While a lot of backstory can be implied it can be very difficult to tell a story with no explicit backstory. A common problem that arises here is that writers can sometimes assume that when we’re giving explicit backstory it requires sections of telling or flashbacks, as we discussed in previous exposition articles, but explicit backstory can be broken up into small fragments and spread around.
An obvious example of this would be the original Star Wars films and the famous line, ‘Luke, I am your father’. In one line we’ve been told everything we need to know about Vader’s backstory with Luke. We do learn other things through the films but we don’t have long sections about how Vader met Luke’s mother, or stories about their relationship, or how it all came to an end (I know all this covered in the prequels but the original films work as a story without it).
Could this have been included in the original trilogy? It would’ve be difficult, Vader is not the type of character to go to a bar and talk about his past loves with someone and being on opposite sides of the divide makes it difficult for Luke and his Father to sit down for a nice chat. What is important to the plot of the original trilogy is the implications of a father and son relationship between the antagonist and protagonist. One sentence creates questions of Luke’s potential to become like Vader, whether Vader could kill his own son and, if he does love Luke, it gives Vader a potential human weakness. This doesn’t need explanation because parent and child relationships are relatable.
Another way the original trilogy gives explicit backstory is the use of metaphorical backstory. This might sound like a contradiction in terms, and it can be because the nature of metaphor means we could have something metaphorical reveal backstory without it being explicit. However, in the case of Star Wars Luke is explicitly told that Vader killed his father which is both truth and a lie. Vader killed Luke’s father metaphorically when Luke’s Father became Vader. Luke is not told how Vader killed his father which allows Luke, and the audience, to assume that Vader murdered his father. When we discover that Vader is in fact Luke’s father this doesn’t contradict what we were told only what we assumed. This method plays on the use of language and what that language implies to an audience. Once again this backstory only requires one line but tells the audience a lot, particularly that there is the potential in this story for a revenge quest and conflict between these two characters beyond good and evil.
Doing a fragmented reveal of backstory can be tricky because it requires figuring out which pieces need to be revealed, where and when and what the minimal amount we can reveal is. Often the easiest way to do this is to write out as much as we feel we need in a first draft, even if it’s a massive truckload of information, and then cut it down and rearrange it during editing.
Another problem with this method is whether or not the readers/audience will remember the information. This means we have to try and find moments where it won’t be lost. One of the reasons ‘Luke, I am your father’ is so memorable is the combination of dramatic moment and simple statement. If Vader had a long speech at that moment we would’ve remembered the revelation but we might not have remembered what he said, which wouldn’t have been necessary anyway. The complexity would’ve buried the impact of the moment and detracted from the overall drama of the scene.
When we’re deciding how much backstory to reveal it’s important to consider the effect it will have on a scene, a slow moving scene might be able to carry long backstory but a dramatic fast moving scene might not. While some things might need more explanation than other things. This balance can be tricky to find so it doesn’t matter if we don’t get it right the first time, we can develop it during editing.