Tag Archives: Backstory

How to Make the Backstory Relevant to Plot and Character

The backstory is essential to plot and character in The Nostalgia of Time Travel

The backstory is essential to plot and character in The Nostalgia of Time Travel

I remember reading somewhere that in order to write a great character you first have to know that character’s backstory in great detail.

Only then, it was suggested, would you be in a position to know how the character ought to respond to certain situations. Only then can you think about developing the plot.

My gosh, how daunting. It’s like asking me to plow a large field with a spade. If I took that advice I’d never finish any story.

 

“The point is that the backstory is important only insofar as it sheds light on a character’s responses to the challenges posed by the plot.”

But how could we possibly know that in advance?

Yes, it might be interesting to note that your hero smokes cigarillos on his birthday if that quirk will enrich his character, but do I really need to know that he wore red scarves as a child if that observation might be of no significance to the story?

It shouldn’t be that complicated, folks.

Drilling Down to the Essentials of the Backstory

So, where does one begin looking for significant events in the backstory, especially when the story is not fully determined yet?

Let me tell you what works for me.

Because I sit halfway between being a pantser and a plotter, I begin with a sense of what my protagonist needs to achieve in the story—his goal.

Nothing too specific yet. Perhaps he needs to defeat an adversary from his past. Perhaps he needs to arrive at a certain destination at a specific time. I know he will encounter external obstacles in trying to do so, but I do not need to know exactly what they are yet.

I also know that I need to challenge his ability to achieve his goal by complicating his decision making process through a dilemma, or some inner flaw.

These clues come from thinking about the plot and character simultaneously, and in general terms—nothing too specific, at this time.

Let’s say my protagonist suffers from agoraphobia or is recovering from an addiction to alcohol or drugs.

This immediately forces me to think about what incident in the past might have given rise to this condition. Such an incident is truly worthy of being part of the backstory.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, my protagonist’s addiction to smoking directly affects the plot of the story. Indeed, his desire to have one last pack of cigarettes before boarding the Sidney ferry with his wife is the chief cause of his predicament.

This realisation led me to sketch in some background regarding his smoking.

Thinking about your character’s goal and relating it to his positive and negative traits, then, encourages you to come up with that part of the backstory that sheds light on why your character might have those traits in the first place.

Think of this approach as a goal-trait-backstory triad of techniques that helps grow the story in a more integrated and economical way.

Summary

Find the story goal. Relate it to your protagonist’s flaws and traits. Come up with the backstory that explains them.

Backstories Revisited

Whispering

Backstory Revisited

One of the potential problems of exposition/backstory in a novel or movie is that it may slow the action down to a crawl, show its hand, and ultimately bore us. Yet, supplying information that is essential to the plot’s progression is unavoidable. A novel or movie can’t painstakingly trace every single prior event. It has to jump around, intrigue us and then surprise us through the revelation of some connection to a past occurrence, action, or character trait. Without sufficient grounding, however, none of the above is achievable.

In deciding what information to spell out through backstory, it may help to ask yourself the following questions:

1. What is the motivation of the characters that we need to know in order to give their actions verisimilitude?

2. What is the history of the story problem?

3. What insights into the characters psychological makeup are necessary to support the authenticity of the ongoing action?

4. What evidence must you show to suggest that the characters have the resources and potential to solve the story problem?

5. What past information is necessary to give the story realism?

One of the best ways to blend backstory into the dramatic action is to slip it in when the need for it is at its highest. In Saving Private Ryan, for example, there is a betting pool on guessing what Miller’s (Tom Hanks) job was before the war. The pool escalates to $300 but Miller still refuses to divulge the information. Finally, at the end of a tense battle, an argument among the soldiers threatens to turn physical. One of the men wants to go AWOL, but the Sergeant threatens to shoot him if he attempts it. Miller chooses this moment to ask where the pool stands at the current moment and then reveals that he is a school teacher back home. As he recounts the tale of why he joined the army the men relax and a potentially deadly incident is averted.

Here, curiosity is created beforehand, and backstory is provided as a solution to a dangerous situation. By making the past pertinent to the present, the writer is able seamlessly to integrate essential backstory into the forward thrust of the tale.

Summary

Backstory is essential information the reader/audience must have in order to understand the story. Blending backstory into the drama as an active part of the ongoing plot is a an effective way of making it unobtrusive.

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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.