solving for them in the title.

I break the process down into reflection questions, structure, storytelling, methodology and I share my framework for writing a well structured, engaging self-help book that shares your insights in a way that turns the personal into the universal.

Because if you’re going to take the time to help people, make sure you write the best book you can. Your book can – and should – change people’s lives.

We all have life experience and wisdom to share. We’re all wiser, braver and more talented than we know or give ourselves credit for.

So, here’s a question for you: what do you know about (life, love, failure, health, parenting, divorce, marriage, fitness, money…. or anything you’ve gained great experience or insight in) that you could pass on to others? And what if you put it in writing as a gift to others?

If the idea excites you, you can purchase my How To Write A Self-Help Book Guide here for $19.95 which will walk you through the process, step by step.

So many of us have hidden insights and wisdom that remain locked inside us. By writing a self-help book, you gift these treasures to others and leave a legacy.

How To Write A Self-Help book will show you how to turn your lived experience into a meaningful narrative that serves humanity. I don’t know of a better way to honour the life each of us has lived.

My hope is that this guide makes the process easy, exciting and accessible to you.

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

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Over the past years, I’ve been working with ordinary women who are writing the ordinary stories of their lives.

‘Why would anyone care about my story?’ each one asks in her way. ‘Who am I to write my story?’

‘What does my life matter? I’ve done nothing special. I’m no-one important. Who would be interested in my life?’

Yet just what constitutes these ‘nothing special,’ ‘unimportant lives’?

I healed from a chronic illness. I left an abusive marriage. I raised my children alone. I lost a child. I was raped. I nursed my dying mother. I was sexually abused. I was abandoned. I am living with breast cancer. I am raising a disabled child. My family rejected me. I adopted an abandoned child. I was widowed. I lost my mother. I raised four children. I stayed in my marriage. I built my own business. I decided to keep the baby. I left my religion. My child is a drug addict. I left my homeland. My husband left me for another woman. I couldn’t have children. My daughter was raped.

Each one is a staggering narrative of survival, and a triumph of the human spirit.

What is startling is that none of these women thinks of herself as a hero. Each one is innocent of her own greatness, oblivious to the power and wisdom in her story. These women do not appreciate or value their own courage and how their lives are lanterns to others. In most cases, not one of them has ever been told ‘you are beautiful, you are brave, you are an inspiration.’

Men who fight in wars are bestowed with medals, salutes and state funerals. Sports stars are over-valued, over-paid and treated as a subspecies of little gods. In our culture, celebrities are lauded over for their wealth, their wardrobes and their Oscar wins. While men still fight wars (real and on sports fields), women on the whole, work to nurture, bring life and beauty to the planet. Quietly.

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Discover your hidden strengths as well as the areas you need to build on to become an author.

As women age and we pass into our forties and fifties, our status plummets dizzyingly. As pertness gives way to gravity, and our generous bodies stop bleeding so we can no longer bear children, we stop satisfying traditional standards of beauty. We become shadows. We grow invisible. Some try to hold back time, and Botox our sagging butts and boobs back into youth. Some of us grieve. Our children leave us. And it’s round about this time that a woman may decide that she’s going to (finally) do something for herself. Just herself. That’s when she finds me. That’s when she whispers, ‘I’ve always wanted to write… but who would be interested in my life?’

It is one of the best kept secrets in the universe right now that true power and wisdom reside in these women and their experiences. Our planet is desperate for their teachings. Our world urgently needs the lineage and luminance of their humble labour, unrewarded, unacknowledged.

So when people ask me, ‘Why do you work only with women? And women over forty?’ here it is. It is my spiritual calling, my mission if you like, to help women write and curate their stories as a collective act of conscious healing so that together we can tip these narratives back into the world.

What I know is that women’s stories – of growth, healing, transformation, creative endeavour – are the medicine this world needs now. When written from a place of deep knowing, with care and craft and conscientiousness, the personal voice speaks into the universal voice. And each time a woman stitches herself back into the fabric of life with words, she create a groove for someone else in which to rest her own tremulousness. One woman’s courage breaks ground for others.

