Alas, poor backstory. Whenever its name is mentioned, it is usually in hushed tones during a first-page takedown in a critique group, or on a panel of editors warning anxious wannabes about the sins of the plodders. Using backstory in the opening pages is one of those sins, they say, and warn that using it thus will render your ceremonially unclean.
Why the disapprobation? Because it’s been mishandled too many times. Loads of exposition larded into a chapter can turn reading into a slog. But does that mean it should be chucked completely?
Backstory, when artfully laced into the opening pages, actually works as a bonding agent. Which, I would argue, is the primary task of the opening: get us emotionally connected to a character facing a disturbance to their world.
Backstory, of course, is a term coined by the old Hollywood screenwriters, referring to any story material and character history that happens before the story begins. Like the Paris stuff in Casablanca. That reveal comes in the middle of the film, via flashback. However, the effects of it are clearly seen in the present. Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) plays chess alone. He sticks his neck out for nobody. He won’t tell anyone why he came to Casablanca. When he hears his piano man, Sam, playing “As Time Goes By” he goes ballistic.
And in an early scene, where Rick is being questioned by the Nazi major, Strasser, he’s asked if he can imagine the Germans in his beloved Paris.
“It’s not particularly my beloved Paris,” Rick says. Why? We don’t know. It’s a mystery. And mystery makes us want to keep watching.
All you need is a line or two like that. [Read more…]