Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Writing Wednesday: The Story Behind A Story

AKA Backstory - that hated, much-maligned part of writing and story creation.

Personally I like backstory. Not exactly reading it as an info-dump in the story, but as a prequel, as a character sheet on the protagonists, as my own foray into my characters and what makes them who they are.

Backstory makes your characters and your story what they are. Doesn't make sense? Let me try to explain.

We are all shaped by the experiences in our life up to where we are at any given time. We don't exist in a vacuum, and there's something inherent to everyone called a frame of reference. This is brought about by our lifestyle, culture, beliefs, experiences. All of these shape us into what we become, what we are, and what we are to become too.

At any point in our lives, the experiences we've had thus far and the life we've lived thus far will have contributed to shape us into the person we are that moment, about to embark on whatever adventure life is gonna throw at us. For example, at 17, I would've told you love is a many-splendid thing! I'd give everyone a fair chance, make concessions and turn a blind eye on some things. At 18, I would've told you that love is indeed a many-splendid thing, but with the right person, and then too, there are always shades of grey and definite areas of darkness. I was way more distrustful, I double-checked everything, I never took anything for granted. What happened between 17 and 18? I married the man I loved back then and our marriage hit the rocks in a storm of infidelity and emotional abuse. Then *poof*, I was divorced, single, grown-up and too mature for my age. Me at 17 and me at 18 were two very different people, even if I was still, basically, me.

The same applies to your character, and to your story. Past and present will have shaped and moulded for the future. And this, is the importance of backstory!

Definition out of the way, let's see how backstory really is the story behind a story. As usual for me, I'll use pop culture/movies references to get my explanations across.

Backstory as a story in itself - the prequel
Who hasn't watched Star Wars? Uhm, up until 2010, I hadn't... It took my two boys going into a Star Wars addiction to get me to sit down and really try to grasp what the whole hoopla was about. Yes, I know Harrison Ford is Han Solo, and I also know Darth Vader is the bad guy. And yeah too, Princess Leia has probably the most awful hairstyle of all movies. Other than that, I would have pleaded ignorance before this year.
Now when we went to get the DVDs for this saga, there were Episodes I-VI. Huh? Star Wars is a trilogy, innit? Actually, no - bring in the 3 Episodes recently brought forward by one George Lucas. (hunks galore - Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christiansen-- I digress, sorry).
So over the course of these 3 Episodes - The Phantom Menace, The Clone Wars, The Revenge of the Sith - we are introduced to the Empire, how it came to the point at where the original Star Wars starts, and how a little boy with tremendous powers called Anakin Skywalker is recruited to become a Jedi but ends up falling to the Dark Side and becomes the biggest villain of all time, Darth Vador.

So if you watch Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, The Return of the Jedi, you have an idea what has happened to bring the universe into the state of chaos in which it is.
Now watch the 6 Episodes (as they're now dubbed!) back to back and see how the whole integrates into a logical, fluid plot. Everything is planted, every detail has its place in the big scheme of things.
When the creators of Star Wars wrote the story back in the 1970s, there had to have been a basis why the universe was the way it was when Luke and Leia meet in the first movie. There had to have been an explanation for their being twins separated at birth, for being kept away from their father, Anakin Skywalker aka Darth Vador. All this had needed to be thought through.
And this, gives you the backstory behind the the Star Wars trilogy! Episodes 1-3 became movies and stories in their own right, albeit with a continuing thread running along them all - yet, at the start, they were simply backstory for the trilogy.
This gives you backstory as the story behind a story.
Sometimes this can be dubbed a prequel - telling you what happened before [insert whatever plot/story here].

Another good example of backstory turning prequel turning as explanation as the story behind a story - Rise of the Lycans, in the Underworld trilogy. Rise of the Lycans goes to the origin of the war between vampires and lycans, yet in Underworld, the first movie, this story is already told through explanations of who Lucian, leader of the lycans, is. Was Rise of the Lycans overkill? Maybe. You don't need it to understand the first 2 Underworld movies, but as the story behind a story, it had its weight and this was given a spotlight.

