I’m a big fan of the anime series Bleach. That might not be unusual, but it probably is unusual that I love it for the depth of its storytelling. Okay, I’ll grant you, everything between the first and last seasons is either filler or get-stronger-to-win-bigger type of stuff. However, you can still see fantastic bits of storytelling all throughout. I’m rewatching the series now, just finished episode five, and came across a moving bit of backstory on a minor character.
WARNING! The following paragraph could be considered a spoiler. If you care, jump down to “CONTINUE” below. (I hate spoilers with a passion.)
The main character has two little sisters. The younger of the two is the perfect little homemaker, even though she’s only about 10 years old. In the course of the first several episodes of the series you see that she does all of the cooking and cleaning. In episode 5, the main character mentions in passing that she started doing all of the housework after their mom died, both as a way of taking care of her family and attempting to fill in the void left by her mom’s death.
A cute, happy character and her adorable behavior turns out to be someone trying to deal with an enormous amount of emotional pain. It’s the most stereotypical kind of backstory, and yet the way that it’s delivered gives it punch (a punch like a train). There’s more than this, though. The backstory isn’t delivered in stereotypical fashion. No people sitting and talking around a campfire. No explanation from one character to another to answer questions about a third character. No, the main character just compares the situation at hand to his own life and family, and how their similar situation affected them. The emotion behind it speaks for itself.
Why did it work for me? First, because it was unexpected. With the Campfire Explanation, you know exactly what kind of dialogue to expect. You’re ready to absorb it, and to an extent, ready to absorb the impact it will have on you. In this episode of Bleach, the main character delivers the exposition in the middle of facing down a horrible enemy. (Yes, this slows the action, yes, there are times and ways to NOT do this, but that’s a different point.) In fact, in the middle of action is a great time to drop an emotional payload on your reader. We want to feel more strongly during an action scene. We want to be emotional, excited. We put ourselves into that state of mind, and in that state of mind we can react more strongly to anything. It may be melodramatic, but it works.
Second, the delivery was fairly elegant. It wasn’t drawn out, the viewer isn’t told how to feel about the revelation. That’s not even the point. (I’m sure part of the point of this conflict was to expose the main character’s backstory, but in terms of episode plot, it isn’t.) The main character effectively transfers the emotions of the current conflict onto himself, remembers the pain caused in his own life, and then transfers it all back onto the current conflict. The fight is no longer about bad things done to a little boy. It’s about the main character’s suffering, his family’s suffering, and, by extension, the suffering of all people who have had to experience that kind of loss. Oh, and it all takes about 10 seconds to deliver. If you can accomplish something that grand in such a simple way as a writer, you’ve done a fine job.
Third, the exposition actually does matter to the ongoing conflict. It raises the stakes quite a bit for us to see how this matters to the main character, how it’s affecting him. Even if it won’t undo his loss, even if it won’t remove the pain, at least he can exact a little revenge on someone who has caused that kind of loss for someone else.
I’m sure there are a dozen more layers to this. Good storytelling is like an onion in that respect. Those are three that stand out to me, though, ones that I’ll be working to incorporate into my own work.