Understanding Backstory

Lisa Rosenberg August 25, 2009

Behind any narrative for the screen is the story that came before it—the life that shaped the central character, who arrives fully formed as your story opens. Your screenplay may reveal only well-placed hints of the back story, or whole formative episodes in flashback. But you, the writer, have to know what that backstory was, before you can show your audience what drives your characters and what they are capable of.

Details from your character’s back story can tell us of secret fears and desires, how they see life and love and whether they believe they can change their circumstances. The backstory can yield the deepest sources of your character’s pain or regret. Backstories reveal the cruelty or cautionary examples of family members, the rigors of schooling and how your main character has fit into his or her world in the past.

From film classics, such as Casablanca (1942, director Michael Curtiz, writers Julius and Philip Espstein), to recent films as diverse as The Savages (2007, writer/director Tamara Jenkins) and Burn After Reading (2008, writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen), backstory has helped determine the main character’s inner conflicts and pivotal decisions.

In Casablanca, the main character, Rick, owns a bar in Casablanca, Morocco, which caters to expatriates fleeing Europe in the early days of World War II. Initially, his backstory is presented as a mystery. He avoids close relationships, confides in no one and fends off the inquiries of the local police chief, Renault, as to why he came to Casablanca. Renault muses, "Did you abscond with the church funds? Did you run off with a Senator’s wife? I should like to think you killed a man. It is the romantic in me."

Gradually, two important aspects of his backstory come to the fore: that Rick was a freedom fighter in more than one risky situation, and that his former lover, Ilsa, who is now married to Laszlo, a famous freedom fighter, broke his heart. When Laszlo and Ilsa arrive in Casablanca, the positioning of the love triangle in the foreground of the story sets up several possible resolutions. But Rick’s backstory—of a man at times engaged in valorous struggle, at times aloof and also terribly wounded in love—is what renders him far less predictable in the critical turning points of the story. By the time Casablanca approaches its surprising climax, it becomes clear that Rick’s past will have a critical influence on the story’s conclusion.

In The Savages, two adult children of neglectful, abusive parents have struggled to attain the smallest level of satisfaction in their lives. Wendy temps for a living, sleeps with a married man she neither loves nor respects, and eats cereal for dinner while she labors on a play about her miserable childhood. Jon’s a university professor who weeps when the live-in girlfriend he loves cooks him breakfast, but is so terrified to commit to her that he is about to lose her. When the two are faced with placing their elderly father in a facility where he’ll live out his last days, they’re confronted not only with reminders of the odyssey of loss they suffered as children—their mother’s abandonment, their father’s complete indifference—but by his inability to love them even now, as they struggle to give a decent end to a man who ignored their own beginnings.

Though we never learn such details as where they went to school or when they last saw their father before his deceased companion’s relatives booted him out, important fragments of backstory shape what we perceive of these characters. It’s a fair guess that Jon weeps over his lover’s hot breakfasts because no one cooked for him as a child. Wendy eats cereal for dinner and has sex with a man she detests because she never learned that merely subsistence nurturing was not good enough. Wendy also worries about the names of the dreary nursing homes they tour, because she wants to tell herself a fairytale of life with a happy ending—the kind of fairytale that has never matched her own life.

What we learn about their backstory, in brief glimpses throughout the story, shows us that their actions could take many directions. They could abandon their father, too resentful and enraged to offer him any more than he ever gave them. But their shared history also tells us that they’ve always leaned on one another, orphans in the storm, and that they’ve learned, if nothing else, to love and forgive each other. That bond gives them the will to do their father one better than he did them, and also to free themselves of the starved expectations that have limited their lives to this point.

The dark comedy Burn After Reading is driven by Linda, a single, middle-aged health spa worker whose desperation to perfect her body through liposuction so that she can find love, drives her to outlandish criminal acts. Osbourne, the hapless, raging, alcoholic secret agent who loses his top-secret CDs at the health club, only to have them snatched up by Linda and a co-worker in a scheme to sell them for big bucks, has reached his own tipping point of paranoia and despair.

What we know of Linda’s history is that love hasn’t worked out for her, and she’s landed in the health spa with an outdated, cheerleader hairstyle and tight polo shirts that make her arms bulge. She’s blind to the romantic interest of her perfectly decent boss, but engages yet again in a hopeless affair with a man who strings along multiple women. But since the story is driven by surface assumptions that turn out to be wildly false, Linda’s perfectly in sync as a woman who can’t look behind her and learn from her past, or see the better options that are right in front of her.

Osbourne, the secret agent whose tapes she tries to sell to pay for her liposuction, is similarly driven by a rocky history and a chronic blindness to his own faults. In a barely controlled rage most of the time, he can’t see how his current demotion at work emerges from his history of alcoholism, and assumes instead that he is being conspired against. The theft of his CDs—despite the fact that they contain no truly valuable information—is the last straw in the devolution of his self-regard.

If the story traded just on the facts, it would end with a quick and true assessment that the tapes contain only Osbourne’s ravings—no valuable data. Linda would have to find another route to fund her liposuction. But because it is fueled by the histories of the key characters— by people who can’t reflect on their pasts, and see how they’ve orchestrated their own sorrows— all avenues of chaos and ultimate disaster remain open. A small story becomes a full-blown, comic noir—due in no small part to the weight of the central characters’ backstories.

Lisa Rosenberg is an award-winning screenwriter and veteran story consultant whose credits include independent features, television, home entertainment, and Internet narrative and documentary productions. Currently, she is seeking production opportunities for her feature, Crawl Space, based on Edie Meidav’s novel, and consulting privately on screenplay projects. She has written articles for Film Arts magazine, the Oregon Star Film & Video News, and the French edition of Vogue.

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