In a troubled world, I believe our work as writers is to use our words to inspire, nourish and grow the spirit – our own, that of the reader, the planet, or the Great Spirit that runs through all things.

Perhaps when the world has learned what it takes to leave an abusive marriage, what it asks of the human spirit to forgive your rapist and what work is needed to heal an illness, we will find a way to deserve our future.

If you are wondering, ‘Who am I to write my story?’ perhaps now is the time to invest in yourself, and to honour the life you’ve lived.

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

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My experience having mentored hundreds of aspiring authors, is that the fight is never to ‘learn the craft.’ The fight is learning to deal with yourself: your resistance. Your own feelings of worthlessness. Your sense that you’re a fraud. Your belief that no-one will care about anything you have to say. Your conviction that you’re wasting your time.

These tricksters of our own consciousness sabotage our mental space; they make a lot of noise; they kidnap our sense of what’s possible.

But we cannot negotiate with such terrorists.

 

Author Potential Profile Assessment

Discover your hidden strengths as well as the areas you need to build on to become an author.

If we want to write, we have to fight. What we finally produce and gift to the world through our writing has been hard-won. Far from witnesses. We succeed when we battle past self-doubt. We win when we write even when we’re not in the mood. We are victorious when we edit our work, and can let go of whatever does not serve our story.

We think that ‘success’ means publication. Book deals. Book tours. But that’s not where our mastery lies. It lies ‘behind the lines,’ or in our case, between the lines. it lies in the work no-one sees, the work it takes for us to believe in our stories and shout our worth to the world. It lies in every word you commit to the page.

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

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When I was asked to curate a series of blog posts for 16 days of activism against gender violence, I quickly discovered I was unprepared. I had to approach these stories like a child on the shoreline of a cold, dark ocean. I was scared to rush into the immensity of...

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Surviving Teenagers

I call my kids to come see this YouTube video of some father in the US who ends his rant against his teenage daughter’s ‘I-hate-my-parents’ Facebook post, by emptying the barrel of a gun into her laptop. I suppose I’m hoping it’ll dawn on them I’m not such a...

Are You Sharing or Over-Sharing?

Are You Sharing or Over-Sharing?

I am by nature a sharer, and am delighted, for example, when people help themselves to food on my plate. As far as I’m concerned, few things are more enjoyable alone than in a group.

I am happy to be shared with too. Tell me your secrets, your deepest desires and longings, your worst regrets, your unscriptable shames and I will not flinch. I have also learned not to judge – though it’s taken twenty years of deep personal and spiritual work to get here. I have also made a career out of sharing – my mistakes, my personal failures, the errors of my heart – in writing, with tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands of people.

But then along came Facebook. And a whole new era of sharing has begun:

‘If you don’t copy and share this on your wall, it means you don’t care about me…’

‘I’ve just received the worst news but I can’t tell talk about it now…’

‘Tell me how we met otherwise you’re not a real friend…’

‘I just ate breakfast. Look, eggs benedict.’

 

The 7 Day Writing Challenge

WINGS: Words Inspire, Nourish and Grow the Spirit

 

What used to be a form of intimacy, a method of drawing people in and connecting, has become a form of exhibitionism and attention-seeking, over things that – let’s be real – don’t warrant our attention, or not the kind of attention someone scrolling through their Facebook feed is able to give. This kind of over-sharing does the opposite of what real sharing does – it pushes people away, when actually, what the sharer probably needs is a hug in flesh-‘n-blood arms.

When we ‘put ourselves out there’ – whether on social media or in our writing, we need to assess what we want to share, and more importantly, what is necessary to share. Necessary to what? To the story. To the purpose of our communication.

Sharing ought not to burden our reader. It should never make us more vulnerable than we can cope with (social media invites unsolicited and often uncaring feedback). It should always be in service to something larger than our own loneliness, sorrow or grief. It should be invitation to engage. It should offer our reader a bridge into his or her own experience.

When we share, we open our hearts. Self-indulgent misery is best kept private (on the pages in which we bare our soul). But as soon as we go public, we need to ensure it’s not an open invitation to every troll with nothing better to do than judge, condemn or feel sorry for us.

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

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