Good Will Hunting has some of the best backstory integration ever in a script.
It’s essential to every screenplay.
Yet so few writers understand how to apply it.
Some choke their screenplays with so much backstory, their story suffocates and passes out. While others add so little, it’s like their characters were born the second they typed “FADE IN.” How much backstory should you be adding to your screenplays? The answer lies in why you’re adding backstory in the first place.
Backstory is the key to character depth. Some teacher or writer started a rumor a few years back that nobody cares about a character’s past. The only thing that matters is the present – what the character is doing right here and now. The sentiment of that opinion is correct. The character present – the choices your hero makes right now – have the biggest influence on how your character is perceived. But your character can’t make a single choice that isn’t motivated by his past. Which is why backstory IS relevant.
For example, if a character was sexually abused growing up, their choices in pursuing a serial rapist are going to be different from someone who’s never experienced abuse before. Or, if you want to go to even more of an extreme, than someone who’s a closet rapist themselves.
This is why laying out an extensive backstory for your characters is essential. The more you know about your character’s past, the easier it is to inform their present and future. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, it’s one of those things that separates the great scripts from the average ones. I can tell when someone’s done their backstory homework. Their characters all act and speak specifically. Whereas when a writer knows nothing about their characters’ backstory, their characters speak in generalities and clichés, usually those that echo popular movies they’ve seen.
For example, one of the reasons Will Hunting is such an amazing character is because of how well Matt Damon and Ben Affleck knew his history. They knew the neighborhood Will grew up in, the friends he ran with, the girls he slept with, that his father beat him, how his father beat him, that he was self-taught, how loyal he was, how he’d kill someone before embarrassing a friend while out for drinks. They knew the same thing about Sean, Robin Williams’ character. They knew when he met his wife, how he met her (during the Red Sox game), the type of cancer that killed her, how long he had to take care of her. These two characters were memorable BECAUSE of how well the writers understood them. And that all goes back to how much research they put into their characters’ backstory.
Not only that. But the more backstory you know, the more intricate and textured your story will be. The backstory is where you’ll find out Marty McFly wants to be a rock star, that he’s become best friends with a mad genius, that his father’s been a loser geek his whole life, that his mom used to be a bad girl, that he’s fallen in love, that the clock tower died in the 50s after a giant storm. The backstory is where you’ll find out John McClane’s wife moved to Los Angeles to pursue her career, leaving him behind. It’s where you’ll find out Thor’s complicated relationship with his brother. It’s where you’ll find out Hannibal used to eat his victims.
But how do you integrate backstory into a script? How do you know when you’re writing too much backstory or not enough? First, you need to understand the two types of backstory – VISIBLE backstory and INVISIBLE backstory. Invisible backstory will account for 90% of your backstory research. It’s everything from where your character grew up to their first love to their level of education to their biggest tragedies to their biggest fears to who they had the best sex of their life with. Yes, all that stuff matters. The more you know about your character, the easier it is to make them original and interesting. The thing is, rarely will invisible backstory show up in a script. It’s there more to inform your own relationship with your character. It’s there so you can understand them and motivate their choices.
For example, if you’re writing a Romantic Comedy and your hero, Kate, is about to get married to the love of her life, the boring yet “perfect” Thaddeus, and the dangerous guy she had the best sex of her life with, Cabe, just happened to come back into town, you’ve created the perfect opportunity for conflict. Without having done your invisible backstory research, this knowledge, this opportunity for conflict, may have never presented itself.
VISIBLE backstory is different. These are the 3-4 major things that have happened in your character’s past that WILL PLAY A PART in the movie itself. You only want to bring visible backstory up if it’s going to be relevant to the story in some way. So in Taken, we learn that Liam Neeson has been a terrible father and husband. He was not there for his family, which resulted in his wife falling out of love with him and running off with another man, taking his daughter with her. His desire to win his daughter over again, to repair that relationship, is what creates the bond necessary for us to root for him saving her once she’s kidnapped.
Or in Bridesmaids, Kristin Wiig’s failed bakery stole a big part of her confidence away. When it went under, she was forced to take a job she hated, leaving her desperate to find a man. When she starts dating the police officer, baking again becomes a major theme in their relationship. And when she experiences her rock bottom at the end of the second act, baking visually represents her rebirth.
