Backstory, Flashback, Memory Moment: The Difference

Rachel Hauck

In order to give our characters depth and widen our stories, we layer in backstory, flashback and memory moments.

Flashbacks and Backstory are familiar terms to most novelists.

Memory moments is my term to break out from backstory and flashback as ways to bring in “the past” of a character.

I also use the term Character History. But I’ve blogged about that already and it’s not exactly where I’m going with this post.

This post is the difference between backstory, flashback, and memory moment.

Backstory is back story. Another story. Something from the character’s “past.”

The rule in novel writing is no back story for the first 30 – 50 pages. Meaning, no wandering backwards in the character’s story line while we’re meeting them and discovering the initial conflict.

But we never really need a break from the current action to go backwards in the story.

What we need is enough of their story from the past that show’s motivation. I call this character history.

Backstory should only be delivered in small prose sentences or in dialog. The preferred way is dialog.

What does backstory do? What’s the purpose? To deepen emotion. To show motivation. To let the reader get inside the heart and mind of the character.

Backstory adds shades and textures.

If you find you’re writing more than two to four sentences of backstory, you’re going down a dark place. 🙂

You’re leading the reader into another story!

So maybe what you’re trying is a flashback. You want to tell another story, another part of your character’s life.

Flashbacks go back in time. They tell another story.

They must support the main plot.

The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood uses flashbacks to tell the beginning of the sisterhood and the childhood of the protagonists.

I used flashbacks to tell the youth and teenage hood of Jade Fitzgerald Benson in the Songbird Novels.

These flashbacks are a sub plot. They triggered off of something happening in the current life of the heroine, Jade, that caused a memory.

I clearly entered the flashbacks. I clearly exited those scenes. I didn’t meander into them.

So if you are using flashbacks to tell your story, make sure it ties into the main story but has it’s own arc.

Memory moments are the most common thing we use to generate connection and emotion with the character.

These are moment in prose or dialog (always the preferred method) of revealing the heart and memories of the characters.

It’s a great way to build connection between hero and heroine.

Where they have a tender moment reminiscing, having a vulnerable moment, where they share their hearts, a treasured memory.

This causes them to deepen their feelings and connection, thus their romance.

So how do you choose what you need for your novel?

Backstory? Sparingly and spread evenly through the middle of the book. Act 2. Backstory is largely for you, the author, to know how to steer and guide current, onstage motivation.

Backstory is the story that the protagonist is dealing with in your story. It’s WHY you’re telling this story. Use dialog as often as possible to delver back story.

Flashbacks is another story from another time. Do you have a sub plot from the character’s past that needs telling? Does it enhance the story? Use scenes, setting, dialog, goals to set flashbacks.

Memory Moments are you best option. Sharing the past, special moments, dark wounds or secrets with other characters. Use dialog and metaphor to show these moments.

Think about what you’re doing. All of these are effective. But use what’s best for you story!

RachelCloseUPBest-selling, award-winning author Rachel Hauck loves a great story. She excels in seeing the deeper layers of a story.

With a love for teaching and mentoring, Rachel comes alongside writers to help them craft their novel. A worship leader, board member of ACFW and popular writing teacher, Rachel is the author of over 17 novels. She lives in Florida with her husband and  dog.

Contact her at: Pre order her next release, Princess Ever After, book two in the Royal Wedding Series.

Do you need help with your story idea, synopsis or proposal?How about some one-on-one craft coaching. Check out our menu of services designed to help you advance your writing dreams.

Finding Balance in Writing & Life: Lessons in Waiting

Over the weekend I celebrated a friend’s birthday by attending a pottery painting party at a local studio with our circle of friends.

We had two hours to choose a piece of greenware—clay that has been shaped, but not fired yet—and paint it any way we desired.

We laughed, ate the most fabulous cupcakes and celebrated our friend while we added colorful designs to our pieces. I chose to paint a tall mug for tea. I painted the base an aqua color, then added fun polka dots in several different colors. I really liked the way it turned out once I stopped stressing about how to paint it.

Once our pottery party came to an end, we cleaned up and left our pieces behind so they could be glazed, then fired in the kiln. That step is essential to strengthen the fragile clay into ceramic, which allows it to be used for the designed purpose. Without the heat and firing, the clay would fall apart.

As we left and went to lunch to continue the birthday celebration, we talked about how our painted designs would turn out. The one phrase I heard over and over was, “I can’t wait…”

Waiting a week for a mug to be fired isn’t that big of a deal. But there are times when we wallow in seasons of waiting that seem to linger forever. We can become easily frustrated, weary and discouraged, especially if you’ve been yearning for something for so long.

