Backstory using flashbacks

05 Jun

Cover of Sharon A. Crawford's mystery short story collection

Cover of Sharon A. Crawford’s mystery short story collection

One of my many theories about short stories is that their titles and first lines ought to be memorable, because if not memorable they will not be remembered, and if not remembered the stories will not be reprinted (because no one can find them).

– Damon Knight

I’m posting one day early this week only because I’m at the MagNet magazine publishing industry conference all day tomorrow. The time setup to fix a date and time to publish a post later is nowhere to be found on Hope you enjoyed Rosemary McCracken’s guest post last week.

And now as promised (albeit a week late) – some ideas on using flashbacks for your backstory.

You have to be careful with flashback so you don’t overuse  it because it can take away from your main story’s thrust. For a novel a bit of backstory could work in a short prologue. But even better is to weave in your flashback(s) with the present day story. The latter can work for short stories which don’t usually have prologues.

In my short story “Porcelain Doll” I blend in the flashbacks – and there are actually two time periods of flashback. This is somewhat unusual for short stories. The story begins in the present with:

 I can’t stop staring at the porcelain doll in the window. It sits among old tea sets and silver candleholders in Hanover’s newest antique shop. I keep trying to look away, but I can’t, despite my heart dancing inside my chest and my breath trying to keep time with it.


Right after this paragraph I transition into the most recent time flashback with:

I have no business coming back to this area. I should have left the past with Mama when she died last fall from a tumble down the cellar stairs. But when I sorted through her clothes, a newspaper clipping fell from a dress pocket. Of course I had to read it.

Spring thaw uncovers man’s skeleton near Hanover in the Lake Huron area. Contents of a wallet found nearby indicate the man could have been one Charles Holden who disappeared 16 years ago….

It was dated April 14, 1981, two months before Mama married Eric Luftus and seven and a half years before her death.


Then I bring in a bit about the present and transition back to the late 1980s when Mama died.

I pilfered the newspaper story and took it home with me.

The doll’s eyes seem too blue, too real. Or maybe I’m just wrapped too much in old memories. They began seeping from the nether area of my brain while I watched Mama lowered into the ground.

There are a few paragraphs more about this time right after Mama’s funeral and leading back to the present (seven months later) with Sarah (the main character) still looking in the window at that porcelain doll. Then I transition into the main flashback, which is a big part of the short story, with

I press my nose to the shop’s window. The doll’s eyes seem to suck me right in and spin me back 24 years. In the whirl, I see another porcelain doll, Daddy dealing cards, and my last train ride. It feels more like a roller coaster ride, and I shudder.

That 1965 train trip started much the same as any other summer’s trip. (All excerpts from Beyond the Tripping Point, copyright 2012 Sharon A. Crawford)

The story does eventually wind its way back to the present including some backstory about Eric and Sarah’s mom with the latter part focusing on the present to finish up what started back in 1965.

If you read through the excerpts closely you will see that anything in the past (1965 or 1981 or 1989) is written in the past tense while anything happening now is written in present tense. This is one way to help your reader keep track of time.

In novels, another way is to keep backstory and present in separate chapters with the year and possible month(s) or season(s) at the beginning of the chapter.

Or you can weave in the backstory for each main character whose point of view is used to tell your story. But watch that it doesn’t come across as an expository resume. Connect it to something the character is doing or about to do, another character they are going to see, talk to. What is some of their history? Are they long-time friends from what and where? If the characters have had a falling out, bring this in here just before they will meet. How does the point of view character feel about this? Will it affect how they are going to act?

Sue McGrath (of the alphabet mysteries: A is for, etc.) does this very well when she brings in her main character’s (Kinsey) family backstory – many members whom Kinsey is estranged from or never met. But McGrath doesn’t drag in these family members until the novels where Kinsey is actually going to have to connect to them. If you are writing a mystery novel, you don’t want a lot of unnecessary family backstory cluttering up your plot.

So make sure your backstory connects to your plot in some way. It is also not necessary to give every character’s backstory – just the main ones where it will affect the plot and what these main characters will be doing and saying.

You don’t want to lose your readers to the past.


Sharon A. Crawford

Beyond the Tripping Point is available at (just click on the book cover at the top) and for those in Canada at  – both in print and e-copy. Or you can go into a bricks and mortar bookstore and order in a print copy.


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