Backstory as the story behind something - the legend
Every legend has a story behind the myth. Think of King Arthur and his Round Table. Think of Robin Hood, prince of thieves.
I recently caught the new Robin Hood by Ridley Scott, starring Russell Crowe (hence the pic above, and its relevance to this post). Aesthetically, the movie was a visual feat. I couldn't help compare it to the other Robin Hood movie, the one starring Kevin Costner. But there's a huge difference between the two movies.
In the Costner version, Robin is already an outlaw who steals from the rich to distribute the wealth to the poor, a man committed to bringing down the tyranny held in place by King John and the Sheriff of Nottingham. Come on - this is the legend as we know it!
The Scott/Crowe one shows how Robin is moral-duty-bound to go back to England after fighting in the Crusades and King Richard the Lionheart's death. It shows a rather dilly-dallying Prince John acceding to the throne. It shows a conspiracy by an English lord to topple the new king, with the help of the French king. It shows Robin bringing a bill-of-rights sort of deal to the table, making peasants and noblemen alike rally behind their king to battle the invaders.
Then when the French have been defeated, it shows how King John balks at having to relinquish his 'God-given' power over all mortals and turning against the man who brought him victory - Robin Longstride.

This movie is all about Robin and how he becomes Robin Hood. See anything pertinent here? Yes - this story/movie is all about Robin Hood, the legend's, backstory!
While I admit that historically speaking, there might've been some manipulation, and the story doesn't stick exactly to the merry-meanderings-in-lush-forest scenes everyone associates with Robin Hood, the story did serve, imo, as a good springboard to answer the how, why, and who behind the character of Robin Hood.

Backstory as a means to understand - a starting point
This often happens when a concept/idea needs to be reinvented, or you're about to present 'old' material to a fresh audience. Case in point - Star Trek starring Chris Pine as Kirk & Zachary Quinto as Spock.
Everyone knows the starship Enterprise is run by Captain Kirk and his fellow Vulcan comrade, Mr. Spock. This is taken for granted.
But what they did in this new movie was take us to the first meeting between Kirk and Spock - how they rubbed each other the wrong way, how Kirk barged his way into the Enterprise's fleet, how something happening at the time of Kirk's birth set forth a series of happenings. Spock too is shown growing up as a Vulcan but with something different - a human mother. Both characters are introduced to us almost from birth and all the way into adulthood, taking them to this point where they will become the strong team everyone knows them to be.
Again, need I point it out? The movie used... Backstory!

Another example here would be the Wolverine movie. Pretty much as with Underworld and Rise of the Lycans, this one takes us to the origins of Wolverine. Aka - Logan's backstory, of which we get a pretty good feel in the second X-Men movie. Wolverine goes a little deeper into his childhood and his relationship with his brother, Viktor.
This movie uses a backstory tangent on a specific character to present the story behind a story.

Casino Royale, (of course being the first James Bond book) was the Bond series going back to its roots. With Bond as we know him (distrustful of women, a player and allergic to commitment), this movie goes into the reason why Bond is this way - namely his love for Vesper Lynd and how she betrayed him, and ultimately, saved his life too. Based on the techie-gadgets and suave shaken-not-stirred-martini Bond we've known as Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan, Daniel Craig's Bond was the portrayal of Bond at the time of his backstory.

In all these examples, the first story stands already on its own without the prequel/new beginning. Why so - strong backstory. This should be the case for your story too.

Your backstory is one of the most powerful tools at your disposal! Make use of it. No, I don't mean you have to have every single element of the backstory dumped throughout your book. I'm saying - this story behind your current WIP is well worth its weight to get you to see the big picture and know where you stand while you are writing. Yes too - it's sad to invent such an amazing story only to not use it. But that's the price of a good story - proper dosage of the utterly good lands you a strong, potent book that is well on its way to become a winner (when you write it well, of course!)

Next week - The biggest dilemma: weaving backstory in without an info dump (I can hear many run screaming... wait, I'm screaming too!)

I'm eager to hear your take on backstory and its necessity. Drop me a comment!

From Mauritius with love,

Zee

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