Believe it or not, though, but there is joy in the waiting. Unfortunately many of us can’t see it while we’re going through that season, but hindsight shows us the blessings.

Here are a few lessons we can learn from waiting:

  • Keep your eye on the prize, not on how slow you think things are going.
  • Realize waiting is all part of it. Just like the greenware needs to be fired to become stronger, waiting tempers us to grow stronger in our faith.
  • Enjoy the season. There will be a day when things will be moving too fast for you to enjoy the greenware stage.
  • Remember—it’s all good. Waiting shapes our faith, strengthens our patience and refines our humility. We need to trust in the One who has a plan and a purpose for all of us.

Extreme Book Makeover: Your story simply isn’t compelling.

We’re learning how to overhaul our stories this year, and we’re going to start with one of the biggest criticisms authors hear:  Your story simply isn’t compelling. In order to overhaul a weak story, you have to start by standing on the outside of our book and asking the big question: WHY.

Why will someone care about our story?

A story usually starts with a story seed, something that has niggled at the author’s attention and made them ask, what if? From there, an author begins to build the story, adding in characters and plot. Sometimes, authors simply dive into the story from there, writing their way through it. Others step back and plot it out, seeing the big picture, and then diving in.

Regardless of your method, however, an author must consider the reasons someone might pick up your story before writing, or rewriting your book. This big WHY will comprise the backbone of your pitch, and keep your story on track as you write it.

The WHY of your story is answered in the STAKES of your story. And here’s the key – they are external stakes. Often, an author wants to pitch the internal stakes of the story – will she find true love? Will she learn to forgive? Will she overcome her fear? Of course she will – that’s the point of the story. And this question is posed in the Story Question/Theme of the book (which we’ll get to in an upcoming blog). The Stakes of the story are the external risks of the hero’s journey. What will happen if your character doesn’t complete his goal? 

How do you find stakes? First, let’s take a look at the three types of stakes:

Public Stakes: These are the things that we as a society care about. Right now, we have a cold blast threading through the country. Ever seen The Day After Tomorrow? It’s a movie about the threat of another ice age sweeping the planet. Epic movies are often built around Public Stakes – the threat of war, terrorists attacks, contagious diseases, financial meltdown, a zombie invasion! Ask yourself: What do you worry about when you leave the house? If you fear it, so does your neighbor. This is the foundation for public stakes.

But Public Stakes only work in tandem with Personal Stakes.

Personal Stakes are those elements inside the Public Stakes that touches our heart. In The Day After Tomorrow, as the planet ices over, the story centers around one man’s efforts to reach his son, trapped in frozen New York City. It’s Jack and Rose’s story as the Titanic sinks, and the entire premise of Saving Private Ryan. We only care about epic events as they relate to the ones we love. Remember Dante’s Peak? Everyone would have been fine if Granny hadn’t decided to stay on the mountain. Or Outbreak (an old Dustin Hoffman/Renee Russo movie about the Ebola virus) – we started caring about people dying when the heroine got infected.

So, threaten the kids, hold someone hostage, give someone a fatal disease, trap them in the burning building, crash their plane – whatever it takes to add in the personal stakes. (and if you really want to make it compelling – add in a deadline, or a “ticking bomb.”)

Ask: What do I care about?  Then..How can I make that personal? 

But what if your story isn’t about the cataclysmic ending of the world?

No problem – you need Private Stakes, or the assault of two worthy values pushing against one another. All great stories have that moment when the hero/heroine must choose between saving the girl and saving the world. This is a simplified version of private stakes.

We grapple with Private Stakes every day. Do you go to work or attend your child’s play? Do you visit your mother in the nursing home, or attend women’s bible study? Do you workout or call your mother? Reiterating my previous statement about the external stakes, although these elements touch the heart, they are still external choices the hero/heroine have to make.  

When we put private stakes into a story, they create a powerful, compelling premise. One of my favorite uses of Private Stakes was a Deb Raney novel, Beneath a Southern Sky.

The heroine, a missionary wife, loses her husband in the jungle, and has to move home and put her world back together. Worse, she’s pregnant. Three years later, she’s put her life back together and met a wonderful man, who’s become like a father to her child. They marry…and suddenly her missing husband is found.

Now what? Does she chose her first husband, or does she stay with the man who’s helped her heal, the only man who has been a daddy to her daughter?

The story is built around this impossible choice, and is a fantastic example of Private Stakes driving a story.

