The Right and Wrong Ways to Use Backstory


Recently, the final book in Justin Cronin’s post-apocalyptic horror series, The City of Mirrors, was released. I loved the first two installments, The Passage and The Twelve. For close to four years, I had eagerly anticipated the finale to a great story.

I was mostly pleased with the final book. Very gratifying wrap-up to the series.

About two-thirds of it, that is.

In the middle of the book, Cronin plunks a very long flashback that dramatizes the backstory of the story’s major antagonist, a vampire-like creature who controls an army of other vampire-like creatures.The heroes must vanquish this final monster before the last pockets of humanity are destroyed. (The Twelve refers to the other twelve original vampire creatures created by the government who escaped in the first book and turned most of the population into vampires they control.)

It’s a pretty exciting premise and Cronin does a great job of creating some complex, empathetic heroes.

Then that flashback starts.

It goes on. And on. AND ON.

Here’s what happens in the backstory:

A young man named Timothy Fanning leaves home to attend Harvard. He becomes friends with Jonas Lear, who has a girlfriend named Elizabeth. Timothy falls in love with her and is devastated when she marries Jonas. Many years later they meet again. Elizabeth is dying of cancer, but they begin an affair. She agrees to leave Jonas and meet Timothy at Grand Central Station so they can run away together to spend her final months together. She never shows up. Assuming she has changed her mind, he picks up a woman in a bar and murders her. He finds out later Elizabeth had died on her journey to meet him.

That’s it. That’s the whole thing.

The backstory takes over such a major part of the novel that it brings the story to a screeching halt. Frankly, none of what’s revealed (in my opinion, anyway) adds much to the overall story.

Cronin started his career writing literary fiction. Basically, he plunked a literary novel in the middle of his epic vampire novel. He has been quoted in interviews as saying this part of the book is his favorite of the series.

If I hadn’t been listening to the audiobook version, I would have skimmed through that part and skipped on to the rest of it, which as I already said, was pretty darn good. It brought down what should have been a stellar conclusion to an epic story.

Extended use of backstory and flashbacks isn’t automatically a bad thing. There are many examples of great uses of backstory. The film The Godfather Part II immediately leaps to mind. Francis Ford Coppola dramatized the backstory of Vito Corleone, while simultaneously telling the story of his son Michael.

The TV series Lost also used backstory very effectively, focusing usually on one character per episode.

Both examples use irony, but in somewhat different ways. Vito Corleone’s rise as a crime boss is connected closely with his desire to protect and provide for his family. This love of family is perverted by Michael when decades later he murders his own brother for betraying him.

In Lost, rather than showing what we might expect of the main characters’ previous lives, they are a stunning contrast to what we see of them on the island. John Locke seems a capable leader and survivalist. In his flashbacks, he is an insecure, angry man who never got over being abandoned by his parents. Sawyer, a con man, had his family taken from him by a con man. Kate, who continually risks her life for the other survivors of the crash, is revealed to have murdered her biological father.

This use of backstory is the way the show peeled away the façade of the characters, showing us the contradictions that made them complex human beings.

Time travel stories are frequently an example of extrapolated use of backstory. In Back to the Future, Marty travels back in time to when his parents were teenagers. The contrast between family stories told in the story’s present and the reality of the past comprises much of the plot, as well as causes Marty’s—and his parents’—character arcs. In Peggy Sue Got Married, backstory is what helps Peggy Sue realize that her life didn’t turn out as disappointing as she thought it had.

It’s only in these specific cases, where backstory is structurally part of the story (i.e. simultaneous stories from different time frames or backstory used to contrast with the present story) when so much of it needs to be used. As a writer, I love to compose detailed backstories for my characters. I end up using a fraction of these details for the actual story. I think that’s an approach many writers use. In the end it helps create compelling characters whose pasts have an important impact without stopping the flow of the narrative.


One thought on “The Right and Wrong Ways to Use Backstory

  1. I’m glad you used the examples of Godfather Part II and Lost. I used to say that I hate flashbacks as a storytelling device but then realized that some of my favorite movies (Citizen Kane, the Godfather saga, Pulp Fiction) had nonlinear plots and their flashbacks worked brilliantly. It’s about execution. The “flashforward” is also a tricky narrative tool that can destroy a story. That was my problem with Cronin’s “The Passage” when he jumps in the beginning after I felt invested in certain characters only to see the story suddenly become about others. And it’s a problem I’m having with the current novel I’m reading, “Seveneves” by Neil Stephenson, an otherwise brilliant science fiction book (despite an unfortunate overuse of “information dumping”) — but in the end he jumps 5000 years in the future and it just stops the pace of the story cold. It’s all in the execution.

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