I know I keep hammering on this, but taking the time and effort to do extensive backstory exploration on your characters, the milestone events in their lives, and their timelines pays huge dividends when you begin serious work on structuring your story. This is the one area that the better books on screenwriting and playwriting tend to short change and sometimes ignore altogether, good as they are at dealing with story structure and how to construct a viable script. And my strong belief–based on my own experience as a writer and the consistent positive results achieved by my many clients and MFA students–is that taking the time to thoroughly explore the backstories of your characters is an important key to successful script writing.
Granted, when you first come up with a new story idea it’s important to pin down the basics of what might motor the script in terms of central character, his or her external want and internal need, the other potential major characters and how they might put up barriers and create the tension and conflict in your central figure’s arc or journey, and finally, giving some thought as to where the story might land and what kind of statement that ending is leaving with your audience. This is the way you initially test a new idea to see if it might have the “stuff” needed for you to begin to dig deeper.
However, it’s at this point that many writers make a mistake. If they’re still excited by the idea, they’re eager to push ahead and immediately attempt to invent and develop their plot in some detail, following one or more of the many structural paradigms commonly used in our field. The problem is that they’re skipping a critical step in the process, namely stepping back at this point and taking the time to thoroughly explore the backstories of the characters, their voices, and the baggage they bring with them into the story that’s going to be the script itself. In other words, getting to know the major players as real people with real pasts who bring to the story unique personalities with powerful emotional memories.
Because it’s doing this exploratory work that arms the writer with a rich understanding of that nine-tenths of their story that’s going to always be hovering there under the surface. And there’s no better way to enter into the plot invention phase of the process than with this exploratory work at your disposal.
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I’m the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art. Our next residency runs January 3-11, 2016 and we are now considering applications for starting the program in January. I’m also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter), and a professional script consultant.