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I am drafting a novel outline. The interesting part (and thus the part I should be writing) would come with several characters with preexisting romantic relationships. The choices they make will have a massive impact on those relationships, especially after the final reveal.

The emotional tone of the entire story rests on the strength of these pre-existing connections which I want the reader to become invested in too.

How can I make those existing relationships matter to the reader so that they feel the punch of the ending but without writing a whole bunch of prologue chapters?

I've toyed with using flashbacks (a lot of flashbacks) but this too just feels like an emotional "info dump" and could spoil the pace of the main conflict.

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    This isn't worth a whole answer, but I've read a lot of flashbacks that put the brakes on the story. Keep things going. – Ken Mohnkern Apr 19 '17 at 17:33
  • It occurs to me that I could open each chapter with a short flashback that in some way ties directly into the events of the chapter and casts new light on previous events. That way I get to tell both stories while keeping the politics and current situation boiling away. – Matthew Brown aka Lord Matt May 17 '17 at 21:38
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Think of some of your own relationships—in the following example I’ll refer to a girlfriend, but it could apply to any close relationship.

Remember how you met and first became friends. You didn’t tell each other everything right from the get-go… You established that relationship based on certain qualities that you liked about each other. And as the relationship progressed perhaps you discovered a few other things you didn’t like quite as much. But you accepted them as part of who this person was—a direct consequence of her backstory.

Yet through all of this, her backstory remained in the background. You learned to appreciate this person despite not knowing everything about her past. Rather than define your relationship, backstory gave it flavor. That is the critical distinction.

For the sake of argument, let’s say your girlfriend was repeatedly abused as a child. What if she revealed this to you on your very first date? Without passing judgment on anybody for the way they respond in such situations, reactions here vary wildly from one individual to the next: they may range from a surge of compassion to mild indifference to, “I’m running the hell away from this person.” That’s just how it is.

To continue on this trajectory, let’s imagine you stuck around after she revealed her heavy backstory. She doesn’t know if it’s because you’re naturally compassionate or if, like Tyrion Lannister, you “have a tender spot in your heart for cripples and bastards and broken things.” You have your own backstory that shapes the way you respond to events in your life. But she doesn’t know that. The end result? She’ll be surprised that finally someone sympathized with her; certainly she’ll be intrigued, and she’ll want to learn your backstory at some point.

And so it goes for fictional characters.

Backstory falls in the “nice to know, but not crucial to developing this relationship” category. No matter how you slice it, by revealing backstory at the wrong time, you are gambling with your audience’s reaction, for the sake of something that shouldn’t be all that important to know in the first place.

(If you think it is crucial, you might have started your story too late… or, more likely, your relationship is missing that spark that would make it work without requiring an info dump.)

More importantly, dangling the carrot of backstory can be a powerful hook to keep your readers turning the page.

Now fast-forward three months, six months, a year. You really love this woman. Her quirks (and yours!) have helped shape this relationship. She finally decides to open up about her very painful past. Is it conceivable that your reaction includes mild indifference or, “I’m getting the hell out of this relationship”? I suppose it is, although that is highly unlikely.

Let’s take it one step further and imagine that she tells you all this in response to some hardship you’re going through as a result of your own backstory. More than likely, you have just formed an extremely powerful bond that will be nearly impossible to break.

Bottom line:

Establish a powerful emotional connection between the character and their audience first (this includes your readers!). Make your character’s audience relate to that character.

Only then will your character’s backstory matter. Do not gamble with your audience’s reaction. Deliver the gut-punch when you know for certain it will make them cry. No sooner, and no later.

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There are many ways of approaching this. First, and foremost, bear in mind: there's usually very few truly "bad ideas," only poor executions of ideas.

The past is never gone - it's all around you. A way in which one might approach this is to (I hate this saying, but I'll use it since it fits this context) show, not tell. Character A might behave in what may seem a toxic way toward Character B, but Character B is now in a relationship with Character C. Character C tells Character B to forget about Character A, because Character A was a good-for-nothing tool. Cut to Character A, who is constantly drunk and tries to not cry him or herself to sleep each night.

Notice that I haven't actually told you that Character B cheated on Character A, and Character A is depressed because of that - I have (as much as it is possible using names like "Character A, B, C" anyhow) revealed the state of their relationships, which are a result of their relationships in the past.

I should also mention that there is a fundamental difference between "flashback" and "info-dump". A flashback should actually have a significant emotional impact upon the reader - it should either establish something that leads to dramatic irony (i.e. the reader knows something that the characters don't) later, or is the pay-off - the so-called reveal - to a build-up that happened prior to the flashback. Wander too far away from that template, and you've probably just got an info dump.

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I suspect you may be miscalculating where your story begins. A story arc whose climax has a massive impact on a relationship generally begins with the beginning of that relationship, with all the things that shaped and defined that relationship, with all the things that make it vulnerable to the crisis, and all the things that make it worthy of surviving the crisis.

The interesting part, as you call it, may be the part where all the fireworks happen, but a change in a relationship is only interesting if the relationship itself is interesting. There are plenty of books in which relationships develop slowly, through the ordinary interactions of ordinary couples, without fireworks, storms, or floods. Such writing requires sensitive observation of human beings, their hope and affections, their pride and their prejudices. But it is very much the stuff of novels.

The reason that people used to "skip to the good bits" in Lady Chatterly's Lover, and that no one reads it at all today, is that the rest of it is just lousy writing. Laurence was a great novelist, but not in this book. Maybe Laurence himself was too keen to get to writing "the good bits" and did not give the rest of the book the attention and imagination it required.

So the answer may be as simple as that you must begin at the beginning, and that you must do the work of imagination, and of storytelling, to make the development of those relationships compelling as you lead up to the crisis of your story.

There is also a technique that you see use occasionally, when a story has many miles to cover to get to its climax, and that is the flash forward. In the flashforward, you begin by telling the crisis, briefly, and then go back to the natural beginning of the story and relate it up to the crisis point, and then proceed to the resolution.

The flash forward is not use that often, and I think that is for a good reason. The crisis is not particularly compelling unless you are invested in the characters. Certain kinds of engagement can be created very quickly, so you certainly can develop the required engagement to make the crisis interesting in itself, but the interest alone is not likely to sustain the reader through all the narration that follows if that narration is not compelling in itself. And if it is, why bother with the flash forward at all?

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    The flash forward is not use that often, and I think that is for a good reason I would add a small caveat to that: I see this structure used quite a lot in short fiction. In short fiction, the 'open on the climax – tell the backstory – return to the climax' structure can work effectively because the reader only has to spend a relatively short time reading the backstory and waiting for the conclusion. I agree that it could be tricky to pull off in a long novel, unless the writer is extremely experienced and skilled at structure and holding the reader's attention. – manyaceist Apr 20 '17 at 12:17
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    @manyaceist, I don't read enough short fiction to know if that is true, but it makes sense. The short story has to rely on the techniques that create quick engagement, since it does not have space for more patient approaches, so the engagement created by the flash forward does not have to be sustained across 300 pages to reach the payoff. – user16226 Apr 20 '17 at 12:53
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    Indeed, that's a very good description of why it works well in shorter formats. – manyaceist Apr 20 '17 at 17:02

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