I built my recent book,  You Don’t Know Me (Deep Haven) around Private Stakes. It’s about a woman who has been living in the witness protection program for the past 25 years and hasn’t told anyone – including her family. When her past comes back to stalk her, she has to choose between leaving her family (and thereby saving them), or telling the truth and losing everything she’s built.

In Take a Chance on Me (Christiansen Family) the heroine has to choose between saving her job or saving her fledging relationship with the hero.

Ask: What values does my hero/heroine hold and how can you pit them against each other? Or, what difficult choice (with two equally great options) does your character have to make?

As you start to makeover your story, begin by asking: What kind of stakes do I have in my story? Or, look at it like a reader: Why would you pick up this book and read it? What makes you care about this story?

If you don’t have an answer, then it’s time to roll up your sleeves and apply some stakes.

(here’s another trick:  Try writing the Back Cover Blurb for your story.  Remember to focus on the external plot.  You’ll quickly discover if you have story stakes!)

Extreme Book Makeover Challenge #1: To determine if your story has stakes, finish this sentence: My story is about what happens when…


(the world is about to freeze over and a man races against time to save his son from an icy death.)

(a volcano erupts and the mayor must fight to save her town – and her family.)


(a woman has to choose between saving her family or telling them the truth about her past.)

(a woman has to choose between the husband she thought she lost, and the man who helped heal her heart.)

Next week we’ll talk about the difference between a High Concept and Low Concept story (and how to make both publishable!)

(Want more in-depth explanation? – check out this class on creating story stakes in the MBT Store!)

Go! Write something brilliant!

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Question:  What Stakes are you YOUR story?  



Ten Things I Learned On My Writers Retreat

Rachel Hauck

I had to escape. Get away.

For some reason my WIP just wasn’t coming together. And I am four weeks from deadline.

I had to start over… again.

Now I have a great office at home but between the internet, my husband and dog, and just all those little homey interruptions, I decided to break away.

I rented a room up at Teen Missions in Merritt Island.

I packed up, drove 40 minutes up the road and spent three days writing like crazy!

Here’s a few things I learned for making the most of your personal writing retreat.

1. Go some place near by. Traveling is emotional and physically draining. The closer your retreat to your home, the better. Make the retreat short rather than long. I left on a Tuesday morning and was plenty ready to return home by Friday noon.

2. Pick a place that’s nice but not luxurious with a lot of amenities. You don’t need distractions like a beach or pool.

3. Take a few comforts from home. I always travel (even when flying) with my Ohio State blanket and if possible, my Brutus Buckeye pillow pet.

4. Pack a lunch. In other words, have food on hand so you don’t have to be running out for dinner breaks. The idea is to stay locked away writing. Don’t eat a lot of heavy food because it will make you tired or feel fat and you won’t like “sitting there” writing. I tried for a balance of chocolate, protein and fruit. Of course water and Diet Coke.

5. No internet. No internet. No internet. Not even the chance of logging on. It’s just too tempting, when the writing is hard, to scan email or Facebook, look up recipes, etc. However, it is key to keep in touch and have some connection to your normal world, so your cell phone is a great tool. For me, it helped to be able to call a writer buddy for help and encouragement. And to keep in touch with my dear hubby.

6. No TV. No DVDs. Entertainment is amusement. Meaning, it’s anti musing. You need to be musing. TV and movies redirect our emotion and affection. The retreat is to target your affections toward your book. So NO movies. NO DVDs. However, this is where the cell phone comes in handy! I watched a Frasier episode on my iPhone before falling asleep at night. But the connection wasn’t great so there was little temptation for a marathon.

7. Keep from going stir crazy, go out at least once a day. Exercise is also key. I would walk around the grounds. One evening I ran sprints up and down the sidewalk outside my room.

8. Let people know you’re going to be gone so you don’t feel pressure to answer emails, etc right away.

9. Plan on having a writer buddy on the alert in case you need to call for help or encouragement.

10. Set a goal. How much do you need to accomplish on this retreat. You’ll get tired and stir crazy, frustrated and weary, but keep that goal in mind. Push through.

RachelCloseUPBest-selling, award-winning author Rachel Hauck loves a great story. She excels in seeing the deeper layers of a story.

With a love for teaching and mentoring, Rachel comes alongside writers to help them craft their novel. A worship leader, board member of ACFW and popular writing teacher, Rachel is the author of over 17 novels. She lives in Florida with her husband and  dog.

Contact her at: Pre order her next release, Princess Ever After, book two in the Royal Wedding Series.

Do you need help with your story idea, synopsis or proposal?How about some one-on-one craft coaching. Check out our menu of services designed to help you advance your writing dreams.