How Backstory Creates Story, Part 1: Mining Backward

How Backstory Creates Story

How Backstory Creates Story, Part 1: Mining Backward

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Okay, friends, I’m late to the game, but I finally got sucked in by Succession, and the hubs and I spent the last month Hoovering up every episode of every season.

One of the reasons it took us so long to watch it despite the hype was the subject matter: A family of obscenely rich, morally bankrupt misanthropes vie for control of a media empire that peddles sensationalist slanted stories and fosters divisiveness.

We’re full up on all that in real life at the moment, thanks.

But mainly we resisted because every review and every person who told us about it said basically the same thing: that the show was populated almost exclusively by selfish, scheming, backstabbing, self-serving characters.

Feeling pretty topped off there too these days in the news headlines.

But finally, finding ourselves between shows, we decided to try it, and indeed these characters do despicable things, ruthlessly betraying anyone standing between them and the power they crave and seeming to have no remorse about any of it.

So why did it take exactly one episode to completely hook me? Why the hell did I care about every one of these pretty uniformly awful people?

Time to analyze, friends. Spoilers ahead. Spoilers galore.

Read more: “Analyzing What Makes Story Work (or Not)”

How Backstory Serves Story

Succession is some of the best storytelling on TV, from the writing to the directing to the acting and every other element of the story (the camera work! those sets! the styling! the music!). But readers ride into story on the backs of characters—we don’t care what’s happening unless we care who it’s happening to—and this is where the story really shines.

Readers ride into story on the backs of characters—we don’t care what’s happening unless we care who it’s happening to.

Both the show’s creators and the uniformly brilliant actors who portray the Roys and their vicious little circle of cronies take characters who could easily be one-note stereotypes and give them dimension and nuance by showing what makes them act as they do.

In other words, backstory.

Listen to what actor Alan Ruck says on HBO’s Succession podcast when the host askes him about his character, Connor Roy (starting around 12:34):

“[Connor] spent his life having people call him ‘slow, idiot, you’re insane.’ That does something to a person, and clearly when he was young he was probably suffering from ADHD…but back then they didn’t quite know how to diagnose what was going on with him. And then he had the reality of his jet-setting star father leave his mother, probably when Connor was around eight. So he was old enough to know that his dad was one of the cooler people on the planet, in terms of every time he would go out with his dad, people would open doors and they would bow down. And he knew that he was a little prince—and then the old man left the old lady. And as we’ve been given little hints along the way, Connor’s mom was suffering from some psychoemotional challenges. So for the next ten years of his life he was stuck with this insane lady, and just seeing his glamorous dad and the rest of the golden trio on vacation, I was an easy target for the other three.”

–Alan Ruck, who plays Connor Roy on HBO’s Succession

Look at the detail and specificity of the backstory Ruck created for his character. Look how clearly he not only defines Connor’s psychic makeup and longings, but where they stem from. And yet almost none of this concrete information appears in the script or on screen in Succession.

That’s what makes backstory such a tricky little dervish—done well, it should be present on every single page of the story, in every action the character takes, every reaction, behavior, thought, response, engagement with other characters…all of it infused with the elements of the character’s life up to that moment that informed it.

Just like in real life, where our own present is constantly and completely informed and influenced by our past. We can’t escape it—it’s what shaped us. Without weaving some of that rich history into your characters’ lives, they seem to exist in a vacuum and fall flat on the page.

Done well, backstory should be present on every single page of the story, in every action the character takes, every reaction, behavior, thought, response, engagement with other characters…all of it infused with the elements of the character’s life up to that moment that informed it.

But the trap that’s so easy to fall into for storytellers is to lean too hard into the characters’ past, to spend so much time looking backward that the story stops moving forward.

Succession never stops moving forward. Say what you like about these nasty little f*&%ers—but I couldn’t take my eyes off of them, and they never bored me for a moment. Creator Jesse Armstrong and a team of top-notch writers strike the perfect balance between too much backstory and not enough.

What Backstory Is Relevant?

In most cases with backstory, readers don’t need extensive psychological workups or case histories to understand the characters’ psyche and motivations. I always think of laying it in as brushstrokes, building color and texture and dimension, shadow and light, stroke by stroke by stroke by stroke to create a full, vivid portrait.

Succession’s creators are great at this:

The character of Siobhan Roy gets engaged to her boyfriend Tom early in the first season, but we quickly see she’s having an affair with a coworker she knew from her past, and on her wedding night she informs Tom that she isn’t cut out for monogamy and wants an open marriage.

That’s a single defining character trait that the storytellers may have started with to move forward the action of the story they wanted to create. They could have left it at that, with viewers at liberty to extrapolate why she wants that, or to decide that’s just the way she is, but that might have resulted in a much flatter and less nuanced character. Instead we learn through a couple of contextual references in the script from other characters that Shiv had a traumatic breakup in her past that led to some sort of emotional breakdown.

