How to Create Character History In One Line

It’s not hard, just very difficult.

Here’s one of my favorite scenes, with one of my very favorite lines, in the last 30 years of film.

Specifically, it’s this exchange:

Reuben: Look, we all go way back and uh, I owe you from the thing with the guy in the place and I’ll never forget it.

Danny: That was our pleasure.

Rusty: I’d never been to Belize.

Look what’s happening there.

  1. It establishes history: Sure, we already get that the three guys know each other, but this cements that they’ve worked together before and trust each other.
  2. It’s vague enough to mean anything: Reuben never states who “the guy,” “the thing” or “the place” are so the audience can fill that in for themselves. We can imagine all sorts of scenarios.
  3. It was a big deal: Rusty dropping Belize in there makes it clear that whatever trouble Reuben was in, it took Danny and Rusty off their usual turf. And Belize is likely such a unknown to most people that it doesn’t immediately bring to mind any specific memories or images, again allowing for all sorts of situations to be imagined.
  4. It establishes a hierarchy: Danny and Rusty are there kissing the ring and looking for Reuben’s help, which puts him above them on the pecking order. But they hold a favor over him that they’re not overtly referencing even if they all know it’s hanging over the conversation. Still, Danny waves it off as being a non-factor, not anything Reuben feels should compel him to agree to their plan.

Danny and Rusty are, in some way, running a small con on their friend Reuben here, hoping that the chit they still hold comes into play in getting his agreement to join their scheme. But that’s not how they approach the situation, which allows for this masterclass in establishing character history to take place.

And it’s so subtle and well-done, all without needing to segway into a 15 minute flashback or long explanation of what happened in Belize. We don’t need to know what it was, we just need to know how it affects the characters and story we’re following now.

That kind of writing is a major reason the movie sizzles with as much energy as it does, because everything we need to know is on the screen, not waiting down some digression. It’s the kind of thing screenwriters, who too often feel the need to explain every little bit of barely relevant backstory and connection down to the tiniest detail, could stand to do more frequently.

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