What's the difference? That's a good question. One all writers need to understand. My writing buddy Claire defined the difference in the following way:
- A flashback puts you in the head of the POV character at the time of the memory they're recalling; back story exposition keeps you in the head of the POV character now, as they look back and remember. Or as I like to think of it: flashbacks are active, they show an event from the past. Back story tells about the past.
- Back story: a summary of an incident that has happened in the character’s past.
Flashback: taking the reader to the past incident and showing it to him through action and dialog.
- Back story is a necessary part of any story. Strong back story makes a strong story. But in writing fiction, practice the fine art of withholding information. That creates mystery. It creates suspense. It keeps your reader reading.
Can you hold off on showing any flashbacks until at least 25% of the way into your story? If not, then maybe the real story isn’t your story. Maybe your real story is the back story and you should have started sooner.
Can you hold off on showing any flashbacks until you’re 75% of the way into your story? If so, you might have a real killer of a story. Remember, as long as you’ve got a secret, your reader wants to know it. Once you’ve told the secret, your reader no longer wants to know it.
Here are some links you might find useful on this topic:
- Rachel Houck: Back story, Flashback, and Memory Moments: The Difference
- Randy Ingermanson "the Snowflake Guy": What Makes a Flashback Sizzle?
- Holly Robinson: Revising Your Novel: Is Back Story Clogging Your Narrative Flow
- Kristin Lamb: Why Flashbacks Might Be a Warning of Deeper Story Problems
- Kristin Lamb: The Hidden EVIL of Flashbacks