by Christina Hamlett
How much do you really need to know about someone before you’re hooked into wanting to learn more? The process of setting up character introductions for your screenplay or theatrical script has a lot of similarities to the 1990’s matchmaking invention of speed-dating. Credited to an L.A. rabbi seeking to provide a social forum for Jewish singles, the concept of investing only a few minutes to scope out potential mates isn’t unlike using a few sentences to bait a reader’s curiosity about why your heroine collects ceramic owls, why your hero doesn’t own a car, or why the villagers never go to the lake after sundown.
Like many a bad first date, though, new screenwriters and playwrights have a tendency to not only spill too much too soon but expect every detail divulged to be permanently stored in the recipient’s memory. The result? Excessive backstory doesn’t just slog the pace of the plot; it makes it hard to distinguish what’s actually relevant and necessary in order to follow the action. In other words: too much information.
The use of backstory as a literary device traces its roots as far back as Greek mythology, was frequently employed in Shakespearean works to explain rivalries and revenge, and has long been a mainstay of soap operas to account for brooding obsessions and family secrets. Whether revealed partially, fully, chronologically or intermittently, backstory elements that are used wisely serve the purpose of lending depth and providing a context for understanding what has brought the characters to their present situations and mindsets.
In fiction – as in life – people aren’t born interesting; they become interesting as a product of shake-ups in the status quo that challenge and transform them. Because the majority of storytelling is linear, however, writer often embrace the notion that viewers of the film or play have to be brought up to full speed on everything that has happened in the past before they can possibly begin to grasp the meaning of the immediate problem. This approach either takes the form of copious scenes that recite highlights of the hero’s life, interactions and influences or an extended prologue that focuses on the era, environment and cultural framework in which subsequent events will transpire. Both of these strategies are guilty of violating the “show, don’t tell” rule and forestalling a plot’s official kick-off. They’re also typically comprised of specifics that never make a second appearance (i.e., Tim’s childhood turtle named Horton), much less have any connective value to the development or resolution of the core conflict.
Viewers today have shorter attention spans and more distractions competing for their leisure hours than prior generations. Accordingly, the first 10 minutes of a story for stage or screen creates an expectation of what will follow. That said, if your contemporary murder mystery set in Hawaii starts out with volcanic eruptions and screeching pterodactyls, it better be pithy and pertinent or you’re likely to lose your audience long before you get to your first dead body floating in the Halekulani swimming pool. By tightly focusing on your characters' relationships to the core conflict and to one another in the now, you're on your way to writing a leaner and more marketable script than one which takes too long meandering through life in the past lane.
Former actress/theater director Christina Hamlett is an award winning author, ghostwriter, instructor and professional script consultant whose credits to date include 26 books, 132 plays, 5 optioned feature films and hundreds of articles and interviews that appear in trade publications throughout the world. Website: http://www.authorhamlett.com/
Christina is also a WOW! Women on Writing Classroom instructor. Visit our classroom page to enroll in either Introduction into Screenwriting or Introduction into Playwriting. Classes begin Monday, September 5th and run for 6 weeks. Class size is limited.