1. Ryan Elder
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    Ryan Elder Contributing Member

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    How much backstory time for characters before throwing them into the event?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Ryan Elder, May 7, 2016.

    I was told by a couple of readers that my characters do not have enough background introduction and I tend to throw them right into the events, where the reader doesn't know anything about these people or who they are.

    I kind if intended it that way though, as the reveal of who the characters are, are surprises that come later, so if I were to go into background detail, I feel it would give too much away. Other characters, I just like throwing them into the 'inciting event', because I thought I would have the inciting event as the opening hook, rather than introduce the characters first, and have the event come later.

    The two readers who had a problem with it, both used the movie Die Hard as an example coincidentally, by saying in that movie, the main character has about 20 minutes of background introduction before putting him in the inciting event.

    Do you think an MC needs that much time for the reader to care about him as a character, or can you throw the MC into an inciting event, and they could still care, or at least be interested in what is going to happen, if they find the event itself intriguing?

    Or do readers prefer to be compelled by characters first and foremost before events?

    Also how much background do other characters needs before putting them into the event? To still use Die Hard as an example, McClane's wife is also given probably about at least 10 minutes of background before the event, and the villain is given none at all, and starts out in the event as his first appearance.

    But even if I decide to open with the inciting event as the hook, and go into character background later on, how much backstory time is needed? I am writing a screenplay, and the way I have it now, is that it's kind of structured the opposite of Die Hard, where the first 20 minutes of time, is all plot and events pretty much.

    Then about 20 minutes in, MC is given background time, with a flashback to his personal life even, once things quiet down. The villain is not given any background hardly, cause she is a mystery character at this point.

    But what do you think? Is doing an opposite structure perhaps not the way to go? Thanks for the input. I really appreciate it.
     
  2. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    Unfortunately, Hollywood expects a more-or-less standard structure, so most of the advice you'll get will be quotes from Syd Field or Blake Snyder or Robert McKee (although I never understood where McKee was coming from, so you won't get those from me).

    But that being said, non-standard can work, too. I think you might need to strike a balance, though and find ways to bring backstory into the action as it unfolds in the first ten minutes. This might come in the form of the MC trying to solve a problem in his personal life while he's trying to engage with the main story problem (the same as what John McClane is doing with Holly at the beginning of Die Hard).

    The drawback to this approach is that you may have to take your screenplay to the indie circuit if you wanna see it produced.
     
  3. Ryan Elder
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    Ryan Elder Contributing Member

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    Okay thanks. Well the indie circuit is a lot easier to market too. I never thought it would see Hollywood to be honest.

    But even though I open with plot, suspense and action for the first 1o-20 minutes, I can still develop characters within it, but I am limited since the MC has a mystery to figure out. It's told more from the MC's point of view, so when the villains strike terror in the opening, you have no idea who these characters are or what they are doing, and there is even an internal conflict within the villain group, which is a subplot that has pay off's later, and the conflict starts in the opening.

    But again, if I explain too much, then the surprises will not be surprises later. So how do have the reader think "Oh I wonder who these people are and what is going to happen later!", instead "I don't know who any of these people are, and not much of their backgrounds was given to explain them or make me care"?
     
  4. Mike Kobernus
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    Mike Kobernus Contributing Member

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    For me, I would say zero back story. Just create the event, let it unfold, and then we start to figure out who is who and who thinks what as the novel unfolds.
     
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  5. Sniam
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    Sniam Member

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    I think the best way to learn about a character is understanding their reaction to the situations they are confronted to.
    It might seem childish, but in comics and mangas for instance, it is usually how things go : you're in the story, and a great obstacle arise. It is to understand the reaction of the MC to this peculiar situation that the background story is revealed, and thus it is relevant and not pushed onto the reader.
    Now, it depends on whether you want the reader to be comfortable and have their marks, or if you want them to discover things bit by bit. I would say it thus greatly varies on who you're writing for. Older generations tend to prefer background stories straight away, while the younger generations are used to arriving in media res thanks to hollywood movies.
    But, most importantly, write as you like to write :)
     
  6. Ryan Elder
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    Ryan Elder Contributing Member

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    Okay that makes sense. There is one character in my story who's actions do not make much sense, till about halfway through the story when a surprise is revealed about them. But is their a way I can make the reader assume it will all make sense in the end, and there will be an explanation? Cause so far one reader told me that he assumed the character made no sense and gave up, rather than assume it will make sense once a surprise was revealed later.
     
  7. KhalieLa
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    KhalieLa It's not a lie, it's fiction. Contributor

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    I happen to agree with this ^^^, and that is exactly what I did with my first novel. Then, like you, all my readers complained that I didn't give enough backstory FIRST. So I wrote a chapter to go in front of the first chapter. It's boring, nothing happens, and we go nowhere. When my book gets to an editor and we start talking about cutting unnecessary chapters, I'm hoping this one gets the ax.

    All that is not to say that the process of writing out backstory isn't beneficial. As a writer, you'll get to know your characters better, it will pacify the alpha's and beta's, and you can always cut it later.
     
  8. Ryan Elder
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    Ryan Elder Contributing Member

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    That's true. Well I would like to keep the villains and supporting characters all part of the mystery for the MC to figure out during the action. Since the action goes quiet after the first 20 minutes about, and the MC has some time on his own, I would like to explore his personal life then, with his love interest since she becomes a key character in the story's tragic ending.

    However, if you have a love subplot in a thriller, that comes to a tragic end, how much time, outside of the plot should I spend on it, before the plot hits the fan, and the characters become too busy to show much of their personal lives? Like how much time should I spend on developing the love story, before throwing obstacles at it, if that makes sense?
     
  9. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    Quick solution (very little screen time) is to have a save-the-cat moment, a la Blake Snyder. Instant empathy for the MC.
     
  10. Ryan Elder
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    Ryan Elder Contributing Member

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    What's a save the cat moment though? I read some of Snyder's book, but when you say save the cat moment, what do you mean by that specifically?
     
  11. Aaron Smith
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    Aaron Smith Contributing Member Contributor

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    If you feel like the backstory is important, start the book there.
     
  12. Sniam
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    Sniam Member

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    A "Save-the-cat" scene is, quoted from the book :
    "[...]the scene where we meet the hero and the hero does something - like saving a cat - that defines who he is and make us, the audience, like him."
    *closes book*

    So I guess you should define your character by little acts that make him seem nice enough to keep the readers reading long enough to finally read the background story you'll bring to them.
     
  13. Ryan Elder
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    Ryan Elder Contributing Member

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    Oh okay. Well in the first scene of the story, the hero saves a woman from being kidnapped, which sets off the chain of events for the rest of the story, so I guess that would the save the cat moment. I was told by one reader that it's too jarring since we do not know who any of the people are by opening in a kidnapping situation, but they are suppose to be mysteries.
     
  14. Sniam
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    Sniam Member

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    One thing though is that you shouldn't make people wait too long for the actual plot. A reader has a certain amount of patience, so I think you should feed them with some parts or some hints of the plot to reassure them that they will get what they opened the book for.
     
  15. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    A simple example:
    Your MC, gun drawn, ducks behind a trash bin. He peeks out and sees the bad guy who also sees him and starts shooting. A squeak! OMG, there's a mouse on top of the trash bin trying to get out of the line of fire. MC grabs him and puts him down behind the bin as he returns fire.

    It doesn't have to be big, nor does it need to take a lot of time. It just needs to show the reader/audience that the MC thinks beyond himself and is willing to protect/help others.
     

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