Back Story

Last month the Book Length Project Group interrogated our relationship with prologues and flashbacks. How do we really feel about them? Why do they cause us so much grief? Why do we talk about them All The Time?

(Image credit: Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire)

What is back story?

Prologues and flashbacks are two tools for capturing back story. Back story is simply the historical or background context for a character or situation. It’s what happened before the start of your book.

Why is back story important?

Back story is all about why. It makes sense of the present by explaining the past. It gives clues to a character’s motivation, attitudes, and beliefs and might include family history or formational events. Scenes set before the start of your story can be powerful show-don’t-tell devices to predict how your protagonist might overcome an obstacle or achieve their goal.

Back story can also provide depth and realism to a setting, helping to create worlds that have a past, explaining or foreshadowing events in the present.

So why the obsession with prologues and flashbacks?

Well, we don’t really know. We chose to be solution focussed instead.


Prologues can be a few things:

  • a summary of what is coming
  • a character looking back , trying to make sense of what happened
  • something that happens before the story starts
  • something that happens after the story ends
  • something that happens right in the middle.

We felt it didn’t matter what happens in a prologue so much as what it does, which is to reveal vital plot information that the reader must know before the story starts. We were agnostic about whether a prologue must be called a Prologue or a Chapter One, but thought that if a prologue doesn’t do anything – if it doesn’t have a purpose – it probably doesn’t need to be there.


Flashbacks are not just an account of a character’s memories. Think of them as actual scenes in your story. The pensieve in the Harry Potter series is a good example of a flashback scene created when Dumbledore gives Harry access to his memories, rather than telling him his memories himself (good showing-not-telling there, Dumbledore).

Like prologues, we weren’t so concerned with what flashbacks are called as much as what they do. Flashbacks can:

  • reveal key information relevant to the story
  • give a significant insight into a character
  • create an emotional reaction in the reader
  • add a new and intriguing dimension to the story.

And if a flashback doesn’t have a clear purpose, we thought it probably doesn’t need to be there.

What’s my takeaway?

  1. Don’t get too hung up on whether you call something a flashback or a memory or a prologue or a chapter one.
  2. Do know what purpose it serves in your story.

The Book Length Project Group meets on the third Sunday of every month at Mattie Furphy House in Swanbourne. All FAWWA members and friends are welcome. If you would like to join us, please go to The Fellowship of Australian Writers WA (

Published by karenwhittleherbert


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