Leverage Sunday: The Inside Job: Integrating Back Story

So remember Leverage Sundays? Yes, I finally found the third season disks, got the DVD player hooked up again, and finished the laundry. You don’t want to know about the laundry. Okay, 14 dryers full at the laundromat. The big dryers. Note to self: do laundry more than twice a year. Where were we? Right. Leverage Sundays. Pretend it’s Sunday. I have to put up a different post this Sunday anyway because it’s an international holiday (two international holidays) so you’re getting Leverage-Today-Is-Sunday-Because-I-Said-So. So . . . 301_Leverage_The Jailhouse Job_Timothy Hutton and Elisabetta Canalis_PH Erik Heinila_19556_001_02009_R Leverage’s Season Three turned in a different direction: Nate’s in jail, the team has bonded in his absence, and now they’re determined to break Nate out and get things rolling again. But Nate refuses, saying he’s broken the law and he’ll serve his time. Then a mysterious Italian woman shows up and promises Nate his freedom if he’ll agree to go after arch criminal Damian Moreau; if he refuses, she’ll have him deported to rot in an Italian prison and she’ll have his team killed. This would be a lot more effective if the actress giving the threat wasn’t the worst actor I’ve ever seen on network TV, but she doesn’t have a lot of onscreen time and it’s Leverage, so roll with it. the-jailhouse-job-20100618101510159-000 In “The Jailhouse Job,” Nate defeats a corrupt prison owner and his goon guards, after which the Mysterious But Terrible Italian Actress gets him a get-out-of-prison-free card that can be revoked at any time if he doesn’t go after Moreau, and we’re back in business. Dance That’s followed by “The Reunion Job,” which is fun, but creaks in places, although it’s worth it just to see Tim Hutton in socks and flip flops playing a pool guy; the real story arc here is that the team is back and settling into their old roles with one important change: Sophie’s been in charge while Nate’s been gone, and he’s come home to a family who sees him as one of the gang now, not the Fearless Leader. They’ll still follow him, but they’re gonna ask some questions. This episode also teases both the Sophie/Nate romance and the Parker/Hardison romance, but they’re going to draw both of those out for so long that the Sophie/Nate tango becomes more of a drag, so I’ll wait until they actually do something interesting with romance-within-community to talk about that. leverage-91 Then comes “The Inside Job” and the first of Season Three’s back-story-heavy plots. One of the drawbacks to writing a community story is that there are so many people that the focus gets diffused: everybody gets a little bit of time but nobody gets real development. Leverage worked around this by emphasizing different characters in their episodes so that by the end of the series, all five had achieved significant character growth. Parker, however, is the character whose arc is the most fun to follow because she changes from a character who is a disconnected id into a fully functioning human being with strong emotional ties to others. In fact, by the end of the last episode, Parker has changed from a feral child to the spokesperson of the Leverage organization. So at the midpoint in the third of five seasons, Parker gets “The Inside Job” to show how much she’s integrated, not only into the team, but to the world in general. She’s still nuts, but she’s much better at faking sane. So let’s talk about back story for a minute. Back story is anything that happens before the first page/frame of a story. The vast majority of it lies beneath surface, never to appear on the page, or at least it does if you’re doing it right. As authors we know all of the back story, every little thing that ever happened to our characters, and we really really really want to tell the reader all of that because it’s so interesting. Meanwhile, the reader just wants the damn story. The best advice I can give on writing back story is to not write back story; just write the story in the now, hand it to a beta reader, ask her what she doesn’t understand, and figure out a way to get that into the now of the action. If you have a scene where your character stares out a window and thinks about her life, cut it. If you have a scene where your character and another character chat about the past (no conflict), cut it. If your character finds a diary or a letter that explains something from the past, for the love of god, cut that, shred it into ribbons and then bury it in the backyard. (No reader every said, “Wow, that letter was really exciting.” Especially if it’s in French; I’m looking at you, Dorothy Sayers.) But you have back story and it’s really important so how are you going to get it on the page? Figure out why it’s important now, why that part of her history has come back to haunt her now, why some character from her past has come back to screw up her life now, and then tell the story of what’s happening now. In Parker’s case, her old mentor is in trouble, she rushes in to save him, and he calls the team to help her when she gets in over her head. While the team works furiously to get her out and then goes in to bring down the Big Bad, Parker’s back story emerges almost entirely in the now of the story as the viewer meets Archie and sees his relationship with her in action. Even more telling is the conflict between her former surrogate father and her present surrogate father, as Archie and Nate square off, arguing about how to rescue her. They’re both criminals with shaky moral boundaries and even shakier attachment issues, but they both love Parker like a daughter, and they’ll do anything to save her. Their differences stem from the fact that Archie knows Parker as the emotionally distant and stunted child he trained, and Nate knows Parker as the skilled woman who’s part of his family, and their two views of her combine to make a vivid dimensional portrait of a fascinating woman. Meanwhile Parker is loyal to both fathers, working with one to save the other while she deals with an AI security system, Eliot yelling at her through a window, and a sociopathic businesswoman who intends to shoot her. Parker’s passionate need to save Archie even if it means her own death tells us all we need to know about how much he really did save her. Her understanding of why he never took her home illuminates why she doesn’t connect, and her walk away from Archie with Nate at the end brings home that she’s not alone any more, she has family and connections and everything she was cheated out of as a child. The episode is fast-paced, full of action, a great caper story, and it shows Parker’s character arc without ever being about Parker’s character arc. Almost every bit of her history is illustrated in the action in the now, so it never slows down the story. Season Three goes on to showcase the rest of the team, too. The next episode, “The Scherazade Job” gives us more of Hardison’s foster home upbringing, “The Boost Job” sketches in Parker’s history as a car thief before she met Archie, “The Three Card Monte Job” brings Nate’s father in as the antagonist and pretty much shows everything we needed to know about why Nate’s such a bastard, “The King George Job” takes the team to England where Sophie’s past catches up to her, and “The San Lorenzo Job” brings to light things about Eliot’s past he would prefer stay buried. So Season Three is about the individuals who make up the team, not just where they came from but why it’s such a freaking miracle that they’ve found each other. There’s so much about this series that is brilliant–the twisty plots, the distinct characterizations, the zippy sense of fun and the equally zippy sense of peril–but the crucial thing is how careful the show runners are to build and test and rebuild the Leverage team through their character growth. Showing through the now of the story how broken and lost they all were before they met not only reinforces how important the community is to them, it deepens our investment in the team as a whole. We need them to be together because in this season, they’re not just a fun bunch of thieves and grifters, they’re family, and we’re a vicarious part of that. Next, one of my all time favorite TV episodes in any series, “The Rashomon Job.”

