Ruins (our odd label for the remains of past glory) preserve both culture and aesthetics. The characters in novels, too, retain remnants of who they were. No one can wander there, reverently touching stones, marveling at the engineering, artistry, and longevity. Yet the past controls actions and decision. Even if it remains unexcavated. Still.
Still—both enduring and motionless. And if you’re fortunate enough to discover a corner of an ancient amphitheatre where you can feel entirely alone, that’s enough to still your own heartbeat.
This happens in novels, too. History, either personal or otherwise, constrains the psyche and thus shapes plot. Pip’s boyish willingness to aid an escaped convict ultimately elicits the “great expectations” that will break his heart. To win his first love back, Gatsby slips on the first “gold hat” he finds: bootlegger. In Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, one torturous night of staring at his uneaten dinner shapes a future split between conning and being conned. As a powerful source of angst, the past is a powerful source of plot.
Even when the ruins of childhood or adolescence don’t engineer the inciting incident, the penitentiary of memory affects everyone. Why else would backstory and flashback attract like magnets? Writers instinctively promote the moments that shaped characters, that influence what they’ll face and how.
Tip: In fiction, the past is a terrific tool unless it overwhelms the present or future.
As Alain Resnais puts it, “The present and the past coexist, but the past shouldn’t be in flashback.” In other words, don’t give the past more “in-scene” air-time than it deserves. More on that from “How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them―A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide”:
For mysterious reasons, many authors consider it useful to provide a story about a forty-year-old man-about-town with a prologue drawn from his life as a five-year-old boy. ... There’s only one letter’s difference between “yarn” and “yawn,” and it is often a long letter, filled with childhood memories. ― Howard Mittelmark
How to use the past while exploiting momentum?
A few lines of backstory go a long way.
Rather than belaboring how the past controls the present, hint instead of declaiming, “And I knew right then what so terrified me—and why.”
~ Raise the immediate stakes.
The only justification for a character’s past is intensified present-time trouble. The past isn’t there for its own sake, but for the mystery and secrets of the present.
Use backstory to plot, rather than the other way around.
The past lives still. Which doesn’t mean you should let it upstage present-time conflict.