SPOILER ALERT: If you have not watched The Bear on Hulu and think you want to (and I would recommend it), then save this post for after you’ve binged it or don’t blame me if I give away any spoilers. You’ve been warned.
TRIGGER WARNING: suicide and drug addiction. If you or someone you know is considering suicide or is in crisis, dial 988 for the suicide and prevention hotline.
I recently binged The Bear on Hulu. It’s the story of a fine dining chef who has worked in some of the fanciest kitchens in the world returning to run his family’s working class Italian sandwich shop in Chicago after his brother’s death. It’s a story of grief, toxic workplaces, a fish out of water finding a new place in his old home, and rectifying the past with the future. It is expertly written and acted. The depiction of kitchen culture and chef life were so accurate many chefs couldn’t watch because it triggered their own toxic kitchen experiences. The details, like the wardrobe, completed the authentic feel.
What I appreciated the most about the show, however, was where the story started and the sparse use of backstory.
Writers are often advised to start their stories in media res, or in the middle of things. But what does that mean? Writers are often confused by this advice–if I start in the middle how will the reader know what’s happening? Do I start in the middle of the action or just the middle of some action? If I’m starting in the middle where do I go from there?
Finding where to start a story can be hard. Starting too far into the action of the story leaves the reader unconnected to the protagonist or worse, confused about what’s going on and why they should care. Starting too far back in time before the story action begins can kill the pacing leaving the reader wondering what the story is really about.
Let’s take a look The Bear as a case study.
How does the show open? It’s dark. It looks like we’re on a bridge. In the center is a giant cage. Our protagonist, Carmy, is luring whatever this thing growling in the cage is out. Suddenly, a bear lunges from the cage and Carmy startles awake in the restaurant (okay, typically it’s frowned upon to open a story waking up, but we’ll let this one pass since the bear is an ongoing metaphor in the show and Carmy’s family nickname). A delivery man is at the door with significantly less meat than Carmy ordered because the restaurant is behind on the bill. Carmy needs meat in order to open the restaurant that day. In order to get the meat he needs money.
Problem: Not enough meat for the day. Obstacle: He doesn’t have enough money to get more meat. Stakes: If he doesn’t find the money to buy the meat he can’t open the restaurant which means he’s deeper in the money hole–can’t make money if they’re closed.
And we’re off!
What’s working so far? We don’t know a ton of what’s going on but we already know that there are financial problems and that Carmy will do anything to open.
Now, let me back up a little. The premise of the show is that Carmy now owns this sandwich shop because his brother, Michael, who has died by suicide, has left it to him.
The story does not start with the suicide or at the funeral surrounded by the inevitable cast of characters or at a reading of the will where Carmy learns he’s inherited the restaurant. It doesn’t even begin with the decision to leave his fine dining job in another city and move home to save the restaurant.
Instead, it starts with a problem. A problem that establishes that this place is in real trouble and that Carmy cares enough (because he loved the restaurant or his brother or something else, we don’t know yet) to come back and try to fix it. That’s enough for the viewer to relate to him and root for him.
Carmy spends the rest of the first episode selling his own belongings to try and get the cash for more meat, arguing with the existing kitchen staff in order to save the service even if the day’s meat wasn’t prepared the way they normally would do it, and overcoming continuing obstacles to save the day’s service. We are also introduced to our key subplot story characters: Richie, Michael’s best friend who had worked with him at the restaurant and wants to keep things exactly as they were; and Sydney, a young sous chef eager to work with a chef of Carmy’s caliber and make a difference to the restaurant (as you can see, these two are definitely on the path to a confrontation…and it doesn’t disappoint).
The first episode shows the viewer everything they need to know about these characters with problems/action happening right now, in story present. We don’t really need to know a lot about how we got here to care about where we’re going. We’re invested because we see Carmy desperately trying to save just one day’s service, so we know he’ll fight just as hard to save the establishment itself. We are introduced to all our main characters and their own motivations and see how they conflict with one another.
Throughout the season, there are minimal flashbacks–a maniacal Joel McHale as a New York chef berating and belittling Carmy as he puts together a complex dish; a more relaxed Carmy cooking in a family kitchen with his sister and brother on what looks like a regular Sunday sometime in the undefined past. The viewer gets little insight into why Michael was an addict, how his life fell off the rails, and why he chose to take his own life. And while the show seems to be filled with perhaps unraveling that mystery, the final episode creates even more questions around this character. And yet that landed fine, because the real resolution to the season was Carmy’s coming to terms with his grief and his new role as a lead chef of this kitchen to this particular crew of chefs, their own needs to be seen and grow, and his brave choice to finally…(okay, I won’t spoil all of it, but I did love the ending!).
In other words, the backstory that was explored and any flashback scene that was included, moved Carmy’s story forward. The point of the show was Carmy’s emotional journey to healing–healing from the PTSD of his former work environments (and not passing those on to a new kitchen) and healing from his grief and guilt about being there, or not, for his troubled brother. All of the flashbacks or bits of backstory pertained to those two things. They didn’t spin off into the decision to leave New York or explaining Michael’s history. Those things didn’t serve the larger point for the story’s protagonist. After all, the questions Carmy had for Michael could never be answered now anyway–Michael was gone. Carmy would never know the full story himself, so the viewer doesn’t need to know it either. The resolution to the story would never have been answering the “what happened to Michael” question because that wasn’t the story question to begin with. The story question was “Will Carmy forgive himself in order to leave his past behind and move into a future of his own designing?”
Writers know everything that is going on in every character’s mind and backstory. We hold a plethora of knowledge about our protagonist’s childhood or dating life or favorite foods. The line we walk as writers is understanding how much of that needs to be included versus how much simply informs how we put the character on the page.
Look at Carmy. I don’t know why he collects vintage denim, but I do see how important it is to him when he loads a bunch up in a garbage bag to sell in order to have money to buy that day’s meat. I also see that as important as that collection is, obviously the restaurant is more important for him to make the choice to get rid of it, even a special piece that his brother had give to him.
Just like every ingredient in a dish at a fine restaurant has a purpose, so does each scene and detail in your manuscript. The protein on the plate may be your plot, the sides are your subplots, the herbs and seasoning the sensory details that bring your story to life, and the sauce is the emotional thread that holds the dish together. Make sure that everything on your plate needs to be there. Sure, french fries are good, but they don’t belong next to a beautiful risotto, in the same way a foie gras may not be the right condiment to a hot dog and a beer at the baseball stadium. And just like a meal starts with the first course, we don’t need to see the grocery list the chef used to enjoy the food in front of us. Serve the reader only what’s necessary in the right order and at the end, your reader will be satisfied.
Take a look at your manuscript. Are you starting in the right place? Are you explaining too much to the reader to justify what your character is doing? Are you using flashbacks or backstory to info dump to your reader (double check your dialogue sections when characters are filling other characters in on something)? Does the reader need to know all of it? Instead, can you use context and your character’s decision making process to show glimpses of that backstory or that before life? After all, the story we are reading/viewing is the story that’s happening RIGHT NOW. We are watching Carmy save the restaurant. Does it matter how it got to the point it needed saving? Not really.
Like seasoning, a little backstory goes a long way.
Above: Featured Image Photo by Delightin Dee on Unsplash