Friday, August 6, 2010

Defining the Problem

No backstory allowed. That’s the rule anyway, but so many authors are quick to violate it. Usually it is because we feel the need to justify a character’s actions rather than trusting the reader to figure out that if the character is doing something then there’s something in the character’s past that caused it. As my pastor likes to say, when you see a turtle sitting on a fence post, you know he didn’t get there by himself. In writing, it’s sufficient to write about how the turtle gets down from the fence post. But we still have a tendency to explain the whole thing.

Backstory is a story that happens before the story. It isn’t actually part of our story, but how can we tell the difference between things of the past that are part of our story and things that aren’t. Using our turtle example, if the turtle got even with the person who put him on the post, then the action of putting the turtle on the post is part of our story rather than being backstory. And I’ve thought about the movie Up. (An excellent movie, by the way.) It begins with a lengthy section involving two children who are friends—a boy and a girl. It shows their dreams for the future. As the movie progresses, we see that these two grow to love each other, get married and build a life together. But life happens. One thing leads to another and their dreams are left by the wayside. They grow old and she dies with their dreams unrealized. Backstory or no?

At first glance, we might think the beginning of Up is backstory, but on closer examination we find something else going on. The first quarter of every story is the problem section and the second quarter is the solution section. In Up, the solution is that an old man fills thousands of balloons with helium and floats away in his house. I haven’t acted the people who developed the concept, but its one of those ideas that you have to assume was the initial thought for the story. Someone probably asked the question: what if someone filled a bunch of balloons with helium and carried their house away? But if that’s your starting point, what problem is that a solution for? We might throw some ideas around and some of with the idea that if a couple had wanted to build a house somewhere, but hadn’t been able to do it, the old man might throw caution to the wind because of the great love he has for his wife. When we begin to ask how we might show that problem we begin to see that the audience must see just how strong this man’s love for his wife is. We can’t see that unless we see it develop over the years. So what might appear to be backstory in that story is just defining the problem.

When we deal with backstory in our own work, we need to ask ourselves whether it is defining the problem or if we’re just rationalizing. If it’s defining the problem then it is part of our story. Otherwise, weed it out.