On the Nose Without a Backstory

One mistake novice screenwriters make is that their writing is too “on the nose.” That means characters say and do exactly what they want, which makes stories dull and flat.

My latest favorite bad movie is “The Last Airbender.” One of the biggest problems with most bad movies is that each scene is too direct. For example, there are multiple scenes in “The Last Airbender” where two characters stand around talking, say exactly what’s on their mind, and then the scene ends.

Boring! Here’s why.

Just as every story needs a backstory, so does every scene need a backstory. This backstory gets the scene off to a start and helps wrap it up with a punch at the end.

Think of the first scene with John Travolta and Samuel Jackson in “Pulp Fiction.” The backstory is that they’re two hit men on their way to a hit. A bad movie might have these two hit man telling each other they’re going to gun down some bad guys and then have them drive off to do it. Dull, right?

In “Pulp Fiction,” this backstory drives this scene, but is hidden. John Travolta and Samuel Jackson talk about Burger King, French fries with mayonnaise, and Big Macs. We have no idea what they’re doing until the end when they stop the car and pull out their weapons. Suddenly, the scene grabs our attention and we can’t wait to see what happens next.

A bad movie might show two hit men telling each other they’re going for a hit. End of scene. Then the next scene might show the two hit men shooting the bad guys. End of scene. See how boring that is?

You want to give each scene a backstory that makes us discover something new. In the initial scene with John Travolta and Samuel Jackson, we discovered the oddities of fast food around the world, then suddenly we discover they’re two hit men.

In the next scene, we see the two hit men facing their eventual victims. The backstory is that these guys screwed over the hit men’s boss and the hit men are there to take back possession of a suitcase. Instead of shooting these guys right away, the two hit men talk about one of the victim’s hamburger, which calls back to the earlier scene about Big Macs and Burger Kings. We know the hit men are going to do something, but we don’t know what. That creates suspense and holds our attention.

We’re gradually learning more about the story world of “Pulp Fiction.” Now we learn why the hit men are on a mission, but the backstory is that these guys tried to screw over the hit men’s boss. Each scene has a backstory that reveals and shows us another part of its imaginary world.

For a blatant example of bad story-telling, watch the cult classic “Reefer Madness.” This film tells the story of the tragedy of a dope dealer who wrecks the lives of all-American high school kids by getting them hooked on marijuana. Besides the bad acting, what sinks each scene in “Reefer Madness” is that there’s no backstory. The dope dealer wants to sell dope to some kids so that’s what he does. We don’t know why, we don’t know what his motives are, we don’t know what the kids’’ motives are. As a result, we don’t care about the characters or the story, but we laugh at its silliness.

Watch “The Last Airbender” or “Clash of the Titans” to see equally bad story writing. We don’t know the motives of most characters because we don’t know the backstory. Each scene doesn’t reveal more about its story world, but simply exists to push the plot forward. Dull, boring, and flat.

Every scene needs a backstory that gets revealed as the scene progresses. Bruce Willis in the opening scene of “Die Hard” appears to be an ordinary passenger on the plane, but suddenly we see he’s a cop, which will play an important part later in the story. We think John Travolta and Samuel Jackson are good guys, then we find the backstory that they’re hit men. The next scene we think they’re going to kill someone, and the backstory reveals why (because they tried to screw over the hit man’s boss). Each scene reveals part of the backstory that’s used later in the film.

In the case of “Die Hard,” knowing Bruce Willis is a cop doesn’t pay off until later. In the case of “Pulp Fiction,” knowing that John Travolta and Samuel Jackson are hit men pays off in the next scene.

When creating a scene, make sure you have a backstory and reveal it in that scene. Then make sure whatever you reveal appears later in your story. In this way, scenes daisy-chain themselves and lead the audience from point A to point B until you get to the end of your story. At all times, your backstories of each scene links your scene and story together to create a whole story. In bad movies, scenes seem disconnected because they are, and a lot less interesting as a result. In good movies, scenes are connected and more interesting as a result, so which type of movie do you want to write?

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