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Creating the Backstory for Your Screenplay

Most writers dream a little before they tackle writing their scripts. Actually, they dream a lot. Before you craft an environment, you want to know its history, its geographical location, and its condition. Before you write a scene between parents, you want to know what attracted them to each other, how long they've been together, how many children they have, and the like. Before your characters go to war, you have to know what moments in political history led them to that battlefield.

The ability to write complex events inhabited by complex people comes from knowing everything you can about why those events occurred and who those people are. The details you unearth may not all make it into your final draft, but they will add color and depth to the eventual script. Compiling your information now will also allow you to write with fewer interruptions later because you will have answered many questions in advance.

Backstory refers to everything that occurred in your story's past. A character's backstory may include family background, job history, psychological condition, and any memories you create for that person from childhood on. The backstory of a situation includes events that led up to it and a suggestion of why that situation's occurring now.

Elements of the backstory

You may find it helpful to invent your script's history one section at a time. Just as detectives follow a certain line of questioning, so will you subject your story to an inquisition of sorts. Here's a list of categories that you may want to consider in your search for a backstory:

  • Convictions and beliefs: What are your character's political, social, and economic views? Does your character have any theories on life in general or in detail? How did he or she come to feel that way?
  • Education: Consider both formal education and acquired education in this category. Where your character went to high school may be as important as the three months he spent on the streets learning to play the drums.
  • Family background: Invent your character's family history, including the uncle she was named after but never sees. Friends are included in this category.
  • Geographic location: Detail any environment that helped shape your character's present circumstances. Create everything from the climate to the socio-economic make-up of the community to the carefully manicured lawns.
  • Key past events: Virtually every main event in your story will be possible because of something that's occurred in the past. What events led up to those in your story, and why did they occur?
  • Past successes and failures: People are shaped in part by their best and worst memories. Knowing what your character's track record is may be helpful in certain situations that arise in the script itself.
  • Phobias: Your characters' fears dictate what they avoid in life and, in some cases, what's pushing them to succeed. Think specific and general; a fear of rose thorns may be just as compelling as a fear of commitment. The film Arachnophobia was fueled by the main character's fear of spiders.
  • Profession: How do your characters make a living? Do they enjoy working at the library, or are they biding their time? How did they get where they are?
  • Quirks: What makes them unique, physically and psychologically? In Forrest Gump, the main character is compiled of odd characteristics, one of which is how fast he can run. The film A Beautiful Mind tackles one man's battle with schizophrenia. A character's quirks may propel your story forward.
  • System of values: People differ in where they draw the line between right and wrong. What do your characters value most in themselves? In a lover? In a child? What types of behavior would make them ill?
  • Talents: What has your character always been good at? Does he utilize that talent, or has it gone by the wayside? Perhaps your story starts on the day an opportunity arises for that talent to emerge.
  • Time period: What part of history are you tackling? Whose history will you portray? Is yours a Civil War story or that of a future age? If you plan to flash between moments in your character's life, how many moments and what were they?

Each of these categories suggests its own series of questions that you might answer about your story. Jot those questions down as they occur to you; you'll undoubtedly return to them with each new person and environment you create. Although it's impossible to highlight upon all that you discover in a single script, much of your story may come from the information you invent now.

Developing a screenplay through backstory

Imagine that you're a tourist in a foreign country — you don't speak the language, the people aren't familiar, and anything might happen to you next. This experience isn't unlike that of most movie-goers. They need someone to guide them through their journey and a guidebook to understand the importance of what they see along the way. You are their guide; the backstory is their guidebook.

A detailed backstory may be your greatest source of support as a screenwriter. It renders your characters unique and colorful, which will inform how they speak and behave throughout your story. It helps establish a clear world for your characters to explore and, therefore, provides the fuel for most — if not all — of the future scenes in your script.

Consider the information that you have: You've created a time period, an environment, and some character biographies. You may also have envisioned several situations leading up to your story's main events. Your next step involves conveying those details to an audience that knows next to nothing about your story.

You can easily convey time periods and locations through costume, dialect, a lingering description of the landscape, or a caption alerting your audience that the story takes place in Paris, 1763. Past events and character traits are often more elusive. Although there's no single formula for using this type of backstory to generate scenes, you may want to consider the following process as a way to begin:

1. Identify the detail that you want to develop. It might be an event, a trait, a location, a family member, or a friendship. Choose one element.

For example, your main character could have moved around constantly as a child and is, therefore, unable to settle down as an adult. That unsettled sensibility could be the detail in question.

2. Visualize three ways the detail manifested itself in the past. In particular, concentrate on what moments might reveal the detail to a stranger.

For example, you could envision your character as a child. She's kept her bedroom decidedly blank, anticipating the next move. She fidgets constantly in school, often upsetting her classmates. She travels with an imaginary friend — the only constant in an ever-fluctuating environment.

3. Visualize three ways the detail manifests itself in the present. Every character exists in at least three roles during the course of a day. Your main character might be at once a mother, a neighbor, and a renowned biologist. Decide how the detail affects your character in several venues.

For example, you might imagine that your character is a marathon dater, unable to settle on any person for a length of time. She juggles three jobs at once, constantly dashing from one end of town to another. Although she's lived in an apartment for a year, she has yet to completely unpack.

4. Decide which scenes might exist in your screenplay. Flag any scenario you visualized that will help an audience understand the story you want to write. If more occur to you along the way, jot those down, too. You'll return to those scenes later when you begin piecing your screenplay together.

Not every piece of information you come up with will find its way into your screenplay. If you're telling a Civil War story, you may concentrate on your character's political history and ignore his family background. On the other hand, if your Civil War story centers on Abraham Lincoln, his upbringing might be important. The type of story you're telling will dictate which details you reveal from the past. But remember, whether you focus on it or not, everything you imagine will enhance and strengthen your script.

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