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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Importance of Backstory

Good writers know that they must get the story moving as soon as possible at the top of the script. Jump into scenes late, make every scene count and only write those details that are illustrative and evocative of your character's - well, character.

We don't need to watch our character pour his or her coffee, take a shower and choose clothes for the day because this is a movie, with Movie Time and Movie Reality. We don't show the blow-by-blow or the minutia. Unless it matters or is adding up to something.

But what many writers conveniently forget is that when we meet your main character on page one, he or she has lived an entire lifetime before that moment. Let me repeat that: your main character has lived an entire lifetime before we meet them on page one.

All sorts of factors have shaped your character long before we meet them. Whether we see any of these factors or not. Your character has a backstory, in other words. And it made them who they are on page one - flawed, quirky - specific.

Coming up with backstory can seem like a superfluous detail, especially the kind of backstory I'm talking about. I have mentioned before needing to have a page negative ten for your character. By that I mean what was going on in your character's life two weeks or three months before this story begins - did they get fired, married, divorced, hit by a car, win the lottery, move into a new town, buy a new car - what was going on JUST BEFORE your story begins. The relatively recent past.

But today I'm talking about a deeper type of backstory. Those formative life events, situations and choices which slowly shaped your character. This is writing and character creation on a deep level - some of this stuff won't be necessarily obvious on the page at all, but it's stuff that you need to know about every significant character in your script.

Now, we know that in real life, we judge people by their appearances and the details of their lives all the time. Wow, can't believe he drives a Hummer. What an arrogant, insecure jerk, right? She goes to therapy three times a week - ruh oh. She has a huge amount of credit card debt - what an irresponsible person! And so on. You meet people, maybe as a new friend, maybe as a love interest, and these details about them add up and paint a picture - rightly or wrongly. You've heard the expression to have your house in order, meaning to take care of your Body, Mind and Spirit. Does your main character have his or her house in order? Hopefully not on page one, right?

Imagine you are getting to know someone over a glass of wine. A person you are thinking of dating. Wouldn't you like to know this stuff? It could prevent a lot of problems down the line, right? I think we've all gotten to know a great person only to find out later they've had a DUI, have three dollars in savings, tons of credit card debt and got fired from his last three jobs under mysterious circumstances. Oh - maybe that was just my experience. You know who you are. Kidding! I'm kidding!

Rightly or wrongly, in real life, the details of a person's past and present allow us to create a composite judgment. In the movies, these details matter too. Because they shape our main characters into somebody whole, organic, flawed and interesting.

So here are some questions about your character, divided into formative and house-in-order categories:

Does your character have siblings? How many? What is his or her birth order?
Where did he or she grow up?
Are his or her parents still living?
Does your character have an education? How much?
Is or was your character spiritual or religious? If so, of what nature?
Who was he or she in high school? Nerd? Jock? Shy kid? Prom queen?
Did he or she have money growing up or did the family struggle?

House in Order
What does your character drive? Why?
Does he or she have a savings account? How much is in it?
Has he or she every done anything illegal? What? When and why?
Does your character drink? How often? How much? Why?
Does your character eat well and exercise? Why? Why not?
Does he or she have a close relationship with family? Or estranged? Why?

These are just some starter questions but clearly, there are millions of questions you can ask and answer about your main character. Ask yourself, if you could be totally nosy and ask anyone anything you wanted, what would you ask your boss? Your lover? Your new friend? If a potential new lover revealed that he had twenty eight dollars in savings, does that then turn you off to him? Is there more to that story or is he just irresponsible? Ah but that's where being a writer comes in. Maybe he has no savings because he paid for his brother's kidney transplant surgery. Or maybe he has no savings because he has a gambling problem. Big difference. Which is it?

The answers to these questions, just like in real life, color the way your character makes decisions and choices in the now. And it is those decisions and choices - conscious and subconscious - that fuel the story you are about to tell. So please do take the time to get to know your characters, past and present. These details may not show up on your pages but like invisible ink, they are there, underscoring every choice and opinion your character has about the situation you are creating to entertain us.

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Joe Public said...

I don't know exactly how Roberto Benigni and Vincenzo Cerami came up with the idea for turning the Nazi death camp into a game in "Life Is Beautiful", but one would be inclined to think, maybe, turning a hard task into a game is how the Benigni character's father shepherded him through difficult tasks.

Or maybe the game playing is just how he coped as a kid.

Either way, what a great idea to plug into a story.

Luzid said...

I think the important point to remember regarding backstory is that, just like the opening of a movie, we don't need to know (as writers or audience) the trivial details of a character's life prior to this story. I've seen some scripts do this, and it's boring.

What someone ate for breakfast the day before page one isn't important... unless, say, it was poisoned.

Anonymous said...


Both you and Unknownscreenwriter are fans of this topic.

Wise minds think alike.

Happy Holidays.