Wednesday, May 13, 2009


OK. I got your attention. Actually, this post has nothing to do with any form of sexual activity. It has to do with something I’m going to call 'fore-story', which I don’t believe is yet a term of art in screenwriting, but just might have to become one, given recent the trend in Hollywood.

I raise this in connection with the new
Star Trek movie which I saw recently. Most movies unfold in linear fashion - you know, beginning, middle, end. At some point in most of these films, we have to learn something about a character’s past, usually more than one character’s past. As you know, this is referred to as 'backstory', the technical definition of which is 'anything that happened to any character prior to the start of the film'. Backstory revealed is exposition, and in most films, we need at least some backstory exposed.

Star Trek. Or at least not the way you might think.

The current
Star Trek is a remake of sorts. It is also a prequel. In case you haven’t been paying attention, Hollywood these days is pretty much only making 'prequels, sequels, remakes and comic books', Juno aside. The current Star Trek has the benefit of not only being a sort of remake, but also of having a huge well-source of audience knowledge. In other words, the typical audience member for this film walks in already knowing a ton about the characters. This is because there was an original TV series with 80 episodes and 10 previous movies, not to mention four additional TV series and the odd novelization etc.

What makes this
Star Trek truly different is that there is no backstory. There is simply no need for any. This one starts before we go where no one has boldly gone before. This one reveals who these characters were before we saw them in all those previous TV shows and films. And it does so by showing. The action informs, and that’s the key word. Action. No need to tell when it can show. We learn by watching what the characters do, and we supplement what we are seeing with what we already know from the previous material we have seen. No need for some other character reading a resume to us. No need for a character interviewing another character about their past. No need for any of the other devices often used to reveal a character’s past.

So, does this make the film anything less than it should be? Hardly. It’s better. Better because we know who these characters are already. And that’s because we have 'fore-story'. We know what happens to these characters after this movie ends. That’s not only cool, but quite rare as well, though it’s becoming less so.

We had a very similar situation occur in
Batman Begins and, to a lesser extent, in Dark Knight. However, probably because of the sheer volume of source material, it feels like there is more fore-story with Star Trek.

In a different vein,
The Bourne Ultimatum gave us almost no backstory as well (except for who Bourne actually was and how he came to be). It is only similar to Star Trek in that the audience didn’t need any backstory. Unlike Star Trek, we didn’t have fore-story, but we did have the two previous Bournes to give us what we would have ordinarily needed in terms of backstory had this been a self-contained story.

So what does this mean for you, the aspiring screenwriter? Sadly, not much. Unless or until you become a successful, multi-credited writer, you are not going to get to write a hallowed franchise like
Star Trek. You are going to write specs. Original stories that will require some backstory to be revealed about your characters. You will be left to use those devices I mentioned before or, hopefully, to invent new ones to reveal your characters’ backstories.

So my advice is simply this: don’t try to do what the writers did in
Star Trek. They are working in a different environment than you. You may come up with some spec set-in-outer-space, a sci-fi fantasy with lots of interesting and novel characters about whom you know everything. You may have even figured out their futures and what they will do in the next four or five scripts you intend to write about these same characters. The problem is that the audience (which is the reader who is doing coverage on it first) won’t know that.

So don’t do this. Instead, go see
Star Trek and buy your popcorn and enjoy what is a rather unique screenwriting and movie experience. Just don’t try to copy it.

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