Saturday, June 16, 2007

Backstory as Ammo

I was sick yesterday, so I'm blogging today, now that I feel human and am dependably spending longer than an hour at a time conscious.

One of more interesting points in Story by Robert McKee is how to handle backstory.

Inserting backstory is always tricky. A big dump of it bores the reader. It also shows a lack of effort on the part of the writer.

I still struggle with this. I prefer to insert backstory bit by bit. Important things get mentioned in dialogue and I trust the reader to put the big picture together themselves. The problem then becomes crowbarring everything I need in without the conversations beginning to sound like "As you know, Bob, ..."

McKee stresses throughout his book that a story is created by consistently opening a gap between the result the character expects to get from their actions and what they actually get. (The audience should be surprised by these gaps also.)

Mr. McKee then says the best way to insert backstory is to use it as ammunition. Let it take the form of a revelation - Character One says something, expecting a certain response from Character Two, and instead Character Two drops a verbal bomb on Character One.

The example Mr. McKee uses is when Luke Skywalker accuses Darth Vader of killing his father and Vader replies, "Luke, I am your father."

Ka-boom. Now the audience's minds go racing back through everything in the films prior, putting together the backstory and feeling shocked and elated by the sudden surprise. It's a very satisfying moment for a film-goer.

This strikes me as a really neat technique, and it's one I've never used before. I wonder if it would be sufficient for the world-building needs of the average science fiction or fantasy writer, however.

I'd love to start a discussion of this in the comments. What do you think of this method of handling backstory? Do you think it's practical? Do you use it?

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