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Inventing backstory as you go

December 11th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments
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I used to put a great deal of importance on backstory. Backstory, I thought, really makes a tale great. And I used to think that meant spending ages refining it, before even starting on the story proper.

I would think of Star Wars, and how Mr. Lucas started with the middle three chapters of the story (and we’ve seen what difficulty he had in trying to start from the very beginning. Born from midichloreans indeed); and I watched Akira, noticing how the vast bulk of the story actually happened in the past. Backstory was everything.

It would follow then, that a large portion of my writing time would be spent on fleshing out the backstory, and making it compelling. It was, after all, the backdrop to the story; the motivation for the characters; the very reason for the events in the story proper to now take place. Complete all this, and my story would take care of itself.

Well, okay. Maybe. But I don’t think that way now, and in truth, I never tried it out this way either. Of course backstory is important, and especially in a film like Akira, where the situation is basically, “what happened before might happen again”. But I would argue that the really important parts of your backstory, the ones that make your premise possible, you already know. The rest is for texture and theming; still important of course, but I’m not keen on spending pages and pages writing complete histories for each of my characters. And I don’t think it’s necessary.

With the story I’m currently writing, I’m taking the same approach to backstory as I’m trying with plot (see this article from Craig). I’m not entirely making it up as I go along, I have a very rough idea, but for the most part, I’m experimenting, having fun just making stuff up, and seeing what feels right. That stuff stays, the rest goes. I’ve got to be careful, of course, when I plant the seed of a potential plot development or character backstory, I’ve got to be aware that’s what I’m doing. I’ve got to remember I’ve done it, and think about where it can go, what other connections can be made. Otherwise I’ll just end up with a birds nest of ideas. I think as long as I keep my wits about me I should be alright, but I’ll keep you posted.

Any tips or discussion around backstory? You know what to do!