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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