The point is, visible backstory represents 3 or 4 major things that will influence the story. Your character may be the world’s pre-eminent Depression-Era nickel collector. But if collecting nickels never influences the story in a relevant way, then log that under the “invisible” category, not the “visible.” You only want to mention backstory that influences the plot (“Save the Clock Tower!”) or a character arc (Sean not being able to live life after his wife died in Good Will Hunting).
So now that you understand backstory, how do you get it into your story? Do you just throw it in there willy-nilly and hope for the best? Of course not. The way backstory is placed in your story is almost as important as the backstory itself. The worst thing a writer can do is have a character dive into their backstory unprovoked. You guys know what I’m talking about. Your characters may be between chase scenes. It’s a quiet moment. Then all of a sudden one of them launches into a monologue that starts off like: “I was six years old when my father first beat me. I still remember it like it was yesterday…” Ugh. Groan. Please never do this.
Instead, use Scriptshadow’s Fabulous Five Ways For Better Backstory Integration. You’ll thank me afterwards.
Resistance – One of the best ways to reveal backstory is through resistance. The character revealing their backstory shouldn’t want to. This eliminates the falseness that comes with your character revealing backstory in the first place. For a great example of this, watch the “Cage” scene in Silence Of The Lambs. In it, Hannibal refuses to give Clarice the information she wants until she tells him the lamb story. She’s desperate not to tell him, but she knows it’s the only way she’ll be able to get to Buffalo Bill before he kills the girl. So she tells him.
Argument – Hiding backstory is easily achieved when two characters are going at it. Because we’re so wrapped up in the argument (or conflict), we’re not aware that the writer is actually giving us key pieces of backstory on the character(s). Watch the Good Will Hunting scene where Will talks to Sean in therapy for the first time. Will starts challenging Sean’s credentials, and ultimately, his love for his wife. The end of the scene gets very heated, with Sean physically choking Will – something he clearly deserved. The conflict in the scene is top-notch, but check out what we learned during it – Sean’s storied education as well as how much he loves his wife. Use those arguments baby. They’re backstory batter.
Another Character Reveals The Backstory – You want to avoid your hero revealing his own backstory. It just never comes out right. A great way to avoid this is to have someone else reveal it for him. Check out the limo scene in Die Hard for a great example. We need to know why John has come to LA to visit his wife. Instead of John telling the driver (which would’ve been totally out of character), the limo driver takes some guesses. He figures out that she left to pursue a bigger job. He figures out that John thought she would fail and crawl back to New York. John never says a word about his life in this scene and yet we get a ton of backstory on him.
Showing, Not Telling – This screenwriting staple is a great way to reveal backstory. Why? Because you don’t have to say a word. You show it instead. And showing always resonates more with an audience. In Moneyball, there’s a scene where Brad Pitt’s character comes to his ex-wife’s place to pick up his daughter. Do we ever get a monologue about how he screwed up his marriage and wasn’t there for his family and now rarely gets to see his daughter? No. But we get a scene where he awkwardly waits in a living room with his ex-wife and her boyfriend while his daughter gets ready that tells us everything we need to know about his past. Great screenwriters use this technique as much as possible.
Bits and Pieces – The longer you dedicate a moment to revealing backstory, the clearer it becomes that you’re revealing backstory. The naturalism of the scene disintegrates, and pretty soon it feels like the writer’s stopped the story cold to directly remind the reader what’s going on. A great way to combat this is to reveal backstory in bits and pieces. Spread it out instead of throwing it at the reader all at once. This will hide it, making it harder for the reader to discern that backstory is being disseminated. One of the best examples of this is Field Of Dreams. The reason Ray reuniting with his father in the climax is one of the great endings of all time, is because the writer mentioned Ray Cancella’s issues with his father in tiny bits and pieces throughout the screenplay. You were never bombarded with any huge father backstory moments. So spreading out backstory in small easy to digest pieces is a super way to hide it.
And there you go folks. You now know everything you need to know about backstory – one of the more underrated facets of screenwriting. I can’t stress enough that if you haven’t done an extensive amount of backstory research on your characters, your story is never going to have enough depth to impact a reader. So go back to your current screenplay and see if that depth is there. If it isn’t, it might be time to go back to the beginning of your character’s life. Find out everything you can about him before your story started. I promise that once you do, your story is going to come alive.