Monthly Archives: April 2013

How to Write Backstory

Whispering

Backstory

In this follow-up post we look at a very important aspect of effective storytelling—backstory. The following question immediately comes to mind:

Q: When is it useful to include backstory in your screenplay or novel?

A: When information from the past is needed in order to make sense of the present and future.

Three Principles

1. In writing backstory consider the following: Is it absolutely needed?
2. Is it economically executed?
3. Does it blend in seamlessly with the rest of the text?

Necessary Information

Include only information that is absolutely necessary to your story.

In a chilling early scene in Inglorious Basterds, for example, we learn that the SS’s Colonel Hans Landa’s mission is to find missing Jews in the French countryside whom he suspects are being protected from by French Farmers.

Economically Executed

Always try to deliver backstory in the most economical way.

In the same film, some of the backstory is revealed through Landa’s sinister, if well-mannered, speculation, interlaced with subtle threats to the dairy farmer’s family, that he suspects Perrier LaPadite of hiding a Jewish family under the floorboards of his farm house. The dialogue, therefore, does double duty: 1. It reveals the reason Landa is interrogating LaPadite—he is aware of the French dairy farmer’s sympathies for his one-time Jewish neighbours. 2. It increases our suspense because the backstory becomes an indispensable part of the interrogation with an immediate threat to the farmer and his family.

Seamless Blending

Backstory blends seamlessly into the tale when it surreptitiously manages to drive the plot forward—as in the above example—rather than halting it In order to reveal background information. Because it becomes part of the forward thrust, there is no interruption to the story’s relentless march towards the climax. Interest and tension is actively maintained.

Summary

Backstory works best when it helps, rather than impedes, the forward-thrust of the plot. The three principles mentioned above provide a useful checklist in this regard.

How to Manage Your Story’s Characters

Card with writing

Remembering Traits

Much has been written about how to craft successful characters for your stories, including advice offered by this blog.

In writing one’s story, however, one may wrongly allow the plot to force a character’s actions, making it appear trite or contrived.

Here’s something I do to help me keep my story’s characters on track.

Constant Reminders

1. I keep each character’s essential characteristics foremost in mind by listing them on separate post-it cards or paper. I keep these in front of me throughout the writing process.

2. Here’s what I note down: 4 or 5 positive traits and 1 negative or contrasting trait for a “good” character, and 4 or 5 negative traits and 1 positive or contrasting trait for a “bad” character.

Now, when a character acts, or speaks, I can peruse the list and see if any of these traits are overtly, or covertly expressed through subtext.

3. The character’s want versus his or her need.

Here, I look for opportunities to illustrate the differences between these two crucial drivers of character.

4. The character’s changing moral values (if any) at each major junction point—the inciting incident, the first turning point, the midpoint, the second turning point, the resolution.

This allows me to hold the character’s developmental arc firmly in hand.

And that’s about it. Of course, there is much more to crafting authentic and engaging characters, but this list ensures that we, at least, get the basics right.

As to the rest, well, I’m a firm believer in the muse.

Summary

Keeping a list of essential character traits on hand at all times is a good way of ensuring that your characters never lose their path as they follow their way though your story’s plot.

Invitation

If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.