Monday, I rented 27Dresses (Directed by Anne Fletcher, written by Aline Brosh McKenna, and starring Katherine Heigl and James Marsden). It was fun, but I can’t watch a movie without my writer’s mind analyzing it. This time, that analysis bore notable fruit.
In the first few minutes, 27 Dresses establishes a great deal without making a lot of effort. We learn that Jane, the heroine, has been helping in and falling in love with weddings since age eight, that her mother is dead, and that she looks after everyone. We need no more to understand her as a character and to comprehend her insanity when it comes to going above and beyond as a bridesmaid in twenty-seven separate weddings. The only other piece of information we need, that she’s secretly in love with her boss, comes a mere few minutes later. In the movie, all this takes place in a few short, to the point scenes. In a book, it would take no more than a couple of sentences.
And there you go, done. Time to move on with the story. After all, it isn’t history and back story that draw a reader in. It’s the compelling motion of action and present conflict. Back story is much the opposite.
So, when writing, resist the urge to explain a character. Give just enough so the reader knows what’s going on and move directly into the present action of the story. Readers are intelligent. They’ll figure it out, and if something new needs to be added later for clarity, drop it in then. Don’t burden the reader with a historical treatise. They’re buying fiction, after all, not nonfiction.
What other examples can you think of where a character or back story was handled deftly?