WEDNESDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

BACKSTORY


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Were you born a full-grown adult? Did you come into this world knowing how to take care of yourself and solve the most difficult problems without help? Though raising kids is a tough job, no one has yet to find a way to give birth to grown-up, responsible adults... Except writers!

When we create characters for a screenplay we often don't create their lives BEFORE the story. Though it probably doesn't matter much in an adventure film like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK where Indiana Jones went to high school and what his favorite subjects were - his character should be fully formed enough that the audience knows that he has a past - that he did go to high school. Characters should have a life before the story begins, and should have a life after the story ends (provided they survive). In the Wesley Snipes film THE ART OF WAR his character is such an enigma that we can't imagine he ever had a life before the film began... and during the film he seems to have no friends from his past to call on, no ex-employers he can go to for help, not even a mother and father or siblings! It's as if he was born with the words FADE IN: and will vanish as soon as the tail credits begin to roll. Even an enigma has a mom!

We are all the products of our pasts... so if your protagonist has no past, they also have no present. They won't seem real to an audience.

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So you need to give your characters a past. You don't have to know their grandmother's maiden name, but you do have to know the critical events that made them the people we now see on screen. What were the key turning points in their life? What were their most important relationships? What are the treasures they've saved to remind them of their past successes? We're not looking for expositional dialogue where they talk about throwing the pass that wins the big high school football game when they were 17 years-old, but would your character keep the trophy as an adult? Would they have photos of family members in their home? Do they have an ex-wife or an ex-girlfriend that they may still have feelings for? In DIRTY HARRY Clint Eastwood's wife was killed in a car accident and he never remarried - his job is everything, now. That's an element of character that not only gives Harry a past, it explains some of his actions within the story. A guy with a family to go home to wouldn't be as obsessed with his job.

Three ways to show your protagonist has a past:

1) PROPS: Photos, trophies, trinkets. Think of all of the "junk" you've collected in your past! Make sure your protagonist has something to show for himself or herself. Remember, we're trying to show character, so focus on the props that made your protagonist who they are today. If he's a car mechanic, are their photos of him as a kid, covered with grease, helping dad fix the family car? Does he have a trade school diploma? Did he keep three crusty old pieces of his first socket wrench and have them on the night stand of his bedroom? Is there a torn-apart motorcycle in his kitchen, covered in cob-webs and waiting to be repaired, that he has to walk around every morning when he gets his cup of coffee? All of these things give the character a past and make him seem "real"... plus give us an insight to the man he is today.

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2) PAST RELATIONSHIPS: Your protagonist knew people before the story begins - friends, family, lovers. Though these people may no longer be a part of their current lives, they are still out there. Even a hardened criminal may call his mom every Sunday to see how she's doing. In HARPER Paul Newman had an ex-wife who calls him to discuss some trivial property division thing while he's on the case. In TRUE CRIME Clint Eastwood has to take time out of his investigation to take his daughter to the zoo. These relationships have nothing to do with the plot of the screenplay, but help to expose character and give your protagonist a peopled past. Show a character dealing with a relationship that takes place before the story begins.

3) CURRENT RELATIONSHIPS: Your protagonist may have a best friend in your script... where did they meet? What adventures have they been on together? Do they refer to people and events from their past? In HARPER Paul Newman gets his job through his buddy Arthur Hill, who continues to be a character in the story. The two often refer to things that happened in their past and this not only gives Newman's character a backstory, it provides information on a pivotal relationship in the story. If your character is in trouble, do they confide in another character involved in your story? Does a past incident between characters define their current relationship? On SEINFELD Elaine used to be Jerry's girlfriend, and every once in a while their romantic past comes to play in the story... like in the episode about how all women fake orgasms. If you have two characters who know each other, use an event from their past in a discussion of a current plot problem.

Where did Luke Skywalker learn to shoot so well?
Who was Indiana Jones' mentor?

Your characters existed before your screenplay begins, and most of them will exist after your screenplay is over. Give the audience a few details that not only show us that your character was around before FADE IN, but that also help us to understand how the character came to be the person they are on screen. Give them a backstory!

Your Screenplay Checklist:

1) What *is* your protagonist's past? Make sure they are fully formed!
2) How did they get to this point in the story? What elements of their past lead them here?
3) What are the props and mementos of their past that they keep around? What is the importance of these props and how do they figure into the story or show an important side of the character?
4) What are the past relationships of your character? How do those relationships factor in to this story?
5) Who are the current relationships for your protagonist and how do they apply to the story?

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