When Backstory Is Not Backstory
Writers can determine what is necessary and what isn't by looking to the storyform of their narrative.
Everyone hears that backstory is a crutch. That it slows down the narrative and takes the Audience out of the story. But what about backstory that isn't? How can an Author determine what if their sequences need to be in the story or if they should be cut?
Over on Now Novel they discuss how to explain your story without using backstory:
Something about backstory seems to be particularly tempting to new writers. They may get so caught up in explaining the things from a character’s past that motivate that character in the present that the actual plot slows down, stops or gets lost altogether. Sometimes this is an indication that the story itself simply is not strong enough or that the backstory is perhaps more interesting than the main story and should replace it.
Does Batman Begins suffer from this problem? Certainly there is a lot of time spent explaining things from Bruce Wayne's past. Is this an indication that the story "is not strong enough"?
In last week's article Writers Who Write the Same Main Character, we took a look at Batman Begins and how, thematically, it shares a lot in common with other Christopher Nolan films like Memento and The Prestige. Many of his Main Characters struggle to overcome suppressed memories or difficult pasts, while the stories at large deal with psychological conceptions or dark misunderstandings.
Discovering the storyform for a particular narrative requires unraveling the story presented to you. Authors and filmmakers employ a variety of tricks and techniques in order to obfuscate their message and to make the experience of being told a story enjoyable and entertaining. One of these techniques is time-shifting.
Putting the Pieces Back Together
The greatest example of this time-shifting technique can be found in Christopher Nolan's Memento. Bouncing back and forth between present day and days past, the film eventually brings those two timelines together before resuming a more linear approach. The effect is to grant the audience the experience of suffering the same disability that afflicts Main Character Leonard (Guy Pearce). Waking up sitting on a toilet with a wine bottle in our hands with no context whatsoever with the previous scene makes us feel as lost and confused as Leonard.
The key to maintaining trust with an Audience when using a technique like this is to insure that the way things really played out did so with integrity. Both the logistical and emotional progression of the narrative must make sense and feel right when laid out in chronological order. This is how Memento works.[^storyform]
You could rearrange the sequence of events in that film so that they matched the actual chronological order and the story would still hold up. It might not be as enjoyable, but the message of the narrative would still speak to you. This is because the storyform--the functional collection of thematic story points--is sound.
Leonard bounces back and forth between his Conscious of what he should do about John G (Joe Pantoliano) and his Subconscious for revenge because those are the 4th and 1st Signposts of his Throughline respectively. If you were to map out how those Signposts were revealed you might find something like this: "4-1-4-1-4-1-3-2-3-4", with the "1-3" sequence signifying when past and present meet up.
But there still exists a logical and emotional consistency for 1-2-3-4. Chronologically Leonard starts out with feeding his Subconscious then moves to Memories of his wife and then moves to Impulsive Responses when he is running and doesn't even know why. Finally he ends his emotional growth by setting up Teddy to be his John G, a consideration that he makes and then moves on.
Memento's black-and-white sequences are not backstory, they are an integral part of his emotional development and the story's narrative. It just so happens that Nolan employed a technique that made the ride more fun. And he used the same technique with the first half of Batman Begins.
The Rise and Fall and Rise of Batman
A recent study conducted by the Computational Story Lab in Vermont determined the six basic emotional arcs of a narrative. One of these--the rise-fall-rise narrative--encapsulates the journey of Bruce Wayne to Batman...if you look at it from a Dramatica storyform point-of-view; if you look to the actual structure of the narrative. Look to the story as presented--which is what that research study did--and you would find something completely different.
Taken chronologically, Bruce suffers through the loss of his parents and can't stop remembering that night. He then musters up the courage to shoot his parent's killer at the courthouse--but chokes. He disappears into the underworld, learns to control his impulses at the hands of a ninja training school, and returns back to Gotham to wreck havoc on the criminal element. But then things get out of control and his fears get the best of him with the Scarecrow's poison gas. In the end, he overcomes the memories of his parent's murder by recognizing that "it's not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me."
Based on the dynamic and structural choices hinted at in last week's article, Dramatica predicts that the plot progression for Bruce's Main Character Throughline should be:
- Impulsive Responses
And this sounds exactly like what Bruce goes through. The memories of his parent's murder, his hesitation at the courthouse, succumbing to his fears, and ending with his Conscious about what he does as being the only thing that matters. A bit of a rise, a long fall, and then a rise to the end.
