In the rearview mirror

On August 4, 2012, MNM wrote, I’ve been working on a story that is written in first person and I’m having issues with putting in the background or writing flashbacks. I can bring them into the story easily enough, but I am having trouble getting back on track without a choppy transition. Any tips?

Here’s a confession: I’ve started to put together a second writing book, this one based on the blog, and I’m about to write a chapter on flashbacks and back story, so this question is exactly on time. Thank you, MNM!

The first consideration with back story (background) and flashbacks is whether they’re needed. If not, I say leave ‘em out. No matter how smooth our transition, the reader has to quit the forward movement of our tale to journey to an earlier time and, often, a different place. When he returns he has to get immersed all over again.

Let’s go back to last week’s post about Queenie, the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, who specializes in shouting, “Off with his head!” Suppose Queenie’s love of execution comes from a childhood tragedy. Her father, Daddy Card, the late King of Hearts, was assassinated, stabbed in the neck, eek! The assassin was never found, but the Chief Constable and Queenie are convinced he or she is still at court. We want the reader to understand Queenie, maybe have some sympathy for her, so we decide to show what happened. There are lots of choices.

One way is a flashback. We want a smooth transition so we plan it ahead of time. Let’s say Daddy Card liked to write lengthy letters to family and friends on pale purple stationery in his distinctive spidery handwriting. In present time, Queenie is in her study when a Nine of Clubs, a servant, brings in her mail, among which is a letter in a pale purple envelope, not the exact tint Daddy Card favored, but close. Hands trembling, she picks up the tiny silver dagger she uses as a letter opener, and thinks, Ten years in a month.

That day she’d been in this room, too, opening replies to her birthday party invitations. She’d issued eighty-nine invitations, and eighty-nine children had accepted. As she was mounding the responses in a triumphant pile, feet had thudded in the corridor outside. She hardly heeded – the servants were always rushing about. Then came a soft knock, her lady-in-waiting’s shy tap, but an instant later the woman opened without permission.

We’re in. Notice that I started with had been and had dispatched, but switched to simple past in the sentence, The servants were always rushing about. That sentence marks the complete shift to the earlier time.

The flashback continues. We see the shaken maid delivering the terrible news. Whatever follows follows: weeping, rushing out of the room, going to Mommy Card, could be anything. Finally we bring Queenie back to the study and start the return transition:

She sat dully at her desk and stared without comprehension at the party replies. Oh, she’d finally remembered, the girl she used to be was going to have a celebration. For the first time, on that sad, long-ago day, she’d collected her hair in a bun at the back of her neck. Then she’d picked up another letter and had slit it open.

The mauve envelope in her hand now had nothing to do with a party. There was no party. She hated parties. Who would be stupid enough to choose this color?

And we’re back. Did you see that I repeated the tense switch on the return? Two devices make the transition smooth: the tense shift and an action that bridges the gap in time, in this case opening the mail.

But if we don’t want to interrupt the story, what are our other choices?

Suppose Queenie always touches her throat before calling for an execution. If Kingie, who thoroughly understands his wife, manages to put his arm around her quickly enough, she relaxes and doesn’t give the order. A newcomer to court can observe this and ask her uncle to explain. In a short bit of dialogue the father’s assassination can be revealed.

If we’re writing in Queenie’s POV, the revelation can come in thoughts, something like, Ten years in a month. I was nicer before the assassin. Then we go back to the action. Five pages later, she might think something else, like, Dr. Two of Spades says I lost my father at a girl’s most formative moment, no matter how he died. What a Two he is! She makes a weighing gesture with her hands. Heart attack – assassination. Heart attack – assassination. Not the same. More action. Later on she can finish the back story by thinking, I probably killed the assassin long ago, but as long as he could still be playing croquet, I’ll keep the executions coming.

If we’re writing from another character’s POV, he can be present for one of Queenie’s execution orders and think about the past in a sentence or two.

Or the reader can do without. Everyone knows Queenie orders people’s heads off. It’s one of the facts of her rule. People avoid playing croquet with her and are terrified when they have to. The history doesn’t have to come to the fore. If she’s an important character, we can show her touching her throat, loving Kingie, seeming relieved when her husband pardons people. She’ll come off as a complex character. Excellent.

I would ask the same questions about a back story as about a flashback, and if I can, I would do without.

But suppose you need to put it in and the back story is the history of this card kingdom. Let’s imagine that Alice has a mission in Wonderland and in order to have a chance she has to understand the place. She can find a tome about it in her parents’ library, and we can put a page of the book right in the story. We can have her stop in the middle to gasp or to get a glass of water, whatever. For suspense, we can have her leave the room for the water and find the book gone when she comes back. She knows part of the story and she has to find out the rest, which moves the back story into the front. She can ask the university historian, and we can include their conversation. If we break up the back story, again we haven’t suspended the forward story for very long. In the first instance, we leave the back story to get the glass of water. In the second, the historian can look at his watch and say he has to teach, and we’re out. The trick, I think, is to plant the seeds for the return from the back story in the way it begins, for example, with an action that the character can return to.

Here are four prompts:

∙ The White Rabbit is hopping ahead of Alice. From his POV write a flashback that explains his urgency. In Lewis Carroll’s story, he and Alice separate and the story follows her. Stick with him and invent what happens.

