One of the toughest things for me to learn as a writer was how to deal with backstory. When I first started writing I would blindly dump it into my characters’ dialogue. Here’s an actual example from one of my early masterpieces, “Stuart crushed my heart when he broke up with me at Prom. Now I can never love again…”
Check out this photo above. Who do you think that is, second from the far right, hanging out in Sweden in the 70’s with his family?
Yep. Osama Bin Laden.
What the hell, you say? The man who killed all those people, the most wanted man in the world, rocked a lime green sweater and blue bell-bottoms when he was a teenager? What if I told you his dad was a billionaire? Suddenly, your limited understanding of this man cracks open. Clearly, there’s more to him than meets the eye. Suddenly, he’s something beyond just a terrorist—he’s an interesting character.
Backstory is the history or background you create for your characters. It’s what happened to them before the story begins, and is important (for narrative reasons) to reveal to the reader/viewer.
Here are some tips on how to create and unspool backstory in your book or screenplay.
1. Do lots of prep to create interesting histories for your characters. Write biographies for each of them. What do they love? What do they hate? What do they want? What are they afraid of? Why? If you’re writing about a couple who is getting divorced, you need to write the scene where they fell in love, so you know what’s being lost. If you’re writing about a woman who lost her child, then you need to write the scene where that precious child was born. In other words, you have to know all the details about the major events in your characters lives. You have to do this prep work so that when you write your pages, this knowledge will inform your writing and make the characters come alive. Not all of these details will be revealed, but they will help you understand the character.
2. Try to reveal backstory through action in the here and now. If your hero is afraid of love, then let’s see him back away from a beautiful woman at a bar. We’ll know he’s afraid, but we won’t know why. That’s awesome, because it creates a dramatic question in our mind that we want answered. “Dang,” we say to ourselves, “Why did he run away from that attractive woman?” Suddenly, we’re engaged in the narrative. Don’t spell backstory out. Create mystery around it.
3. Don’t release information about your character’s past all at once. Spoon it out slowly. Just having a person who’s unwilling to talk about something, creates conflict and pulls us in. Again, create questions.
4. Avoid Flashbacks. This is the clunkiest way to reveal a person’s history. Be careful with this technique. The only time you should use a flashback in this way is if the flashback to the past somehow moves the story forward in the here and now.
5. Distract us. If you need to do a larger “info dump,” (whether it’s related to backstory or exposition) do it while something really exciting is happening. For example, at the beginning of the film MINORITY REPORT, we have to understand what’s happening in a futuristic world where murders are predicted by “precognitives” and stopped by the police before they happen. While someone at police headquarters is giving Colin Farrell a tour to explain how the whole system works, we’re intercutting with Tom Cruise, trying to stop a murder. We get the info about how the system was set up, but we’re engaged in the current action of trying to stop the murder.
6. When you have to reveal what happened in the past through dialogue, make it short. In CHINATOWN, Robert Towne reveals the key to Jake Gittes’s past (and his character) in this one bit of dialogue when Evelyn Mulwray asks him why he’s so bothered about Chinatown. He says that in the past, “I thought I was keeping someone from being hurt, and actually I ended up making sure they were hurt.” Notice that we don’t get too many details, but just the heart of what happened? See how sparely Towne writes it?
Let’s say you’re writing a novel or movie about Osama in his later years as a terrorist. How could you weave in his trip to Sweden? You wouldn’t do it in a hackneyed way where his cousin says, “Hey Osama, remember when we went to Sweden in 1974 and you wore that green shirt?” No. But if he’s hiding in a dark compound, and his radio cuts out and suddenly an Abba song comes on, and for a moment, just a moment, he catches eyes with one of his wives and we get a smile and a youthful spark of remembrance between them, then yeah… We may not necessarily know exactly what happened, but we get a sense that he has a past that is very different from his present. And he feels suddenly three dimensional and real.
Take action! Have you created thorough and detailed backstories for your characters? Do you reveal the past slowly, through action in the here and now? Do you create questions, use the techniques of distraction and spareness?
One of the most satisfying parts of the process of writing for me is feeling my characters come to life. Much of this comes from figuring out the baggage they carry and how they must face it in the story and change.
For novelists and memoir writers, here’s a bonus– two diametrically opposed opinions on backstory in essays by Benjamin Percy and Eleanor Henderson. One is called Don’t Look Back: The Problem with Backstory, and the other, I Wasn’t Born Yesterday: The Beauty of Backstory.