Flashback, Backstory, and Parallel Storylines

Elizabeth BuhmannA certain kind of story appeals to me above all others. It’s my archetype for mystery: A crime is successfully hidden for many years. The story begins when something sets off a chain of events to expose the old wrong. In the end, justice, so long denied, is restored.

In my writing, I’ve gravitated to this kind of story three times now: in my first published book, in a second manuscript that I hope to publish next year, and my current work in progress, called Blue Lake.

  • In Lay Death at Her Door, an innocent man takes the fall for a murder. Twenty years later, he’s exonerated, and the crime comes unsolved.
  • In Monster, an ambitious embryologist abandons a deformed child when his rogue experiment fails. Eighteen years later, the child goes looking for her birth parents.
  • In Blue Lake, a death in the distant past was once briefly suspected of being a murder, then written off as an accident. A family is destroyed and a crime goes unpunished for decades.

In each case, I have two stories to tell. What really happened a long time ago? And how does the truth come out all these years later? One entire story takes place in the distant past.

Any writer who attends workshops or belongs to a critique group (and that’s just about all of us) is frequently admonished to avoid or minimize back story and flashback. How, then, can you tell the old story in a book like mine? This worried me no end the first time around.

Flashback: In the midst of the present story, we shift briefly to a past event, then resume where we left off. A little bit is fine: At the start of Blue Lake, Regina has been refusing to go home to her estranged family, but she has learned that her father is dying, and she finally changes her mind. [FLASHBACK:]

Mary had called again the night before.

“Just wanted to keep you informed,” she’d said.

“I’m not coming.”

“You don’t have to. It’s okay.” And knowing Mary, she meant it. But it wasn’t okay. She’d have to go, and soon.

Just a few lines—a tolerable interruption, but you can’t do too much of this without fatally chopping up your present storyline.

Back story: We are filled in with information that explains how the characters and plot got to be where they are. In Monster, Detective Gil Tillier is at a crime scene for the first time in a couple of years.

He felt an itch of excitement, like an old racehorse snorting in the pasture at the sound of a starting gate. [BACK STORY:] Not that he was old. On the contrary, he’d been something of a wunderkind: lieutenant at the age of thirty, head of CID at thirty-two. Quit at thirty-three.

That’s one sentence of back story—about as much as we want before we get back to the body on the floor.

The way I think of it, flashback is dramatized, while back story is not. Flashback shows, while back story is told. Both are short interruptions in the story line. Neither technique is adequate for telling the past story in the kind of book I want to write.

Parallel Storylines: I want two full stories, interwoven. Both stories have to be fully dramatized. The excursions into the past must be of sufficient length to pull us all the way in. Often, entire chapters will be committed to one storyline or the other, alternately.

The past and present stories must be equally interesting. In Lay Death, the young Kate’s adventures in Africa and Massachusetts, and her love affair with Elliott in college, have to be worth reading in their own right.

At the same time, the reopening of the investigation into Elliott’s death twenty years later has to be compelling, too. Neither story can be left to languish too long. They have to feed off each other and collide at the climax.

It’s not for me to say if I succeed in these complex plot structures, but I find this kind of book most rewarding  when it works. I want to fully understand how the world got knocked out of balance in the distant past. And then I want to watch how truth and justice win out in the end.

Cover-Lay-Death-BuhmannAmazon Top 100 and B&N Top Ten Bestseller Lay Death at Her Door is on sale for the first time in 2014, this week only. “What an ending! All the threads that seem to be unrelated weave tightly together at the end. I can’t wait to read more by Elizabeth Buhmann!” – NYT Bestselling Author Kate Moretti

3 thoughts on “Flashback, Backstory, and Parallel Storylines

  1. I try to avoid backstory in the first 3 chapters or so. I think it’s find after that. I think sprinkling in tantalizing hints about it before that make the reader eager to read it once you there and start to unfold the past. That’s my take anyway.


  2. I love Ross Macdonald, who blends past crime with present crime to create mounting tension and suspense. Your article reminded me of him. Two of his private eye crime novels, The Chill and The Galton Case, are particularly riveting once they start rolling, subtly at first, then crashing down the cliff, taking the reader with them. The dark past is a very real character. I love this kind of mystery.


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