30 April 2012

Examples of Backstory

A few evenings ago I watched the first episode of a new series - to be honest it was a new series several years ago, I tend to find these things long after everyone else. The series is a spin-off, with the supporting character of the original series now taking the main role.

This is a example of where a writer might want to throw in a lot of backstory.

The opening shots were of a passenger aircraft landing, and then the main character (a Detective Inspector) being met in Arrivals, by a Detective Sergeant. They haven't met before, and so with the difference in rank and age they aren't very comfortable with each other. To make conversation while he is driving the young DS says, 'I expect there's been some changes in three years.'

Nice one. We now know there's been a period of three years since we last saw this character, and that he's been out of the country for that length of time.

The DI replies, 'The changes all happened before I left.'

Ah - so it wasn't an extended holiday, or a pleasure trip around the world.

The DI asks the DS to take a short detour, and we next see him standing in front of a grave. The camera shot moves to the headstone, and we see the name of the Inspector's wife. Another piece of information skilfully and briefly inserted.

If writing a novel we might have filled our first chapter with lots of backstory about the death, and the Inspector's decision to take a secondment to another country, but in two lines of dialogue and a brief shot we have all we need to know at this point.

We have to wait until the DI is talking to someone impacted by a murder before we find out his wife was killed by a hit and run driver.  Not only are we given this information, but we see the DI is angry the driver hasn't been found, and that he is compassionate with others, even though his wife's killer will probably never be caught.

I thought these were excellent ways to give the viewer just the information they needed, and exactly when it was required, rather than writing a chapter of backstory.

There is lots of advice on backstory, namely not piling huge chunks of it in the opening chapter, or at any place in your novel, but I thought this was a great example of the advice in action.

I don't worry too much about backstory in my first drafts. There is often a lot of information through it that I needed to know, though I'm getting better at putting this in my planning, and leaving it out of the writing. Subsequent drafts are where you need to cut everything that isn't needed, and then place only what is needed, when the reader needs to know it.

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