The Importance of the Backstory

My mom is a big fan of Robert Downey Jr. So much so, she asked if I wanted to watch Avengers: Endgame (2019) with her. I asked if she’d seen Avengers: Infinity War (2018), the film that sets up Endgame. She said she hadn’t, and I replied that she really needed to watch that one first. Then I asked if she’d watched all the other twenty or so films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  

Well, needless to say, we started watching all of them starting with Iron Man (2008).  

A week or so ago, she started a conversation with, “Okay, don’t be angry with me when I tell you something.” 

That’s right sports fans. She watched Endgame early. At this point in our marathon, we had watched Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (2017). We had another five films left in MCU Phase Three, six if you count Black Widow (2021). Seven if you count Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017). 

Initially, I was a bit frustrated and annoyed because I love those movies and watching Endgame without watching the films that came before it is like starting a jigsaw puzzle but then looking online to see what the picture is. Or, loaning a beloved book to a friend and watching them go immediately to the end and read the last few pages. 

That’s right Jeff. I still remember what you did back in sixth grade. Never forget, never forgive. 

What my mother did, which was totally obscene, got me thinking about a story’s backstory. Is it important for readers/audience to fully understand the backstory of a film or novel to fully appreciate what they’re consuming? 

For those that might not know what backstory is, it’s pretty much exactly what you’re thinking as you say the word. It’s a literary device to explain the events of a character/event/etc… prior to the beginning of the book/movie. Since I’ve already used the MCU, let’s use Steve Rogers (AKA Captain America) lifting up Mjolnir (AKA Thor’s hammer). 

Oops, spoilers by the way. 

If you’ve never seen any of the Thor movies or Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), you wouldn’t really understand how important it is when Cap saves Thor’s life by yeeting (as the kids say) Mjolnir at the Mad Titan and then proceeding to thrash him with a combination of lightning and shield tactics. It’s my favorite scene in Endgame because all the little MCU fanboys/fangirls knew that Steve could wield the hammer, but we’ve never seen anyone else except for Thor, Odin, and Vision use it. You could make an argument that Odin held the hammer before it was enchanted, but who am I to split hairs.  

When Hela destroyed the hammer in Thor: Ragnarok (2017), fans didn’t think we’d ever get that scene proving Captain America worthy enough to wield Mjolnir. Then it happened. Thanos smiling as he forces Stormbreaker into Thor’s chest. Thor fighting in vain. Then a shot of Mjolnir resting on the ground, its handle out of shot. Then it slowly rises off the ground. Back to Thanos and Thor. Grim, dramatic music plays as Thor faces the end of his long life. And then you hear the sound of a projectile cutting through the music. Mjolnir sails into shot behind Thanos, hitting the titan on his right shoulder, knocking him off balance. The hammer doesn’t continue to sail away. The camera follows Mjolnir as it stops mid-air and then comes back, flies past Thanos and Thor, and into the hand of Captain America.  

Thank you to whoever thought of time travel in the MCU. It’s you we have to thank for this awesome bit of fan service.

“I knew it,” says Thor. We all did buddy. We all did. 

If you only watch Endgame and never any of the other films, you’re missing out on an incredible feeling. From Iron Man (2008) to Endgame, we see heroes that are flawed individuals who save the day even though the odds are always against them. Among those heroes is Captain America, a scrawny nobody from Brooklyn, turned supersoldier later on, that just wants to do the right thing and stop the bullies. In my opinion, there is no one more worthy to lift that hammer inside the MCU than Steve Rogers.  

Sure, you could watch Avengers: Endgame without seeing all of the prior films. You might still feel the same excitement when Cap fights Thanos. But it won’t be at the same level.  

When you were a kid, do you remember getting those generic Oreo knockoffs? Sure, they were chocolate cookies with some kind of white cream in the center. Sure, you could still dunk them in milk, and they may taste good. But nothing ever beats the original Oreo.  

Enjoying a book/movie with a great backstory is like eating the OG Oreo. 

When you’re writing a book, it’s important to make sure that you’re giving the proper amount of backstory. For instance, if your character is allergic to bees but you don’t reference that fact then it might seem a bit off when the character dies from a bee sting later in the story. On the other hand, don’t waste space by writing backstory that won‘t be of importance either. If the character is afraid of clowns, but never meets a clown later on or goes to the circus, what’s the significance? 

In the next few columns, I’ll be talking a bit more about backstory and how to properly utilize it. Until that time, I’m going to binge some Marvel films and eat plenty of Oreos. 



Categories: Mastering the Craft

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