Other than a popular murder mystery series written by Robert B. Parker and part of great website by Windy Lynn Harris backstory can be described largely as: “a story that tells what led up to the main story or plot (as of a film).” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/backstory)
-image courtesy google images
Last night I caught a 2011 episode of Castle called “Setup.” Embedded in this story, of international versus homegrown terrorist intrigue, is Homeland Security Agent Mark Fallon, a mercurial, stringent character with aggressive tendencies. Agent Fallon’s character serves as a foil to Kate Beckett’s normally tough-edge and Richard Castle’s comic relief. Agent Fallon’s gut wrenching backstory, revealed about two-thirds of the way through the show diffuses some of his inexplicable aggressiveness and adds a layers of intrigue and complexity to what appears to be a straight forward story line.
Here is the setup to Setup:
Recently US-nationalized Syrian cab driver Amir Alhabi, who runs his own company… is shot in his cab after a 45 tour… . Homeland Security Agent Mark Fallon takes charge after… cobalt radiation [is discovered and]…feared to stem from a nuclear weapon. (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1628166/plotsummary?ref_=tt_ov_pl)
Agent Fallon, in interrogating Alhabi’s innocent widow oversteps the line by threatening to take her baby away. Viewers know the line has been crossed by expressions on Beckett and Castle’s face. But their stance toward Fallon softens when they learn through fellow officers his backstory. Fallon is driven to distraction to protect New York City from terrorism because as Detective Kevin Ryan explains, “On 9/11 his wife rode the second tower down. They were on the phone till the end.”
The backstory not only explains his behavior, it allows viewers to excuse it, somewhat. Backstory, as a literary technique, in that sense serves to add needed moderation and complexity to a seemingly straightforward story.
This brings me to a story I’ve held close to my chest for a while. In order to protect those mentioned, I shall remain a bit circumspect regarding names and details, but you’ll get the idea…
At a recent international exchange student event, I watched a young man play the piano. I wouldn’t have thought much of it: a young man gets up in front of a crowd of about a hundred other students and families in his Asian nation’s traditional garb and plays an advanced beginner piano piece. Except that upon entering the event that night, I overheard his American host parent mention how the student was disappointed that she did not have a piano he could practice that weekend.
That caught my attention since, what high schooler do I know—in this country—who’d want to practice piano—let alone over a weekend? It’s usually (American) parents begging—rather flogging—their high schoolers to practice–anytime.
The following morning, I had a chance to walk with this student who shyly lingered behind the rest on a walk through the city. And, on this walk his backstory emerged.
“I enjoyed your concert last night,” I said.
“Did you play before you came to the US?”
“What do your parents do in your country?”
“My father grows rice and oxen. My mother gives massages,” he said.
“Will you be able to play piano when you go home?”
“No. Not many people in my country can afford one. My family cannot,” he answered.
Immediately upon learning that backstory my mind scrolled back to the night before: the nervous young man on stage, playing a song to images of his country projected on a screen large enough for a movie theater for over a hundred people representing fifteen countries. It didn’t matter to him that most kids his age could play songs five times as difficult. Last night was his Carnegie Hall—a once in a lifetime moment. Later I learned that a local musician had donated a year’s worth of lessons to this young man’s lifelong desire to learn the piano.
The backstory in this case made the story. It framed the hesitant young man’s debut as something extraordinary, worthy of special attention. Learning of this backstory, we are on pins and needles for him as he plays the piano, wondering if such a moment will again be possible when he returns to tend oxen and rice paddies. Can he have both ways of life, represented by the rice paddy and the piano? Or will one recede into memory, sacrificed for the other? Or will circumstance decide for him?
Television decides for us—the importance of the front and the backstory. But real life is slow to give up its backstories. Cherish them when the veils fall away revealing something sacred.
How often have you changed your opinion of someone once you understood his or her backstory? How did knowing the backstory make a difference in your view of that person and their situation?
That boy, the piano, wow. You’re right, it’s all in the backstory. This is a great reminder for us writers to tell the whole story. The REAL story 🙂
Thanks. My heart hurt thinking of his whole story. And, how to write it without revealing too many details that may give him away.
Renee, this is great. I am a sucker for a backstory that is also a sobstory. I often change my opinion once I know this stuff, but also I’m old enough that I now look for these stories when I encounter a difficult person. That’s been a long time coming. Now that I think of it, the book I am working on is the story and the backstory which are of equal weight and that might be part of my difficulty in structuring!
I hear you on changing your opinion once we know backstory. It seems we filter thinking of ourselves first until we can step into someone else’s shoes by knowing what’s behind their situation. So cool – your revelation on structure. I worry my current backstory as represented by the log line I sent you yesterday may not be enough backstory to carry a typical backstory weight…but that begs the question – how much weight/space should a backstory entail? I think your “backstory” is so much of the story… perhaps your backstory and your teenage perceptions of situations actually merge and that is where your time travel technique helps! Hope my pre-coffee brain is making sense. Hugs, R
I sent you an email about your log line. Let me know what you think about what I said. The term log line isn’t familiar to me so I’m not sure I gave you back what you were looking for. That’s a thought about the time travel. I’ll have to see where Horwitz takes me ;). xo
YOU HAVE ESP! I’M ABOUT 2 PGS INTO MY RESPONSE! IT’S ON ITS WAY SOON!
Renee, that was very well put: “real life is slow to give up its backstories.” How true!
I find it a challenge in writing to use backstory effectively. It can so easily become boring if it isn’t used to advantage with the right quantity, timing, and placement.
Thank you. You said it: “Quantity, timing and placement.” And, these are different for each story, aren’t they? That is the art and craft of what we do… I suppose there are those who can make a formula out of it, but readers are savvy…and unless enough is different with each book or story they may bored… I appreciate you liking that line about backstory. When I’m under self-imposed deadlines, I no longer linger over lines that give pleasure… I do, however, linger over ones that don’t work– so thank you for liking that!
When we work w/peer mediation kids it’s refr’d to as others having an known/unknown ‘agenda’. Don’t rush to presume/judge….there may be more that contributed to that action/derog. remark/gossip item. Try to teach the kids to observe before rushing to judgement & listen to answers that may bring the hidden agenda to light. Sometimes we use ‘caucus’/private conv. where the mediator learns what was really behind the action & has to verify that this will remain hidden or if it’s OK to bring it to the table & include it in the discussion. (Remind me to tell you what one of the students came back a yr. later to tell me abt. how he applied this in his family life…………..the ultimate goal!….life skill that can be subcons’ly applied & lead to more peacefullllllllll encounters!)
This is an amazing contribution. I should review mediation skills. I’ve been in such a pressure cooker lately, I’ve responded to a couple of people, actually mirroring negative phrases that have been pushed at me… practicing such skills would have helped me recognize and refrain before people got hurt. I’ve worked at it through the years, but it always helps to keep ingraining new practices and practicing! You’re a gem Mary!