There’s a huge disconnect between what “really” happened and the recollection of it. Unless only one person is involved, interpretations will vary. Then there’s the human tendency to intensify: everything gets bigger, smaller, worse, funnier, more dangerous, or better. Memories explain motivation, reveal character, and reflect reality. That could be a goldmine for novelists—or not.
Tip: The best backstory is brief and illuminates the conflict at hand.
But memories can be torturously untidy. In the real world people often daydream during other people’s anecdotes. That’s annoying. In a novel? It’s deadly.
So how can memories enrich your novel rather than weaken it? If you know an enormous amount about the protagonist’s (or antagonist’s) memories, you can deliver the one tiny detail that enriches the present—rather than hanging out in the past where your readers don’t want to be.
This resembles Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory. He suggested that ninety percent of what the writer knows about the character should lie beneath the surface—out of sight, but supporting the ten percent that readers see.
His theory neatly describes how you might flesh out backstory to supply the ten percent readers want. These questions might help you build your iceberg.
- What triggers the memories? A physical object? A scent? A threat?
- Do the memories change if they arrive during the day or at night?
- How does your character respond physiologically to different memories?
- Does one memory lead to an even more intriguing different one?
- Are the memories in color, or black and white?
- Do the memories involve all five senses? Could they?
- Does the memory help or hinder in the present moment?
- Does the misinterpretation of a memory make trouble for the character?
- Do the memories involve constellations like honor, betrayal, patriotism, idealism?
Flashbacks can defeat momentum for the same reason too much rumination or description can: no momentum. But memory exerts enormous pressure on human behavior. Used judiciously, that makes novels deeper, funnier, more resonant and dramatic.
What do you remember? Use it.