By Jay Stringer
So, I watched the Veronica Mars movie over the weekend. You can hear me talk about it on the Fuzzy Typewriter podcast (link to come). Short version of a long chat- I loved the film, but on it's own terms, as a chance to spend more time with those characters and that world, not as a classic stand-alone film.
It got me thinking, not for the first time, of backstory.
It's something I fought with a lot while writing the Eoin Miller Trilogy. The series is cumulative, each book informs the next, but they all needed to work as stand-alone novels. And where was I going to draw the line? How was I going to balance how to give old information to new readers without alienating existing readers or derailing the story.
I fought with that concept all the way up until the second draft of Lost City when I realised- It doesn't matter.
We make it matter. We stress about it. We put needless time and energy into it. Whenever we're dealing with existing characters -be it a book series, a film sequel, an adaptation- we debate how much we need to reveal, when we need to reveal it. Comic book writers and readers always discuss how much they need to recap old events, and when those characters are translated to film, we've seen a great many of the fail under the weight of backstory.
Veronica Mars is a lot of fun as a film, but it opens with a monologue that tells us what happened during the three seasons of the TV show. By the time the first scene opens, we've already been given a tonne of backstory up front.
You know what? Forget it. Don't worry about it.
Every story that we ever encounter has backstory. Every great film, book, comic or play. Chinatown has an epic backstory, one that is revealed slowly throughout the film and helps us to understand the characters. Story is backstory. It's what has formed our characters and our plot. And part of the art of storytelling is revealing that at the right time, in the right place, through the course of the story.
But for some reason, when we come to returning to old characters -or translating them to a new medium- we forget this. We start to panic. But what if the new viewers or readers don't know the history? That means they won't get it? Of course they will. Just as they do in every story ever told. It doesn't matter if it's a sequel, a reboot or an adaptation; Just tell your story. Tell your best story, and tell it as if this is the first time you've ever told it. Think, if this was the first time I was writing these characters, where would I reveal the past? How little could I get away with revealing? What is it that will inform the present?
Trust yourself and trust your reader, or viewer. We don't need a recap, we just need your "A game."
Yes. But I do have to say that I have often (too often) been pulled out of a story because I can't see any way for these characters to have gotten into this position in the first place.
But then I realized that's my problem.
I've had to deal with this in the Penns River series, and worried about many of the same things you talked about. I dropped bits of Book 1 into Book 2, but, I hoped, only enough to let those who'd started from the beginning know I hadn't forgotten about a couple of threads I left out there. The total backstory explanation consisted of about a paragraph, plus the short scene to show the residual animosity between the characters.
Then I got lucky and Stark House picked up GRIND JOINT, which was Book 2. I half expected to be asked to either cut that scene, or expand on it. No mention was made, and no review has made mention of it. You're right: the only person who cared was me.
I think we owe it to readers to create plausible situations for our characters to start with, which addresses John's comment, as I don't believe it's entirely the reader's problem. Even Carl Hiaasen makes sure we understand why a character who's missing a hand has a week whacker as a prosthesis. (No kidding; it's in STAR ISLAND.) He still only takes a few paragraphs, and fills in details as needed.
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