Star Wars and the Art of Backstory

Courtesy of Wikipedia

In honor of my son’s ninth birthday, this post has a Star Wars theme, just like his cake. Nothing wrong with that kid’s imagination. He’s often engaged in imaginary battles, rife with explosions and mayhem. He arrests his sister in the name of the Galactic Senate. He talks like Yoda. “Time for dinner, it is.”

We recently watched the original Star Wars movie from 1977. It opens with farm boy Luke Skywalker discovering Princess Leia’s “you’re our only hope” message recorded on his new droid, R2D2. Throughout the entire movie, we don’t know Luke and Leia are twins. We have no foggy clue that Darth Vader used to be this likable but moody dude named Anakin. And it doesn’t matter, because the characters and story line have hooked us.

To a novelist, backstory is everything that happened before page one. Many writers struggle, especially in first drafts, with how much backstory to reveal and when to do it. (Thumbs pointing to myself, here.) It’s essential that the writer know the backstory inside and out, but the reader won’t give a hang about the backstory unless they’ve bought into the front story, which happens by serving up compelling characters in scene. Too much backstory, especially at the beginning, and you’ve put your reader on a one-way train to Snoozerville.

Star Wars got this right. The familiar scrolling text in the movie’s opening told us only what we needed to know. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. . .followed by something about forces gathering to overthrow the empire. Or something. Wee disclaimer – I’m not the biggest Star Wars fan. Too many battles and not enough schmoopy stuff. Precisely why my son IS a big fan.

Revealing the backstory at the right time is key. How can we forget evil Darth Vader wheezing out the words, “Luke, I am your father.” BLAMO! Waaay more powerful than if it would have been info-dumped into the scrolling text at the beginning of the movie.

Besides Star Wars, my son also loves to write. His current work in progress is about Anakin and Luke being brothers instead of father and son. (That whole Anakin/Padme love angle grosses him right out.) I love to watch the creative spark take hold. When Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” was playing the other day, he said, “Hey, that would make an awesome title!” Then, as he sat down to write Ring of Fire, the Continuing Adventures of Anakin Skywalker, he stared off into space. His eyes lit up. “Mom! I figured out the perfect opening line. It’s this: After all that drama . . .” and then he launched into Anakin’s latest battle. I have to say, I was proud that at his tender age, he skipped over the urge to explain and got right down to business. Wish it was that easy for me!


7 thoughts on “Star Wars and the Art of Backstory

  1. Great post! I’m always struggling to find the right balance between backstory and forward motion. And you’re right about Empire Strikes Back — it would have been a little anticlimactic if the scroll at the started of the movie ended with, “And, by the way, Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father.”

  2. Agreed….it’s so important to reveal backstory at the right moment, because it keeps the tension up. I’ve never been a huge fan of Star Wars myself, but I appreciate the way they slowly revealed bits and pieces of the characters’ pasts through action and dialogue. Great post!

    Anyways, my name’s Kate, and I’m an agented YA writer from Utah. I found your blog earlier today and I just thought I’d say hi!

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