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How I Wrote a Screenplay in 30 Days: Part 2


Writing a Backstory

Download a copy of the screenplay, A Girl Named Trouble.

About eight years ago, I wrote a 100-page backstory for the screenplay “A Girl Named Trouble.” It was a mess. The essay rambled, without much structure. It was all about my characters and the world they live in. An incident here, a stray thought there. And by the end, a portrait of each character came into focus. It was invaluable to the process.

Character and plot are two of the biggest hurdles to creating a great story. I knew my characters because of the work I had done on the backstory. Half the work was finished. It’s one of the reasons I was able to complete the screenplay in 30 days.

For a very long time, I have recommended the book The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egril for character development. It contains everything you need to create superior characters with unique voices. I always re-read it before I start writing backstory. After exploring a character’s friendships, family, strengths, flaws and character-forming incidents, you know that character.

Sure, there’s plenty of stuff from the backstory you end up never using. But occasionally you discover golden nuggets along the way that unlock a character or a scene. Here’s an example from the screenplay.

The Clock Tower Scene

Trouble has trust issues. In spite of that, she shows Roman her hideout. This is a big step for her, and he misreads the clues she’s giving him. When Roman comes on too strong, he’s bound to fail. This is the place where she learned to mistrust men.

From Trouble’s backstory: She left home while she was still in high school, but continued to attend classes. When the vice-principal found out she was homeless and said he was very proud of her for continuing her education, she began to feel good about herself. He made the excuse of wanting to see where she lived, as an opportunity to get her alone off campus. She agreed. She trusted him. He tried to rape her. She killed him. The first person she ever killed.

Also from the backstory: The maintenance man who serviced the clock found her squatting there, but he looked the other way. She liked him because he trusted her. He passed away, and no replacement ever showed up. Another example of a man abandoning her.

What the Clock Tower Scene Means

Knowing all these details makes the clock tower scene a snap to write. Find it on page 29. They aren’t just killing time; she’s trying to open up. But Trouble still has serious trust issues. Roman misses his opportunity, and then moves too fast. It’s an awkward first step. They’re not in sync yet. Like a busted clock.

What Changed in the Backstory?

The backstory isn’t the story. There was very little I used verbatim from the backstory. Here’s what did make the cut, and what was very different.

The cockfighting scene is almost completely lifted from the backstory. It’s the first time Calix Jace kills a man. Well, actually, he kills many people that night. Find that scene on page 93.

In the backstory, Bernie is a much, much darker character. There’s a lot more about The Samoan Army being both respected and feared in the community. Loyalty emerged as a big theme while writing the backstory. It didn’t start out that way. It just pushed its way to the front. And I wrote about 10 pages in the backstory dedicated to Bobo, who dies on page 3 in the screenplay.

I don’t think writing a backstory is completely necessary for some people, but for me it helps to flesh out the characters. And that makes the writing process go a lot faster. Next week we’ll explore how I created the plot with index cards.


Start the series from the beginning.

Mike Johnston is a production executive and advertising creative in Seattle. He is available for consulting, writing and directing. Contact Mike.