Q: How do you "show" backstory when telling seems so necessary?

- Elva Martin, Director, Carolina Christian Writers' Workshop

A: In spite of the age-old admonition to "show, don't tell," I am actually a big believer in telling a character's backstory. In a screenplay, that means that instead of putting an event from the past on the screen in a prologue (as in Batman Begins or Seabiscuit) or a flashback (as in Seven Pounds or many episodes of Mad Men), you reveal a critical moment from the character's past through the use of a monologue. Here, the character actually tells a story about the key, painful experience from their past that is now (unconsciously) defining their personality. So the murders of Exley’s father and Bud White’s mother in L. A. Confidential, or the hero having awakened with no memory and only a movie ticket stub in Hancock, are emotionally powerful because we don’t actually see them. We are drawn into these stories in the same way we are whenever we hear the words, “Once Upon A Time.”

This doesn’t apply to novel writing, where there is no “screen” (unless it’s a graphic novel). But instead of opening your novel with your hero’s backstory, or having the narrator merely summarize the character’s history with generalities, reveal the information later, after we’re emotionally involved in the plot. Then present the key elements from the past in detailed story form as if it is happening in the present.

Telling the backstory also means offering necessary bits of information in shorter, sometimes “tossed off” or oblique dialogue. My favorite of this is in Richard Tuggle’s screenplay for Escape from Alcatraz. A fellow prisoner is remarking on the hero’s cold, tough personality, and asks, “What kind of childhood did you have?”

“Short,” is his only answer, and it’s all we are ever told – or need to know – about his backstory.

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