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Friday, September 14, 2007


Every character has a backstory, right? Whether they are 6 years old or 67, they have had a life that preceded page 1 of your script. When I work with my writing partner, I refer to anything before page 1 as "page negative 10". You know - like algebra. What happened two weeks before the story started in my world would be page negative 10. What happened a couple of years before the story might be page negative 100. I won't belabor that point; it's just my weird way of articulating not only backstory but specific events in the backstory.

For newer writers especially - and I remember this frustration so keenly though it was years ago - it's confusing to add backstory to the current story. They think they need to show a whole flashback to let us know that in the past, say, the guy had an affair. Or that in the past, the character's brother drowned.

To flashback or not to flashback is an oft-argued point. Most would argue against using it unless what you're going to show is completely and totally pivotal to the story. In ORDINARY PEOPLE we do finally see a truncated flashback of Hutton's brother dying. It was the emotional crux of the entire movie.

But say you don't have one big event you're trying to decide how to present, say it's just regular backstory - a painful divorce, a humiliating experience as a teenager, something that happened that will come up in the present story. Sometimes writers just fill us in using exposition:

Dorothy: The gym is on fire and somebody has got to save those cheerleaders!

Gregory: But it brings back painful and humiliating memories. What should I do? I'm the main character in my big, climactic scene - the end of my character arc for chrissakes - but I can't decide what to do because I have a painful memory in my backstory!

Rather - you can infer information and dole it out slowly, over time. Let us get to know the character. If they have a fear of something or hatred of it because of what happened in the past, it's much more entertaining for audiences to put the puzzle pieces together than just be told what happened. Not to mention that it is more organic to do it this way. Most of us don't just say in plain English what's going on with us.

Dorothy: Gregory - the gym's on fire! You've got to save the cheerleaders!

Gregory: I - I can't!

Think of the complex social cues that we all learn and observe daily. You don't know everything about someone you're getting to know - and you may never. We all have secrets.

So when you're writing your script and you are concerned about how to weave backstory into the present story do just that - weave it in. Infer things. Allude to things. Be cautious before just plain spelling anything out. Remember - just effing entertain the audience. Being spoonfed is not entertaining. Movies, on a certain level, are interactive. The audience is making inferrences by what you emphasize - or leave out.

Backstory is very important in writing organic characters. How you weave it in to the story is too.

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