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June 11, 2024

Need a Lot of Backstory? Options for Structuring Your Story

Apple on books with text: Deepen Your Craft with Resident Writing Coach Jami Gold (at Writers Helping Writers)

It’s time for another one of my guest posts over at Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Writers Helping Writers site. As one of their Resident Writing Coaches, I’ve previously shared:

With this turn for another coaching article at WHW, I’m exploring some of the advanced writing techniques we can use when our story requires a lot of backstory. Let’s explore two options for structuring our story with more backstory by taking a (non-spoilery!) look at the recent Fallout TV series…

Backstory Recap: First, Ensure We Really Need It

Virtually every story needs some amount of backstory, just so readers learn the necessary context for fully understanding obstacles, stakes, and a character’s backstory wound and motivations. For example, readers will be more sympathetic to a character’s struggles if they have some understanding of how or why the character has failed in the past.

What are our storytelling options for when we need to include a lot of backstory? Click To Tweet

That said, authors—especially as we first start writing—are known for thinking their story needs more backstory than it really does. That’s often because in our brainstorming process, we’ve come up with some cool backstory information that makes us eager to share our character’s journey.

However, just because we know information doesn’t mean readers need to know it. Too much backstory can interrupt the story we’re trying to tell, slow down our story’s pacing, and cause other issues.

So a general rule of thumb is to include backstory only when necessary for readers to understand the current story. For instance, we want to make readers think, “Ooo, what’s that all about?” not “What the heck are they talking about?”

Also, the technique we use to share that backstory should be the least disruptive method for the story we’re trying to tell. For example, a quick hint vs. paragraphs of information, or choosing between whether a character would share their issues with another character vs. using a flashback scene. There’s no right or wrong answer, as every story has different needs and goals.

Advanced Backstory: Know Your Story’s Needs

As with any writing “rule” (or guideline), however, once we know and understand the reasons for it, we’ll be a better judge for when it’s appropriate to break the “rule.” That goes for backstory too.

Just because the usual guideline tells us to limit backstory, for some stories, it really does make sense to include more (sometimes a lot more) than the usual amount. For example, maybe we need more backstory when…

  • readers would have difficulty understanding why an event or choice is important without more backstory,
  • backstory is the only way to share critical information, as it’s never been discussed or alluded to,
  • readers need to experience the emotions viscerally through a shown-not-told flashback to fully understand, or
  • the extensive worldbuilding makes the backstory too complicated to explain with just a quick or subtle hint, and so on.

What Advanced Writing Techniques Can Help Us Include a Lot of Backstory?

If our story requires readers to understand or “see”/experience a lot of backstory, two advanced writing techniques can help us wrangle the additional information: flashbacks and dual-timeline stories.

Hop over to my Writers Helping Writers guest post to discover our options. Then be sure to come back here, where I share how these two techniques can even be used in a single story by looking at the recent TV show Fallout (while avoiding spoilers).

Writers Helping Writers: Resident Writing Coach Program

Flashbacks vs. Dual Timeline: What’s the Difference?

Come visit my guest post at WHW, linked above, where I’m sharing more about these two writing techniques, including:

  • how flashbacks differ from normal backstory
  • what a flashback can do for a story that normal backstory can’t
  • what makes a dual-timeline story unique and how it sometimes acts like backstory
  • how a story that uses several flashbacks differs from a dual-timeline story
  • what key points and clues can help us know which technique to use for the story we want to tell

Then come back for us to explore more about how we can use these techniques in our stories…

Case Study: How the Fallout TV Show Uses Both Flashbacks and a Dual Timeline

A recently released streaming show that captured popular interest is Fallout on Amazon Prime. I’ve never played the video games the show is based on, but after seeing the positive reviews (even by those not familiar with the games), I decided to check out the show (and am glad I did!).

What can the TV show Fallout teach us about complex story structures? @FalloutOnPrime Click To Tweet

Not surprisingly, given the name of the games/show, the world of Fallout is set after a massive nuclear apocalypse. In this alternate-history story world, the threats of the Cold War prompted America (and its powerful capitalistic companies) to prepare for nuclear war by building massive fallout shelter societies called vaults, and when the bombs dropped in 2077, many survived in the vaults underground.

The various games of the Fallout series are set years after the bombs fell, and the TV show itself is set over 200 years later. A common trope in these stories focuses on a vault-dweller who emerges and explores the weird and violent post-apocalyptic surface world, known as the Wasteland.

Fallout‘s Complex Story Structure

The Fallout TV show continues the games’ quirky and dark gallows humor and tone, but uses a complex and interesting structure to tell its story.

  • Opens with a prologue set in 2077 — so don’t be fooled by the retro-futuristic 1950s aesthetic, which is often attributed to an alternate history within Fallout of a delayed invention of transistors (and thus, microchips), changing the progress of technology
  • Main story set in 2296, shifting between many points of view (including 3 main characters with title cards)
  • A later-introduced separate story set prior to 2077

So there’s a prologue, a main story (with one of the characters experiencing flashbacks), and the second storyline of this dual-timeline story is set even earlier than the prologue. Yet despite all that complexity, the various elements usually succeed, and they definitely all work together to tell the larger story.

Even the trailer includes snippets from all these timeline elements: the prologue, the main story, the past story, and the flashbacks. If a three-minute trailer can combine these elements to create a overall sense of a story’s mood and tone, imagine what we can do within an entire story playing with this structure.

