Due to my impending death, I couldn’t get a full post up today. The good news is that a new Scriptshadow Newsletter is coming out within the next couple of days! In it, I’ll be reviewing another hot trend – studios buying specs to adapt into already-owned franchises. This one is a small but intense spec that a major studio purchased to jump start an early 2000s franchise that could’ve been awesome, but they screwed it up big-time (for those guessing, I’ve talked about the film here within the past year). So make sure you sign up for the newsletter if you’re not on it already. Just send the word “NEWSLETTER” to Carsonreeves1@gmail.com
Now on to today’s tip, which is actually inspired by yesterday. In the number 1 Blood List script, Orb, I discussed the notion of exposition in scene-writing, with backstory being a part of that. Backstory is any information you include about your characters or plot that occurred before your story started. If your main character’s mom died during child birth and you have one of your characters tell us this, or even jump back in time and show it? That’s backstory.
So today’s question is, when should you include backstory? The quick answer is: ALMOST NEVER. Seriously. Screenplays work best when they’re dealing with the present moment. Therefore, characters talking about the past or us going into the past is moving away from the strength of the medium. However, sometimes you need to add context to your plot and your characters and backstory is the only way to do that.
That leads us to the more involved answer: If the audience can approximately fill in the backstory themselves, you don’t need to include it.
“Approximately?” What the hell does that mean, Carson? Say we meet a Marlon Brando-like blue collar character who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. Just from his weathered eyes, his defeated demeanor, some scars on his back, we know this dude had a rough life. Therefore, including a scene where he tells his girlfriend that his dad used to beat him up every Thursday after drinking with his buddies, doesn’t add anything to the narrative. We figured something like this must have happened, and this daddy abuse sounds about right. So it comes off as redundant.
However, if “Marlon” informed his girlfriend that, at one time, he was a chess prodigy ranked #3 in the world? That’s something we wouldn’t have guessed. This makes him a bit more interesting to us, and builds an extra layer into the character. Therefore, the argument for including this piece of backstory is much stronger.
Keep in mind, though, that as with any information you bring into a script, your backstory needs to be relevant to the story. If you’re going to tell us your character was a chess champion, that should pay off or slide into the story later. That doesn’t mean Marlon has to enter a chess tournament. But this “hidden intellect” might serve him well in a Good Will Hunting “How do you like them apples?” kind of way.
Backstory is a tricky monster that should mostly be avoided. But if you are going to use it, make sure it tells us things we wouldn’t have guessed ourselves. Or else what’s the point?