When Marvel Studios’ The Avengers movie opens next week, box office success won’t be assured if only diehard comics fans attend. Producers had to make sure their movie would appeal to a mass audience of movie-goers, so they front-loaded the action film with good-looking name actors and actresses, explosions and other loud, colorful special effects, and the promise of wild excitement.
But they also had to do something every filmmaker, writer, or mass communicator in general must do to succeed: They built in a back story.
Without the back story, most non-comics reading movie goers would have no clue about who the Avengers are, and that is particularly true about major characters like Nick Fury, Thor, and the Black Widow. Marvel built the back story for the films with clues dropped into previous films, creating links between the two Iron Man movies to Thor, to The Hulk, and to Captain America. Now, you’re ready for The Avengers, because now you know enough about who’s involved to let the main event play out on screen without questioning why the big guy is green, or “what’s the deal with that hammer dude?”
If you’re telling any kind of story, or trying to communicate a point to any kind of audience, you’re going to have to pay attention to your own back story, too. The back story fills in the blanks with necessary details. It’s the important background information. Without it, your audience may feel as lost as someone dropped unconscious in the middle of a dense forest. Their first sensation may be confusion, and you may lose them from that point forward. Think about how that can affect an audience you need to instruct, or motivate, or captivate. You don’t want to lose them. You need to give them at least some back story.
Inexperienced communicators sometimes fail to get out of their own heads. They know what they’re trying to tell us, but they assume that we know more than we know, so they start us out on the roof without ever building the foundation. Others fail to communicate because they get so lost in the back story, that they never really make the point clear. If you’re writing a mystery story, and you want your audience to have to dig in and work through confusion to get to the point – think television’s LOST – then muddling the back story is great, as long as they know to expect a mystery.
But if you’re trying to give someone directions, if you need your audience motivated to do something in the immediate future, if you’re communicating to a general audience, trying to get diverse people to grasp and buy in to a single concept – you need to give them background.
Sometimes the best way to bring the audience along is straightforward and chronological — think The Rocketeer. But the back story doesn’t always come into a narrative at the beginning. The inverted pyramid in news stories gives you the most immediate, most important, most current first, then fills in the background with details. Movies with flashbacks also show how to successfully drop the back story into a tale in measured doses. Think of Batman Begins or the first Iron Man, or, if you prefer the classics, Laura or Casablanca. In those films, flashbacks, strategically placed, relatively short but instructive, were crucial in establishing the characters and the storylines.
Now think about your own storyline, the message you’re trying to convey. Does your audience know enough for you to skimp on the back story? Or will they be lost and confused if you don’t give them more background? A lot depends on knowing your audience, or your potential audience. So whether you’re trying to fill seats at a theater or motivate a staff or corps of volunteers, you need to give the proper amount of attention to a well-balanced back story. Get it right, and your message, your pitch, your story, may be a hit. When people look back on how you got your point across, you’ll be the hero.
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