Monday, June 7, 2010

Backstory: How Much, How Little, When, and Where?

Lost (RIP) was a master of backstory.

Starting with the first scene of the pilot, the show followed the cardinal rule of screenwriting: open in the midst of a crisis, and introduce your characters by showing how they react to it.

Having crashed on an island, Jack opens his eyes, gathers what he can of his situation, and springs into action doing what he does best: saving other people.

And once the audience sees the plane wreckage and starts to meets the survivors, they want to know A) what happened on the plane? and B) who are these people?

Using parallel stories (one taking place on the island, and one taking place before the crash), the show jumped back and forth between two equally compelling plots each episode.

I struggle a lot with back story. I don't want to overload the beginning with information that's not relevant, but I also don't want to provide too little information and risk alienating the reader. If the audience doesn't understand why someone behaves a certain way, they might lose patience or stop caring about the character altogether.

How do you balance "present time" versus backstory? Do any novels or TV shows inspire you in this regard?


  1. I think "The Time Travellers Wife" is one really good example of how backstory Vs present action was juggled well. But you're right, the plotting on Lost is second to none. I'm nearly through the first season again, and little things are starting to stick out now. Particularly how the Man in Black is playing the Losties (or whatever the collective term for them is) off against one another. A perfect example is when he's pretending to be Jack's dad and very nearly kills Jack in the second episode. Jack chases after him and nearly falls over the cliff. The bit where Locke tells Boon that it'd be good to stay in Sayid's goodbooks incase it comes to 'sides' is also very chilling, with hindsight! Seeing as Sayid did a lot of Flocke's dirty work in the last season!


  2. Lost certainly handled backstory well. I am getting much better than I used to be at it. I used to include every single detail - thankfully I found writers' groups and blogs and other sites on the Internet about a year ago. I've still got a long way to go, but it's getting better!

  3. @ Kirsty: Good points!! And I loved how even by the second episode, Locke is playing backgammon with the black and white stones. I think there's a lot more foreshadowing than viewers gave them credit for. I really want to re-watch Seasons 1-3. Maybe I'll wait for blu-ray and rent them all then :)

    @ Jemi, thanks for stopping by. I was/am(?) the same way about backstory, I'm still learning where to use it, and when to abstain and just be satisfied that *I* know the character's history, even if it's not relevant to the story and doesn't need to be included each time.

  4. I guess I'll have to go rent copies of Lost. We never watched the show. (audible gasps, I know.)

    I'm struggling with backstory right now as I had backstory issues with my characters from the get go. Then this month I cut - permanently - about 6,000 words off the front of my ms. That means I not only had to work in backstory I cut, but rework in the backstory I cut when it was the only backstory. In one passage, it's meant there's a reference to backstory WITHIN a flashback! AAAGGGHHH!

  5. Hi Victoria, I definitely recommend the show. All six seaons will be out in August.

    Backstory within flashback sounds complex! What tense is that written in? I feel your pain. Maybe you can have a trusted reader tell you if all of the info is necessary? It's so hard deciding what to cut. Good luck to you.