Back Story Blues

Cinema is an unique story telling device. Sometimes, its advantages are utilized by a talented script writer. Sometimes they are not. Some stories are better told in the form of a book and a movie adaptation barely manages to project a shadow of the original work. But in rare instances, the script is so well tailored to the specific advantages of the medium that there is no way the story could have been told better in a book. And those are the times when a movie teaches you how to write a novel.

One such example is Good Will Hunting. The script was written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who won an Oscar for best original screenplay. Whatever your opinions on this duo’s acting skills, their writing is epic.

The story of Good Will Hunting is composed almost entirely of back story. Matt Damon plays a character with a tragic past. Robin Williams plays a character with a tragic past. These two pasts are what the whole story is all about. However, there is not a single flashback scene in the whole movie. We never see an actor playing Will Hunting’s father even though this violent drunk is central to the plot. We never see an actress playing Dr. Maguire’s wife even though she is the center of an important plot line. We never see the muddy battle fields of Vietnam, nor do we see veterans suffering from intractable PTSD on Dr. Maguire’s couch. We never see the violence Will Hunting experienced or the pain he suffered. We do not even see a scene from the 1975 Red Sox game, even though many viewers of the movie will swear there was a snippet from the actual game footage inserted into the movie. There are no flashback scenes in the entire movie. Zero. Nada. None.

This will be exceedingly difficult to pull off in a book because the reader will see the flashback scene in his mind’s eye no matter how you write it. Only a movie can completely control what is projected onto the screen before our eyes. Even then, our minds can play tricks on us. We think we saw that scene from the 1975 Red Sox game.

Because this script is written so specifically to fit the advantages of the motion picture, it teaches us a great deal about how to write back story into our novels. We do not see Will Hunting’s father beating him, we see Will Hunting beating the guy who bullied him as a child with vengeance that is aimed at his entire childhood rather than anyone specific. We see his current rage, and imagine the violence he went through. We do not see Dr. Maguire’s wife. We only see his sad smile as he talks about her. We see his past through his current emotions.

A book is written in print, and the pictures are projected into the reader’s mind. So the reader might see Scarlett Johansson  when the writer imagined Marilyn Monroe. In a movie, the picture is projected on a physical screen, and Marilyn Monroe is Marilyn Monroe. The advantage of a book is that it can project a much bigger, clearer and more detailed picture. But it cannot control what the reader sees.

Writers often get so caught up in this medium called print, a way to project movies into minds, that we forget even movies do not project exact images. Your memory of the movie Good Will Hunting will make you believe that there actually was a footage from the 1975 Red Sox game on the screen. There was none. You will swear there was a scene of Will’s father with a wrench in his hairy hand. You will swear you saw Robin Williams hugging a dying soldier in the mud of Vietnam. But these things were not projected on the physical screen. They were projected in your mind, as if you were reading a book.

What does this tell us? It tells us that there are layers to the pictures in our minds. Even if you project an exact picture on a physical screen, it will be projected again on the screen of the viewer’s mind. The print medium, therefore, is a triple layered movie screen. There are words on the page which are transformed into a movie in the reader’s mind, which is reconfigured into another movie in the reader’s memory.

There is no such thing as a novel without a back story. But back story generally does not advance the plot. Therefore, it is the first thing to get crossed off in the editing process. We end up showing only the results of the back story and make short references. Then we worry if the reader will get it. We fret if we have explained enough. But we have. In fact, chances are, we have explained too much.

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