…in which I do not discuss the feminist implications of Mad Max: Fury Road even though that is a rich topic of discussion, indeed.
Yes. Spoilers follow. You’ve been warned.
I think backstory may be one of the quickest ways to identify a newbie writer as the first chapters swell to bursting with world building and history lessons before you’ve been given a reason to care about any of it.
I love to use the first episode of Breaking Bad as an example – the opening scene hooks you and confuses you because you have no idea who these people are or why they’re in that ridiculous situation. Then it goes back a couple weeks and fills you in with some sad and, honestly, rather dry stuff about a high school chemistry teacher and his health insurance woes. And you sit through that boring stuff because you really want to learn how that guy ended up driving that RV in his underwear.
Mad Max takes off at a run and leaves its backstory behind. Backstory? Who needs it? Maybe if it can catch up! (spoiler: it can’t.)
In the midst of all the speed, dust, explosions, cars, motorcycles, big trucks, guns, knives, bows, desperate crowds, and frantic struggles to survive, you learn next to nothing about what brought the characters to their situation.
Max? He used to be a cop and apparently has some guilt about children in his past. If you haven’t seen the previous movies (I have), then that’s all you get.
The wives? Very little – they were kept in a harem and they asked Imperator Furiosa for help. You just have to figure them out as you go. In fact, I didn’t even know they had names until I read a review after I saw it. To me they were the red-head, the blonde, the one who looked like Halle Berry, the pregnant one, and the other one.
Furiosa got the most backstory. Are you ready? She was taken from “the green place” as a child. Her mother was killed. That’s it. That’s her backstory. She says she’s looking for redemption. For what? We can only guess. She’s missing an arm. Why? No idea. Where’d she get that killer prosthesis? No clue. How did she become so high-ranking and well-trusted in Immortan Joe’s group? *shrug*
And Immortan Joe… who is he? Where did he come from? How did a man who needs a respirator to live acquire that much power in a post-apocalyptic world?
I think most writers would think that the answers to those questions were necessary to the story. And perhaps for a franchise other than Mad Max, they would be. But for this movie, no. In addition to being a wild thrill ride, this movie was a testament to how far you can go without backstory. I didn’t waste any time thinking, “Wow, I’d really enjoy this movie if I had a flashback explaining what happened to her arm.” I just admired how cool that prosthesis looked and held on tight.
The Mad Max movies have always been mostly about the struggle to survive. How the people ended up in their situations is less important than how they get out of them.
I’ve always thought that too much background bogged down a story. Mad Max could not have run as far or as fast if it had slowed down to tell us everyone’s story. It would have robbed us of that raw, rough thrill ride.
Do you really need that backstory? Try removing it. See how it changes your pacing. Max might just grunt and give you a thumbs up.