9.03.2005

Backstory

A Snarkling is editing her juicy novel and wonders:


What's the difference between back story and precipitating event? If your reluctant sleuth needs a precipitating event, does the experience have to play out with dialogue? What about Rear Window style observation of events beyond reach?


I use backstory to mean the events that flesh out the character or story but are not part of the current action. Backstory in Romeo and Juliet is Romeo's attraction for another woman before he meets Juliet. We hear about it but only very briefly. All of King Lear's reign before the division of the kingdom is backstory..alluded to but never seen.

One of the reasons Catwoman, the Halle Berry vehicle, failed as a movie was that it was almost all backstory..how she got to be Catwoman, rather than current plot.

A precipitating event might be backstory. How James Stewart got confined to the wheelchair in Rear Window is backstory but what he sees out the window, the event that gets the plot moving, isn't about the wheelchair it's about Raymond Burr.

What makes Rear Window work is that we see what James Stewart sees. If you can do that on the page, it works. The reader should become one with the narrator if it's first person. Big loads of backstory defeat that sensibility because no one narrates their own life story that often. We give nuggets of information to people in conversation; our actions reveal character but I've never said "oh by the way I'm a literary agent" to the guy at the cheese counter at Zabars in any of the conversations I've had with him.

Dialogue that is exposition in disguise is tough to write well. "Yes, Snoozabelle, I know you are a Harvard graduate in biochemistry, but surely you don't think this wine is poisoned do you?"

1 comment:

PamG said...

For anyone who might be wandering through, Jimmy Stewart's backstory is given in Rear Window via a series of props and photographs as the opening credits drift by. It's a really slick piece of filmmaking, that I heartily recommend to all.