16 thoughts on “Leverage Sunday: The Inside Job: Integrating Back Story

  1. The books I am working on now are killing me with the backstories. I’m having a really difficult time in cutting what I rationally know is absolutely non-essential. But like cheese calls out seductively to my lactose-intolerant sister, I keep coming back to the silly bits and driving myself crazy.
    I’m a hoarder. I’m a hoarder of really bad narrative.
    Sigh.

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    1. Go ahead and write it and then cut it all. It sneaks in everywhere, so it’s like kudzu, but you can always cut it in the rewrite.

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    2. Also, think about whether those bits of backstory might actually be transformed into a real story, all by its little self. Perhaps a short story to go as a freebie on a website or in an anthology if your genre publishes anthologies (mystery and fantasy both do a lot of anthologies; romance, not so much).

      The backstory would need to be reworked, of course, so that it becomes actual story, with conflict and everything, but it can be a lot of fun. I was working on a story and realized that the protagonist carried a hand-carved walking stick with all sorts of nifty features, and then I had to go back and figure out how she got it, and it dawned on me that instead of putting all that information into the story I was working on, where it would be backstory that slowed everything down, it could actually be the foundation for a prequel to the story I was working on. So I simply gave Wyn that walking stick in the current story, and then opened a file with the working title “how Wyn got her walking stick.” I thought it was going to be a short story, but it turned out to be an entire novel!

      That’s the long-winded way of saying that no writing is wasted, in part because the bits you cut were still useful in figuring out the bits that remain, and in part because there are other potential uses for the scraps (sort of like making a quilt out of the leftovers).

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      1. The thing that always surprised me is how little I needed the back story after I’ve cut it. The story usually stands just fine on its own. Your protagonist speaks three languages and hates trains? The reader will buy that without an explanation. She’s a thief who travels with her dog? The reader will buy that without an explanation. The overwhelming need to explain has filled more stories with sludge than anything else.

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  2. I once heard that Stephen King always looks at the final, published product of his novels with the thought he should have cut more. It’s just really gratifying to know that I can write now whatever I want – guilt free – as long as I’m not going to bore my pal Reader to a coma later. Thanks, guys. I needed this.

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    1. Much as I love Stephen King’s books, I think the recent ones could definitely have been cut a lot more. 11/22/63 was essentially a love affair with the late 1950s, and the biggest chunk of it could have been left out and not had any affect on what was supposed to have been the central plot. It was a very entertaining chunk and worthy of it’s own book; but by the time the book got back on track, I had forgotten a lot of the beginning stuff.

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  3. I’ve only just finished a rewrite where I chopped out back story and now have about 65K left. Eeek! I can’t and won’t pad it just to get word count up. The story has been told. So, if nobody wants it I’ll self publish it. : )
    Leverage has not been on my television watching list. I’ll check into it. Maybe this summer when everything in TVland becomes a re-run I’ll buy the last season DVD’s.

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    1. 65K sounds like a helluva lot of words to me. I’m pretty sure I can’t string more than about 50 together coherently….

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  4. I really liked the Inside Job. I loved how at the moment Parker could’ve escaped she stopped and made the decision for the team to take down this bad person because that’s what they do and she knew she could do it now that the whole team was there to help her. It was also fun that her original mentor and father figure was named Archie Leach. I love how he finally claims her as his daughter in The Last Dam Job.

    I also appreciated how little wee saw of the Italian. How many of the jobs were just business as normal. Season three was a good season.

    My favorite episode in Season 3, I believe, is The Ho Ho Ho Job. Loves how the folks got the kids Christmas gifts that are simply perfect for them and they each starting playing with them immediately. I’ve thought about it and I really live the episodes Wil Wheaton was in, but I don’t believe it was because of him, just that they were some of the most fun episodes.

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    1. Archie’s name is a great touch. I’m tempted to watch that episode with commentary just to see if there’s a fun story behind that.

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      1. I don’t remember them mentioning Cary Grant in the commentary, but Beth Reisburg said she’d just watched A Fish Called Wanda, and there was John Cleese playing Archie Leach. Grant did a throwaway line about an Archie Leach, too; I think it was in His Girl Friday.

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    2. I think it was homage to Grant who played the lead in “To Catch a Thief” and the Archie Leach in Leverage was the “world’s greatest thief” in his day. I didn’t catch a direct reference to Cary Grant, however.

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