So, you know how it is…
You need to let the reader know that when your main character was ten, his father told him he was a coward, and this is what motivates his relentless quest to run with the bulls at Pamplona. OR, that twenty years ago, your female protagonist drank too much and accidentally killed her husband and young daughter in a car crash. And that’s why she’s on a crusade to bust drunk drivers– because she’s trying to punish herself.
Backstory (the stuff that happened to your characters before the book or movie begins) can be your best friend– deepening your characters, providing conflict, and lending insights. It can also be your worst enemy, sinking every scene.
Here are some delicious examples of backstory sinkholes…
“The time she got lost on a camping trip to Yosemite, and her parents didn’t find her for four hours, still haunted her.” Additional note: never use the word ‘haunted’ in conjunction with backstory.
Or this gem…
“She’s been a bitch ever since she lost the homecoming queen crown to Trindy Martin!” Do you feel the bald-facedness in revealing the backstory here?
I’m here to say there’s a way to artfully create histories that enrich your characters, and there is also a way to unspool these histories gently in your pages so they feel organic.
Here are some tips on how to create and reveal 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. When backstory is downloaded all in the same scene (affectionately called an ‘exposition dump’) it stops the tension and the story moving forward. Parse it out slowly. Just having a person who’s unwilling to talk about something, creates conflict and pulls us in. Again, create questions rather than spelling it all out.
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?
7. Remember that backstory is your friend. Would Darth Vader be the same without the fact that he was once Anakin Skywalker? Would Harry Potter be as interesting without his lightening bolt scar?
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.
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