Understanding the Purpose of Backstory

Avoiding the crutch of avoiding conflict

After twenty years in the animation industry and five more helping writers 1-on-1 develop their stories, one thing is clear—writers will do anything to avoid writing real conflict.

By actual conflict, I reference the presence of an inequity: an appreciation of two competing justifications representing an impasse within a conscious mind. And while illustrating this dilemma proves near impossible for many writers, others mistakingly turn to Backstory to avoid getting to the core of what is driving their story.

The Challenge of the Obstacle Character

A key component of creating a dilemma rests in the opposing natures of the Main Character Throughline perspective and the Obstacle Character Throughline perspective. Incompatible, yet similar at times, the IC perspective's role is to influence and challenge the Main Character to grow out of his or her justifications.

A writer asks if this influencing force can be someone from the Main Character's past on the Discuss Dramatica forum.

I know I could take a simpler route, for example, making the Impact Character someone from the present (a current friend, or an old acquaintance, or even an enemy) who helps (or forces) the main character to deal with their painful memories. But what if I wanted to choose to define the impact character as the person responsible for this significant past event and count the MC/IC relationship as the relationship they had in the past?

Assuming the Main Character's story is about a source of conflict generated from what happened (the Past), the Obstacle Character perspective would be anyone who triggers recollections through conflict.

The Main Character is not a real person, she is a perspective, so It's not her Memories that are being triggered or brought to light, but rather a process of Memory-ing (recollecting, reminiscing) that is the source of challenge to the personal perspective.

Flashbacks may be part of this Memory process, but Backstory is not. The Backstory is where you find the genesis of the justification in the current story:

Backstory -> Initial Story Driver -> Forestory

Forestory is what most people understand to be THE story. Backstory explains WHY, or HOW, the individual Problems in each Throughline came to be. Turning to a character from the "past" to challenge the MC avoids the proper illustration of an Obstacle Character Throughline perspective.

Drudging Up Backstory in a Scene

The discussion continues to suggest pulling from the Backstory to illustrate a key Storybeat within the narrative:

  1. A young knight in training faces a trial by combat, but they're blindfolded and come to discover a new skill that they would have never known before.
  2. The knight stands before his people as King, surveying the crowd for a suspected mercenary sent to assassinate him and his family as he performs a traditional ceremony.
  3. Years earlier, the boy who would be King climbs a treacherous cliffside with his father without a care in the world, making it to the top safely… though his father hesitates and stumbles and falls to his death before his eyes.
  4. Two weeks after the ceremony, the King strolls through the black woods unguarded with his grandson. He listens to the birds as they sing, then go quiet… and without ever seeing the killer approach, spins and impales his assailant as he fell from a tree high above.

Step 3 is problematic. As awesome as the storytelling is in the above example, the sequence as presented would not work to satisfy the scene's components in question. Seeing him as a child appears as Backstory, and out of place within the context of the other Storybeats.

If there was a greater context of Memory, and all four geared towards challenging through Memory (like the sequence in Inception where Cobb recounts the secret his wife Mal had hidden away), then it could work. It isn't easy to appreciate the meaning of the above scene without more significant context.

Using Backstory to Inform the Forestory

The above example of the Knight pulls from a Method of Evidence and includes problematic Elements of Ability, Aware, Self-Aware, and Desire. Applying these same four to the Inception "flashback" sequence--without pulling from Backstory--one sees how they work together to challenge Main Character Cobb in regards to Memory:

  1. Ability - I can mess with people's minds, and I did
  2. Aware - I made her see that this world is not what she thinks it is
  3. Self-aware - I made her self-conscious of whatever she was hiding, plus I remember what a jerk I was to do this in the first place
  4. Desire - I made her want to kill herself (and I miss her)

All four of those work in the particular context of Memory. The "flashback" feels less like the Backstory crutch and more of an essential part of the communication of the Obstacle Character's challenging perspective to the Audience.

A flashback to Backstory appears out-of-place and jarring because it isn't part of the greater context explored within a scene. It's a shortcut for filling in a blank space that would be better served by an illustration consistent with its surrounding Beats. That feeling of a jump-cut in the narrative is the Author's reliance on Backstory to fill an essential piece of the Forestory.

Backstory defines why there is a Forestory, or story. It should never become a part of the development of a narrative.

Your Personal Call to Adventure

Nine times out of ten, when a writer writes an Obstacle Character that is not physically present, or is a rock or is someone who died a long time ago--it's indicative of a writer avoiding creating a compelling Main Character and Obstacle Character dynamic.

When you find yourself relying on Backstory, know that you're avoiding exploring something essential to what you are trying to say with your story. Use the Dramatica storyform and its appearance within Subtxt to challenge you to go deeper and define without hesitation the inequity that inspires you to write a story.

Originally published 11-17-2020

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