Just Effing Ask Julie Gray: Is Back Story Important?

Script consultant Julie Gray is a veteran story analyst of some of the biggest production companies in Hollywood. The author of Just Effing Entertain Me: A Screenwriter’s Atlas, Julie has taught story at Warner Bros. Studios, The Great American PitchFest and Oxford University. Contact Julie here.

Dear Julie,

I know that I am supposed to write a back story for my characters. My question is, how detailed does it need to be? Shouldn’t I be more concerned about plot and structure than what my character ate for breakfast? 

-Mike in Sherman Oaks

Dear Mike,

That’s a very good question. In the years that I have been reading scripts and working with writers trying to break in, I am really surprised at how often beginning writers don’t know even the most basic things about their characters.  Things like whether they have any siblings. Or whether they went to college or if their parents are still living.

Many writers are understandably very excited to just get to pages and write write write, sort of NaNoWriMo style. Which is great, I love the energy of that. But I am never surprised when those same writers write wooden, two-dimensional characters that move through scripts like herky jerky puppets, staggering from one scene to the next, mouthing dialogue, instead of making choices that are complicated and sometimes contradictory, instead of deepening the script and breathing the story in surprising new directions.

But enough about characters. Let’s talk about YOU:

Photo Credit: bkwritersblock.blogspot.com

How do you feel about the holiday coming up? Excited to see your family? Guilty? Stressed? How does your family arrange itself around the table? Who gets most of the attention, negative or positive?  There’s a whole lot of back story around that holiday table, isn’t there? Who is the oldest, the youngest, the troubled kid, the achiever? I bet if we were sitting down for a cup of coffee right now, you could talk to me for an hour about the upcoming holiday and the family dynamics that surround it. Even if that has nothing to do with your current trajectory, job, etc. Right? Am I right?

Your family dynamic absolutely informs your life decisions – there is not a human alive who can claim otherwise. Even if you were orphaned and grew up in a forest, raised by wolves – that is going to affect your decision making, no? And your ability to fit in at the office?

Is your every decision and choice perfectly made? Don’t your moods, your experiences and preferences and your formative values all come into play, moment by moment? Or would you prefer that I decided that you are SANDY (30s), a vivacious blonde? Or BOB (40s) ruggedly handsome, an over-achiever? Of course not. To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, people are like icebergs: only 10% is visible; 90% lies under the water.  That 90% is back story. The stuff you can’t see about us but that informs how we make decisions.

Think of characters the way you think of yourself – complicated.

Get away from the idea that you need to know inane stuff like what your character had for breakfast. Or whether they like hot or lukewarm showers. Toss that boring, totally uninteresting stuff right out the window. Who would want to work on back story if those are the types of things we need to know? What you do need to know is what your character’s fears, joys, principles, dreams and values are.

Here are just a very few sample questions from the Just Effing Entertain Me Character Interview, an ever-evolving character back story tool that is fun and also very revealing…

***

Do you believe in God?

What is the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you?

Was your family rich, poor or middle-class growing up?

Would you go out to a nice dinner by yourself?

What annoys you more than anything?

Have you ever cheated on someone?

***

Why are these questions so revealing? Because they are actually asking about some pretty big stuff, aren’t they? Belief. Socio-economic background. Vulnerability/confidence. Honesty.

First, answer the questions for yourself. Have fun with it. Do it with a friend. Do it with a sense of playfulness and self-discovery. Some of your answers may surprise you. Some may be a little embarrassing. That’s okay, nobody is judging or ranking you, just have fun!

Now we must shift gears and answer the questions for your character. In order to do this, you must try to become your character while you answer the questions. No, you don’t have to dress as a lumberjack or a waitress or a clown – all you have to do is to answer the questions very quickly, without thinking. Don’t think – just answer. Don’t think. Just answer.

Access the creative part of your brain, the fountain of all of your creativity – which is not judged, not monitored and not censored. Don’t think. Just answer. Some of the answers your character will give may surprise you, or be counter to what you had planned. That’s okay. Just let it flow.

What begins to happen, you may notice, is that your character may just blurt out answers, much to your amazement. Your character may say: I have never been embarrassed. I never do anything wrong – which is pretty wow, right? And pretty informative. This particular character, as it turns out, won’t even be honest answering these questions…. Don’t be creeped out or worried if you find yourself writing answers that evade, skirt, or are even hostile or coy toward the question – that’s the magic part of writing coming into play. The part where our characters start to become so real that they express themselves without you getting in the way.

Have fun with this brief sample of a character interview! I hope it inspires you to really take back story FUNLY. (Serious is a dirty word!) Think about the myriad formative experiences you have had that make you the unique snowflake that you are. If your characters are born in the seat of your deep well of creativity, why would they be any less unique than you are?

Is this all too woo-woo for you? Skip focusing on writing great characters at your own peril. The ability to write truly relatable, believable, organic characters is the gold standard in Hollywood and can make you a very sought after writer for assignment writing, sales and options.

Those of you interested in the entire Just Effing Entertain Me Character Interview may email me  and attempt to bribe me with cookies, a hilarious joke, a pretty picture, etc. I am almost guaranteed to respond if your email effing entertains me.

The deadline for the One Scene, One Page, Three Word short scene competition is December 28th. The three keywords this month are: Avalanche, Cranberry, Angel.

Don’t forget, the doors open for the 2013 Just Effing Entertain Me Screenwriting Competition on February 15th. Last year’s winner, Matthew Morgan, just signed at ICM. Next year, that could be you.

Have a question for Julie? Just ask: Email Julie Gray 

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2 thoughts on “Just Effing Ask Julie Gray: Is Back Story Important?

  1. Julie GrayJulie Gray Post author

    Glad you found the article helpful, Vera! Yes, the specificity of the breakfast or how does your character take coffee questions are very common. I think they can be helpful if you let your character answer them – so instead of saying – black, or lots of milk and sugar, perhaps your character might say I HATE coffee, it smells burnt to me, it reminds me of my lousy mother and how she couldn’t cook. AHA – now that is an answer that actually reveals something…..

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