Backstory and the sense of loss
In a movie, the revelation of the backstory can be mind blowing or a miserable burden in the telling : how much, when, what for, from whose point of view, at what progressing rythm (Chinatown) or unique intensity (Runaway Jury, Psycho) is the ultimate identity and vision of the writer.
To some extent, the mastery of backstory is the central crossroad of the craft, the right path to any story, and the most personal artistic signature of the writer.
Very few stories have no backstory : an absolute action piece (L’homme de rio), a tex avery cartoon.
They are ultra dynamic, joyful, and have absolutely no respect for « plausibility ».
No backstory means ALL ABOUT FUN.
On the other side, but with the same grace, we find free and sincere drama, always close to a comedic feel (Comme une image, Milou en Mai, Mariages!, Bacri-Jaoui, Allen ou Apatow styles ). Here, there is no « revelations » but a free and permanent relation to the effects and presence of the past) As both exceptions and brilliant illustrations we find American Beauty, which is, technically, only backstory, Titanic or The Bridges of Madison County.
Somewhere in between : 99% of movies. In which either :
- The BS is the core subject in itself. And therefore there is a justification to build all the spine in direction of a climactic moment of revelation (6th sense, usual suspects, chinatown’s crisis, runaway jury, once upon a time in the west)
- Or it is a way of explaining some hidden dimension of the hero. Justify a plot, a complication. There is the most important danger of sliding towards some « easy writing » which lowers the quality of global narratives in stories.
Great writers use BS as a nuclear weapon. Because ultimately this is what it is : a nuclear dynamic power to impulse energy to the telling. Or its cornerstone. So if you are a writer, you should have a clear and absolutely legitimate reason for any second of BS in your story, and its place.
When approached properly, backstory is the key to elegant and powerful storytelling. Because it’s in our relation to the past that are built the more meaningful emotions of our life. Backstory is vital because it drives the essence of time, and time is all what stories are made of.
But for us, as audience, as human being or as writers, what is the essence of time ? What is the very sense of using backstories in our telling ? It’s loss. Loss of a beloved one, loss of innocence and childhood, loss of all that was precious and sacred for us.
Loss, and our reaction to it. Loss drives you mad, violent or wise. It triggers wars or the highest philosophies that illuminate the most beautiful stories.
Juliette kills herself because she won’t have Romeo and can’t overcome this fate.
Kate loses Leo in Titanic, but we find her as an old and happy lady, because she made « each day of her life count ».
Or Ilsa and Rick can take separate roads with no bitterness because they’ ll « always have Paris ».
So when you think of your character’s backstory, or any character’s backstory just ask this simple question : what did he lose, that is still a burning scar in his heart ?
And then let us see the scars, and if you wish, if and only if the story allows it, give him and us a healing moment.