Backstories Revisited


Backstory Revisited

One of the potential problems of exposition/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. Without sufficient grounding, however, none of the above is achievable.

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

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, and backstory is provided as a solution to a dangerous situation. 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 is essential information the reader/audience must have in order to understand the story. Blending backstory into the drama as an active part of the ongoing plot is a an effective way of making it unobtrusive.


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2 thoughts on “Backstories Revisited

  1. Joy Sikorski


    This post is very helpful to me at the moment. In reading through the first draft of the Judah and Tamar story I mentioned in a different comment on your blog, I found myself getting distracted and almost bored by some of the exposition in it. Never a fun feeling. However, your post has given me new insight in how to deal with back story in the next revision.

    Often, you use examples from movies in order to demonstrate the points you make in your articles, and those examples help me to see the application of those points. That practice of yours is one of the reasons I continue to come back here over and over again. In other words, what you write here is extremely helpful to me.

    Thanks again,
    Joy Sikorski


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