The way it is presented to us in the film is not so cut-and-dried. We start with the North Korean prison camp which is somewhere in-between 2 and 3. We venture back to 1 during his training. Then bounce between 3 and 2 as he develops his skills and recounts his experience at the courthouse. And then--just like Memento--once we hit that midpoint the narrative is a straight shot from 3 into 4.
The sequences of Bruce as a child and at the courthouse are not backstory--they are an essential part of his emotional growth. Backstory is anything you can remove that won't have an effect on the meaning of a story. Remove those earlier sequences of Bruce and you only have half a story.
The murder of Bruce's parents is the flashpoint for his Throughline and the reason for everything that comes after. That tragedy starts the inequity within him that motivates his emotional arc. But their death had another important narrative function--a function that further proves the first half of Batman Begins not to be backstory.
When A Story Begins
In the article Plot Points and the Inciting Incident, the process by which a story starts is explained:
Every problem has its own genesis, a moment at which the balance is tipped and the previous sense of oneness is lost. With separation comes the awareness of an inequity, and a desire to return back to a state of parity. Every problem has a solution, and a story explores that process of trying to attain resolution.
Clearly, the murder of Bruce's parents created a separation within Bruce personally. But it also did so within the context of the
Objective Story Throughline--that Throughline that defines the source of conflict for all. As Ra's al Ghul explains:
With Gotham, we tried a new one: Economics. But we underestimated certain of Gotham's citizens... such as your parents. Gunned down by one of the very people they were trying to help. Create enough hunger and everyone becomes a criminal. Their deaths galvanized the city into saving itself... and Gotham has limped on ever since.
Story Driver started not only Bruce's Throughline, but the Objective Story Throughline of driving Gotham into chaos. This is why the Dramatica storyform for Batman Begins uses
Chaos to define the
Objective Story Throughline. With the city "galvanized" to save itself, a separation began between what Gotham wanted and what the League of Shadows saw fit. Chaos was the problem that arose because of that separation.
Order can resolve
The Meaningful Character Arc
One of the story points Dramatica defines is the Main Character Approach. Some Main Characters will prefer to solve problems externally and are known a
Do-er, while others prefer to solve problems internally as a
Be-er. As explained in Writers Who Write the Same Main Character, Bruce is a Be-er:
At first, this may seem counterintuitive. Certainly Bruce spends the bulk of the film doing things. When we first meet him he takes on seven prisoners by himself, for "practice". He engages in ninja school and spends pretty much the entire second half of the film fighting his way to victory. But when you look at the personal moments with Wayne, those moments that are intimate to his character and his character only--you can begin to see a preference for a different kind of approach.
The first half of the narrative Bruce spends as a Be-er. The second half of the narrative as a Do-er. Nolan weaves from present to past to present again, showing scenes of Bruce solving problems externally followed by scenes of internal problem solving. This is why it can seem as if Bruce is a Do-er at times. But what we are really seeing is the second half of Bruce's emotional arc
That switch from Be-er to Do-er is encoded within another story point, the 
Main Character Resolve](/appreciations/main-character-resolve). A character who Changes` their Resolve will move from one approach to the other. A Do-er changes to a Be-er, a Be-er changes to a Do-er. Bruce points this out in no uncertain terms with his comment about what he does as being the most important thing, but it is present in all effective narrative.
In The Dark Knight the order is reversed. In the 2nd film, Bruce changes from his heroic ways as a Do-er to Be-ing the villain Gotham deserves. Same dynamic, different order.
This approach to solving problems changes because the Main Character is adopting the Influence Charcater's point-of-view. Ra's is a Do-er through and through. Bruce finally doing what is necessary resolves the argument between them as it completes his emotional arc from Be-er to Do-er.
As a Be-er, Bruce is lost. Aimless. Falling in with the criminal element and wrecking havoc on those who would do harm by becoming a symbol. That
Main Character Problem of
Chaos only magnifies the struggle to overcome the memory of his parent's death. The bats swirling around him a perfect visualization of the chaos going on in his head.
It is only once he brings
Order to his own thoughts is he able to finally bring
Order to Gotham and save the city from destroying itself.
Scenes with Purpose
If you can remove a scene and it won't have any noticeable effect on the meaning of a story--on what you are trying to communicate--then it is backstory and not necessary. If those scenes carry unique identifiers as to the structure of a narrative then they are not backstory and must be included to complete the message of the story.
Batman Begins works as a perfect example of telling backstory that isn't backstory. Chronological time-shifting and other techniques of storyweaving bring interest to a story while maintaining the integrity of the narrative. Discovering the storyform of your particular story and understanding how those story points work together can help you determine what is essential for your story and what is not.
[^storyform]: Visit the Dramatica website for the storyform for Memento.