Fallout – Official Trailer | Amazon Prime Video

Fallout‘s Prologue

The TV show opens with a prologue, used to establish the main story’s setting of a post-apocalypse world. In many stories, we’d say this prologue was unnecessary, but in this case, the scene also serves as an important character introduction in ways that become clear only in later episodes.

Fallout‘s Main Storyline (with Flashbacks)

The main storyline, which explores the world of vaults and the Wasteland, shifts between several characters. There are three main characters who get title cards for their introductory scenes. As the episodes progress, we get POV scenes from several more minor characters, and while some of these scenes initially seem like a distraction from the main storylines, they eventually tie in to the final episode’s twists and reveals.

In addition, one of the main characters experiences a defining-moment flashback. What’s extremely unusual about Fallout‘s usage of this flashback is that it repeats several times (an argument could be made that it repeats too often), yet doesn’t necessarily show more details each time, which would be typical with this type of use.

What's the difference between using lots of flashbacks and using a dual-timeline structure? Click To Tweet

For example, usually when a story revisits a defining moment in a repeating flashback, the repetition is due to the flashback character gradually remembering more details about the event. Perhaps each repetition is a bit clearer or more detailed or follows the event for a longer time.

However, in Fallout‘s usage, the repetition is mainly for the audience’s sake, as the flashback is primarily a prompt for the audience to question the character’s perspective of their defining moment. As the episodes progress, our audience understanding of the world changes our interpretation of what the character took away from the event—their emotions, goals, and motivations—even though we’re often not shown additional details.

While I appreciated the unique application and usage of the flashback for this purpose, personally, I think they repeated the flashback scene about 2-3 too many times. Sometimes it seemed to repeat even when no new understanding was at hand, so it served only to emphasize that this was a defining moment for the character, which was already obvious. However, I’d be interested to hear if others have different takes on this flashback and its usage.

Fallout‘s Dual-Timeline Story

Many stories that use the dual-timeline structure introduce the second timeline relatively early in the story. For example, the second timeline may kick off in chapter two or three out of 20-60 chapters.

However, another unique (and risky) approach the Fallout series took was to delay the introduction of the second timeline until the third episode. As there are only eight episodes in the season, we’re past the 25% mark here, and normal story structure expects that we’re beyond the “end of the beginning,” with all its establishing information, and into the meat of the story.

In fact, with this delayed introduction, it could be confusing whether this scene used as the episode 3 opening is a second timeline or just a flashback. A few techniques make it clearly the introduction of a second timeline:

  • There’s no main-storyline character thinking of this past event.
  • As we see more of these past storyline scenes, we recognize that each follows the previous in their own cause-and-effect chain.
  • While they’re often interspersed with the main storyline’s scenes in an order that ties the two storylines together (such as thematically or with surprise reveals that echo forward to the present time), these past scenes follow their own logic and build up of story and character arcs, tension, and turning points, independent of the main story.

In addition (and most tellingly), the initial scene of this second-timeline story is preceded with a title card labeled “The Beginning.” That card establishes this scene as the start of an independent story, just as much as any of the other 3 main characters with their title cards have independent stories.

How Fallout Brought All These Timelines Together

As I mentioned above, the repeating flashback technique didn’t work well for me, just because it was too repetitive-without-new-information for my taste. However, the dual-timeline and varied character POV stories worked perfectly from my perspective.

The final episode caps each of the 3 main-character stories, as well as that of the most “major” of the minor characters (those who didn’t get title cards, yet still had arcs), and the dual-timeline story set in the past. All those elements (and depending on which minor-characters-with-complete-arcs you count, we’re talking 5-9 stories!) not only come to some sort of resolution, but they also all end up tying together at the climax to create a fuller picture of the story world and how the present storyline came to be.

  • The past timeline illuminates events and characters that affect the present and adds layers of understanding to the twists and reveals of the present-timeline climax.
  • The 3 main characters all end up involved in the same climax of the present-timeline story.
  • The flashbacks of one of the main characters keep us questioning who the “bad guy” of the defining-moment event was up until the climax’s reveals.
  • The minor characters with a complete arc all tie to the climax’s story events and/or our understanding of the story at the climax.
  • Story questions hinted at by the story world are answered in reveals from the past that echo through to additional reveals in the present timeline.

So for those interested in learning how dual-timeline stories can work, I highly recommend checking out the Fallout TV series. A dual-timeline story can be a complicated and advanced writing technique, but it can also create a fulfilling, complex story and story world. *smile*

Have you ever tried writing a dual-timeline story? If so, did it work for you, or did you struggle with the technique? How about using flashbacks? Does this post give you ideas for your stories or techniques you’d like to try? Have you seen Fallout, and if so, what was your impression? (Did the repeated flashbacks work for you, and if so, how did you interpret them?) Do you have any questions about this topic? (My WHW posts are limited in word count, but I’m happy to go deeper here if anyone wants more info!)

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Clare O'Beara

Thanks. My biggest peeve about backstory is when the writer inserts a lengthy infodump in the first chapter, usually the character thinking to themselves or as narration. I prefer the backstory to be shared in conversation or brief bursts when necessary.
For example, rather than a woman thinking about her life leading up to driving into a strange town looking for a job, she could arrive, be stopped by a police car and explain to the officer that her brake-light was working fine that morning, but she’s driven a long way – insert relevant details. She sits for an interview with the school principal or whoever, and covers more relevant details.
I also like the backstory in alternating timelines, this can build up a large amount of contrast and interest.

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