We never learn the specific details of that backstory, but we don’t need to for the context of the story. That’s not its focus or what the current story is about. But layering in that brushstroke of backstory adds dimension to Shiv’s character, makes her feel more relatable and sympathetic to viewers. Now she’s not just a cheater or a player or any other easy label that could lead to a stereotype or caricature. We have a sense of her as a fuller human being, with complex past experiences and relationships that shaped her.

Second-oldest son Kenneth Roy, the heir apparent to his father’s throne, descends into drug addiction and alcohol abuse as a result of a failed attempt to take over his father’s company.

The storytellers could have left it there, creating a potential tintype of an addict or a failson on a binge. Instead they weave in additional threads of context on Ken’s backstory to help us understand and invest more deeply in the character: He’s separated from his wife at the beginning of the series as a result of a previous bout with addiction but we see they still seem to love each other, and Ken has worked hard to stay sober to win her back and regain his family, whom we also see he loves deeply.

We never learn specific details of his past addiction issues or exactly what led to their marital issues, because we don’t need to and it would slow down the story. But lacing in the context on it creates more depth and dimension for Ken’s character, gives him a history directly relevant to his series arc, and may help viewers understand or feel more sympathetic to his behavior in the current story.

How Much Backstory Is Enough?

Shiv’s previous blown-up relationship and subsequent mental state are germane to know as explanation for her actions and reactions, but we don’t need all the details of it. Same with Ken’s previous addiction issues. Same with Connor’s childhood. The facts of them are important, but we don’t need them spelled out beyond that—as long as we see the results clearly and organically in their actions and behavior in the present-moment story. That’s what makes backstory feel cohesive and real, even when it’s not extensive. It’s what makes the characters’ actions and choices feel believable, if not inevitable, throughout the series.

We don’t need exhaustive details on the kids’ upbringing to understand their brokenness in the present. We get enough brushstrokes to understand their mother’s coldness, their father’s harshness and neglect, the factors that created these twisted little bastards.

The storytellers deftly lay in a few vividly illustrative details that say a lot, like the fact that the kids used to play outside Logan’s closed office door at home because they hoped he would hear them, and he would come out and yell at them to be quiet. Or that poor Roman was sent away to boarding school in favor of Daddy’s “number one boy” Kendall, who used to lock him into a dog kennel and make Roman eat kibble as a game. And that Roman liked it.

We don’t need a ton of backstory on Logan’s growing up, or even on his wound of his sister’s death. The few brushstrokes layered in over the course of the series are enough to give his character dimension—until it’s eventually more fully revealed near the end of the story (still in minimal but illustrative detail), when the specifics matter to shed unexpected light on Logan’s psyche in a key moment. (Oh, what the hell, since we’re spoiling things right and left: It’s his funeral! Logan dies, kids!)

You can create a great deal of texture with just a few well-chosen brushstrokes like that, single illustrative details that reveal fathoms about a character. But notice how, like Alan Ruck and all the other actors in the podcast interviews, the actors need to know more—the full story—to bring depth and facets to their characters.

You can create a great deal of texture with just a few well-chosen brushstrokes of backstory, single illustrative details that reveal fathoms about a character.

In story you’re the actor, baby. You’re the writer and director and set designer and editor and the whole damn crew. It’s what makes our medium, writing, so wonderfully fulfilling—and incredibly hard. Your job is to know everything about the story, have every color in the spectrum on your palette—even if most of them may never be noticeable in the final painting.

As the author you need to know your characters’ and world’s backstory, but we don’t always need it overtly on the page. In the Succession podcast it’s fascinating to hear how Alan Ruck has created a minutely detailed backstory for Connor, despite that most of it is never spelled out in the show. But it informs his characterization and helps him bring fully to life the dynamic of this family member who has never truly felt a part of the family.

Story Is a Collaborative Art Form

With backstory, often a few brushstrokes are all viewers need to start painting more of the picture for themselves—and that’s what makes story such a deliciously two-way medium: It’s not just the artist slapping their vision onto the page or screen for eventual consumption. It’s a partnership: creator and audience, author and reader.

We bring the canvas and color and paint our picture; readers take it and fill in the rest to create their very own version of it. It’s what makes story so organic and alive and unique—it takes on a singular shape of its own with every person who reads it. How incredible. What a marvelous way to connect with people.

And to me, that’s why Succession succeeds so wholly: Despite their loathsomeness, every one of these characters is deeply, recognizably human. Their flaws and faults and foibles may be taken to extremes most of us (hopefully) avoid, but there’s not one emotion, reaction, or action they take that’s not on some level understandable, based on the forces that made them who they are.

If you want to dive even deeper into backstory—how to uncover which elements are germane to the story, how to weave it in seamlessly, how to handle flashbacks—join me (with Jane Friedman) for my upcoming three-part master class, appropriately titled “Mastering Backstory.” $75 with live Q&A, video playback, and a practice workbook, April 10, 17, and 24. Register here.

And if you love analyzing like I love analyzing (it’s the most effective way, bar none, to learn story), you can see more of this type of post here.

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