How to Write Essential Backstory Elements

Backstory in Saving Private Ryan

Backstory in Saving Private Ryan

ONE of the potential problems of expositional backstory in a novel or movie is that it may slow the action down to a crawl, show its hand, and ultimately bore us.

Yet, supplying information that is essential to the plot’s progression is unavoidable.

A novel or movie can’t painstakingly trace every single prior event. It has to jump around, intrigue us and then surprise us through the revelation of some connection to a past occurrence, action, or character trait.

In deciding what information to spell out through backstory, it may help to ask yourself the following questions:

Backstory Essentials

1. What is the motivation of the characters that we need to know in order to give their actions verisimilitude?

2. What is the history of the story problem?

3. What insights into the characters psychological makeup are necessary to support the authenticity of the ongoing action?

4. What evidence must you show to suggest that the characters have the resources and potential to solve the story problem?

5. What past information is necessary to give the story realism?

One of the best ways to blend backstory into the dramatic action is to slip it in when the need for it is at its highest.

In Saving Private Ryan, for example, there is a betting pool on guessing what Miller’s (Tom Hanks) job was before the war. The pool escalates to $300 but Miller still refuses to divulge the information. Finally, at the end of a tense battle, an argument among the soldiers threatens to turn physical. One of the men wants to go AWOL, but the Sergeant threatens to shoot him if he attempts it. Miller chooses this moment to ask where the pool stands at the current moment and then reveals that he is a school teacher back home. As he recounts the tale of why he joined the army the men relax and a potentially deadly incident is averted.

Here, curiosity is created beforehand which the backstory then satisfies. By making the past pertinent to the present, the writer is able seamlessly to integrate essential backstory into the forward thrust of the tale.


Backstory provides essential information to the reader or audience needed to understand the narrative. Blending backstory into the drama as an active part of the ongoing plot is an effective way of making it unobtrusive.

One thought on “How to Write Essential Backstory Elements

  1. Gerhard Pistorius

    Good post. As stated in a previous article ‘writer’s perspective’ one of the most important aspects of your narrative is choosing your story perspective . Saving private Ryan might show what soldier’s had to endure during the liberation of Europa however most of it is from a third person perspective because it’s a camera recording events. With first person voice overs the pacing goes much smoother usually because the story is being told from a character in the film. Martin Scorsese has mastered this craft with films like Good Fellas, Casino and the Wolf of Wall street. In Saving private Ryan the first time Spielberg makes use of the first person narrative is when we see Miller tell his story of how he recounts the tale of why he joined the army. It’s more effective to have a character from the film tell the back story appose a narrative we never see on screen as seen in Babe or Sea Biscuit.

    In short : Back stories are important however you need to decide who’s telling them.


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