∙ Write the back story  that explains the history of the card monarchy.

∙ Let’s use a modern weather event, Hurricane Sandy or a tornado or a blizzard, and have Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz show up in it. Provide a back story to explain how she got there.

∙ After an election I always wonder how it feels to be the winner or the loser, but a prompt on the actual election seems too close to home, so let’s imagine one in the republic of Tulipe, where Mistress Prunette of the Globule Party ousted Master Rosto of the Concavities. Each has asked to be alone for a few minutes to reflect on the contest. Write a flashback for each that gives personal meaning to the outcome.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I love writing, and I have a couple of friends who I email some stories so they can give me feedback. Sometimes my friend will say that something doesn't make sense or is weird, when I disagree. I can't tell if this is because it really is weird, or if it's just their opinion.
    Sometimes my friends also want something to be going in a totally different direction. My friend really wants the book to say it's by her too, but I'm not sure about that.
    How can you tell when you are co-writing and when they are just giving you ideas? I feel like if we really are co-writing, and if she is really doing half the writing, that it should say it is written by her as well.
    Have you ever co-written a story?
    When you are just in the beginning of a story who do you consult? I know I should have a professional editor edit it before I try to get it published, but I'm not sure who I should talk to before than.
    Do you have any tips about co-writing?

    • (I'm not Gail, so my advice might not be of any use to you)
      My answer is pretty simple, if your just showing your work to them, they aren't co-writing it.
      However if your friend is writing a large chunk of your book you are probably co-writing it.
      Co-writing isn't the same as feedback, people who are giving you feedback shouldn't write some of your book unless you're completely on board with the idea of co-writing.

    • I agree completely with Agnes. I've never co-written anything, but I've had many critique buddies, and not one has ever called herself a co-writer. For the rest of your question, I'm adding it to my list.

    • I'm not Gail either, but talk from an earlier point of view of what you do when you don't have an editor. 🙂

      Picking critique partners is difficult. Sometimes even great friends aren't great critique partners. And it's great that your friend is supporting enough to be super interested, but it sounds like it can be hard if you feel like you are losing control of your own book. If you get joy out of planning the book with her – great! Call it co-writing and ask her to write some sections. The faster you get it done the faster you can move on to new book.

      But I echo what was said above – there's a reason why you see acknowledgements and dedications in books.

      Early books can be a learning process in more than one way. One way is in figuring out what kind of critique partners work for you. Best of luck!

  2. I've just got to say, Mrs. Levine, I found your Queenie examples very amusing. 🙂 When do you think your writing book is coming out? When you say it's based on the blog, do you mean that it's your posts in book form or what? Just wondering. I have your first writing book, and I've found it quite helpful.
    I second Kate Phillips request for tips on co-writing. My brother and I are going to coauthor a book someday soon, so any advice on that would be good.

  3. Mrs. Levine,
    I'm so excited to hear about the new book! I've had Writing Magic for years now, and I still refer back to it.

    I also have yet another question. I've been working on a particular piece set during the American Revolution since I was eleven, and in the five years it's existed, it's changed significantly. But I can's seem to finish it. Every time I think I've solved a problem, a new one pops up, sometimes with plot, sometimes with my writing itself. A lot of times, it seemed like the story was more work than it was worth!
    There have been long periods of time where I don't touch it at all, when I vow that I won't think of it again, and consider it a failed project. But then I think about the characters that I've come to love, and I'm intrigued by them, and I start the cycle over again, usually with a new beginning.
    I've worked on other big projects in the meantime, but I've always considered that one "My Story."
    How do you know when to hold on to a story and when to let go?

    • Sounds like you're doing exactly the right thing. It took me eight years to get DAVE AT NIGHT right. It started as a picture book, evolved into a novel, and then into a different novel, and now it's my favorite of all my books.

  4. Oh my goodness! Another book like Writing Magic?! That is so exciting! My brother and I enjoyed that book so much that for every single person in our book we write out a 'character sheet' which we have saved as a PDF file on our computer to help develop their personalities. It really helps! 🙂

  5. Mrs. Levine,
    I love writing, but now I have absolutly no idea what to write. I haven't for a week or so. I just finished my story completely, and have nothing more to do with it. I have tried quite a lot of methods, but I can't stick with anything, and my writing always becomes boring and emotionless and I end up hating it and getting even more frustrated.
    Do you have any way I could stop this?
    Also, I see you have no posts about what you actually do when you get an idea, or when you completely finish a book, or, in other words, 'starting'. What I mean is, what do you do, before you even have an idea? This is a different type of writers block. I have no characters to work with. It is more writers wall. One that is very high with no rope. I have no idea what direction I am supposed to being going in.
    Please help,

    • I’m not Mrs. Levine, but something I do that helps is writing prompts. I do lots of writing prompts and some don’t help at all, but open worlds of possible ides. I think that answering whatever the prompt is forces me to get ideas, and they sometimes turn into wonderful things. one of my favorite websites for writing prompts is,, but just googling “writing prompts” should get you thoasands of different ones.

  6. I wrote a short story about this apprentice wizard taking her test to become a master wizard, and my problem isn’t getting backstory ideas, I have a whole, complicated backstory, and future for my MC, Delila, thing is I want to turn it into a larger story but I’m not sure where to start. Do you have any advice on expanding short stories, or prompts I could use or something?

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