by Peggy Bechko
Backstory can be a very important part of your novel or script, or it might not be needed at all at times. It depends on the scene and the characters involved. It’s something the writer needs to give attention to and think about.
If the backstory ties directly into the scene then it’s needed and will give the reader or watcher even more to chew on than the action directly in front of them. Or perhaps your story contains backstory that provides the reader information that will result in the reader gaining a deeper understanding as to what is at stake in the story you’re creating. Or, maybe the information in the backstory that’s being provided adds such punch, such power that the scene in question will be greatly diminished by the simple leaving out of that backstory information. You don’t want to leave out important information any more than you want to put in what isn’t important.
This is where the thinking about it comes in. Whether in a novel or a script, are you, as a writer, simply throwing in backstory detail to pad the story? It’s easy to do, and if you find you are doing it you need to go back, review the story and determine what really meaty information you’re leaving out only to fill with unneeded backstory detail. Or have you, as writer, created a backstory you find so attractive and interesting and maybe amusing that you are loath to dispose of it and unable to ‘kill your darlings’? If that’s the case you’re going to have to get much tougher with yourself. Really.
Another question.: are you sure your backstory detail is pertinent to the story? If you have a murder mystery going on and you suddenly begin giving detail about the detective’s 3-year-old daughter, it better have a strong bearing on the plot. Otherwise it’s just filler. And nobody likes filler. This goes back to my original statement that the backstory needs to tied directly back to the scene it’s in or the story overall, preferably both.
The overall take-away here is backstory isn’t always needed. BUT, when you feel it is, as yourself these questions:
1. Would the scene suffer if the information was left out altogether? And are you sure the colorful information you’ve put in gives new life to the scene?
2. Will your reader or watcher gain a deeper understanding (or some kind of understanding) of what the stakes are in your story by virtue of the backstory you’ve added?
3. Finally – does your backstory tie directly into what is going on in your scene at the moment?
Whatever you do with backstory remember to be sparse with it. You don’t have to TELL your readers everything. Some backstory can be inferred. For example, if the main character is an operating room nurse the audience can pick up on the fact that she has a great education, she’s professional, no doubt very clean, Most likely very dependable.
Oh, and backstory is meant to evoke emotions. So don’t hold back.
A final “Oh, and….” Remember I said above sometimes it’s needed and sometimes it’s not? A great example of the ‘needed’ in a recent movie is Dr. Strange. I very much enjoyed the movie. However I hadn’t read a lot of the comics and only knew I’d like to see the movie based on the general story. I wasn’t aware of the cape’s backstory though comic readers were. It would have been great for the movie to have provided just a nod to the cape and it’s attachment to Dr. Strange before the cape beating up on the bad guy scene.
Do some thinking and studying before you toss in your backstory. Make sure it lends your script or novel that extra punch that drives it to the top.
Peggy Bechko is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. blog. Learn more about her HERE. Peggy’s new comic series, Planet of the Eggs, written and illustrated with Charlene Brash-Sorensen is available on Kindle. And, while you’re at it, visit the Planet of the Eggs Facebook page and her terrific blog.