Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script magazine and script consultant. His new book A Quick Guide to Screenwriting is now available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1
In screenwriting, backstory is the story that happens before the start of the story that is seen on screen. Backstory tells how a character becomes the person we meet at the beginning of the film or it can describe how the circumstances, situations, or relationships in the main story come about.
While it is necessary that the screenwriter knows his script’s backstory, in most instances is it is not necessary for the audience to know it – in a well-written screenplay, any important textures or flavors generated by the events in the backstory should be reflected in the main narrative. For example, if two characters in the main story are meant to be life-long friends, we don’t need to see them meeting at sleepaway camp when they are both eight, then writing pen pal letters to one another all through high school before finally reuniting in college – all we need is to see them interacting with great warmth and familiarity (and perhaps making occasional references to past adventures) in the main story and we will get the idea.
The only time it is necessary for the audience to know the backstory is if something that happened in the backstory plays a vital role in the main tale. In that case, that particular piece of information must be conveyed to the audience. Doing this is always a problem. Since backstory is, by definition, not part of the main story – there is no way to incorporate it or any part of it into the main storyline without interrupting the flow and the build of the narrative.
In the old days (i.e. prior to the last ten years) the screenwriter’s goal in dealing with this problem was to finds ways to incorporate the important information from a backstory into the main narrative as discreetly and unobtrusively as possible. The preferred method was to have one character tell the information to another character in conversation. If that approach didn’t work, then the next best option was to interrupt the main storyline with a flashback (being sure to keep it as brief as possible so as to minimize the disruption to the narrative build). If neither of these methods proved viable, the final option was to add a prologue to the beginning of the story that dramatized the important bit (but only the important bit). This option was always considered a last resort because – unlike dialogue or a flashback – adding a prologue delays the start of the main story, which everyone was reluctant to do because the longer it takes for the story to get going, the higher the risk that the movie will lose the audience. Therefore, if a prologue had to be added, the goal was always to keep it as brief – to deliver the vital information as quickly as possible and then get the main storyline under way.
This is no longer the case.
In the past decade or so, movies have become enamored of backstory. A high percentage of current films and an even higher percentage of current screenplays now present enormous chunks of backstory along with the main story – usually in either a lengthy prologue or in lengthy (and often numerous) flashbacks.
The explanation as to why this has become the norm starts with the studios. The current crop of studio executives – determined to attract as many people from all four quadrants of the potential audience as possible and fearful that any degree of confusion or ambiguity will turn viewers off and thus cause a massive drop in ticket sales for their $300 million extravaganzas – are generally very insistent that every element of a story be spelled out for viewers in as much detail as possible. They want absolutely nothing left to the imagination. Therefore, if some element in the backstory is deemed to be important to the main story, the demand is now for that element to be dramatized in great detail.
Modern screenwriters (especially spec screenwriters) have taken this mandate and run with it. It is now pretty much standard for me to receive scripts that begin with very lengthy prologues – often a quarter of the entire script and on occasion even half or more – depicting not only the vital piece of narrative information but often the entire life of the main character from birth to the beginning of the main story or every beat in the development of the circumstances, situations, or relationships seen in the main story, whether this information is necessary to the primary narrative or not. And if a script does not contain a prologue, then it will almost certainly be filled with flashbacks presenting all of this data instead.
There are a number of problems with this:
- When these long prologues are used, it can take forever for the main story to get started – as I’ve said, I’ve read some scripts in which the prologue runs on for more than half the piece, which means if the script does get turned into a movie, it will more than half over before the narrative actually begins. And the longer it takes for the main story to get started, the longer it will take for the audience to become invested in the film. If the prologues go on too long, you run the risk – as the old timers feared – of losing your viewers: they will grow bored waiting for the main story to start and either tune out or walk out.
- If the prologue runs too long, you will confuse the reader and eventually the viewer – if a prologue runs on for more than a few pages, the reader/viewer is going to think that the backstory is the main story (which makes sense, because if a prologue runs on for more than 5 or so pages, it’s not really a prologue – it’s narrative). And then they’re going to be really flummoxed when you switch gears ¼ or 1/3 or ½ of the way through and begin telling the main story – they’re going to think that you’ve yanked them out of the movie they’ve been reading/watching and plopped them down into a completely different one (which in essence, you have). This will pull them right out of the script or the picture.
- If you present the backstory in flashbacks rather than in a prologue, you are going to interrupt the flow and build of the main story. This is a problem because dramatic storytelling is all about build – all dramatic stories start with an inciting incident and build continuously until they reach the climactic moment. Anything that interrupts that build is going to dilute the ultimate impact of the tale being told.
- If you interrupt the main story with too many flashbacks, you will run the risk of confusing the reader/viewer because if the jumping from present to past is not clearly delineated (and in most of the scripts I read, it isn’t) then the audience members will lose track of where they are. And if that goes on for too long, they’re going to give up on the script/film.
- The inclusion of so much backstory has led to two very dubious trends in modern screenwriting:
* Because so many scripts and movies include so much backstory these days, many screenwriters (especially aspirants) appear to believe that backstory is now mandatory. And this has led many of them to include a backstory in their scripts even when there’s no element in it that is relevant to the main story – so not only are the prologues and flashbacks in many scripts today too long, but they are often completely pointless as well.
* Studios want everything spelled out. But they have also lost patience with first acts. Worried audiences will be bored if they have to sit through too much set-up, execs want every script and movie to jump right into the action – to begin with an exciting sequence. These two demands might seem to be contradictory. That’s because they are. Somewhere along the line, someone came up with an ingenious way to deal with this contradiction by beginning the script with an exciting sequence from the middle of the main story somewhere and then jumping back in time to begin the backstory. Eventually, the main story begins and catches up to the exciting sequence and then the narrative rolls forward from there. The first time someone did this it was really clever. The problem is that it was such a perfect solution to the “begin with backstory but also begin with something exciting” dilemma that seemingly every writer out there has adopted it for seemingly every script. I am not exaggerating when I say that at least 80% of the specs I read these days begin in this manner. So what was once ingenious has now become a dreadful, omnipresent cliché.
- No matter how much backstory you include, scripts still can’t run for more than (approximately) 120 pages. So every page you devote to backstory gives you one less page to devote to the main story. Which means that a script that contains excessive backstory is also going to contain an under-developed main story.
- Finally, backstory boring. No matter how it is presented, backstory is ultimately just exposition. And by definition, exposition is not dramatic. And therefore it is dull, which is why writers have traditionally done all they can to limit the amount of exposition in their scripts – the old rule of thumb used to be only present the exposition the audience absolutely has to have in order to comprehend the story and not one bit more. But in this new era of mega-backstory, that rule seems to have been tossed out the window – now we not only tell the audience what they absolutely need to know, but we also tell them lots and lots of stuff they don’t need to know. And the results are often/usually/always tedious.
So, how to deal with these issues? To quote Albert Finney in Skyfall, “Sometimes the old ways are the best.” Ultimately, I think the best approach to backstory is to not have one. If you must have one – if there is some element in the backstory that is absolutely vital to your main story – then incorporate it into the primary narrative as discreetly and unobtrusively as possible: ideally through dialogue and if that doesn’t work then in a (very brief) flashback and (only) if that doesn’t work then through a (very, very brief) prologue. And then get on with telling the main story – which is (or is supposed to be, anyway) the reason you wrote your script in the first place.
Copyright © 2017 by Ray Morton
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