Inventing a story that has no backstory is about as easy as finding a perfect rhyme for the word orange.
That is, next to impossible.
Backstory is the stuff that went on before the story begins, or more precisely, before the kick-off event in scene 1. As such, backstory might better be called “pre-story”. It is a necessary component of any story.
After all, the characters come from somewhere – they have pasts, they have histories. These histories have shaped them into who they are, which determines their actions now, in the time of the story. These actions are the source of the events of the story. So some part of the characters’ histories will be relevant to the story – and this bit of information or knowledge needs to be passed on to the audience or reader. That’s why so many stories have “campfire scenes”, a moment of calm usually near the beginning of the second half during which characters recount stories of their pasts to each other.
The Exception to the Rule?
Arguably, some fairy tales have little or no backstory. These narratives are so complete unto themselves that it is not necessary to know anything about, say, Little Red Riding Hood’s parentage or history in order to understand her story. To be sure, she has a Grandmother, there is a wolf in the woods, and how did the woodcutter/hunter end up there? But essentially there are no key events in her past that have a specific effect at some point in the story.
Nonetheless, even fairy tales find it hard to get on without backstory. With Jack and the Beanstalk it is implicitly present in the exposition of Jack’s having only one parent. In Hansel and Gretel the pecuniary problems of the family and in particular the presence of the stepmother are essentially backstory.
Stories that work with the least amount of backstory possible tend to be more elegant. Readers and audiences are surprisingly ready to accept characters without knowing everything about their pasts. Often a certain degree of mystery about where they come from makes them more fascinating – and easier to identify with. A very specific fictional life may be so far removed from the reader’s or audience member’s own reality that it is harder to empathise with the character than if that character’s background were vague.
So backstory is not about providing resumés of entire lives.
Nonetheless, it is implicit that these past lives took place, and usually some aspect of the character’s past will become relevant in the story.
Typically, the backstory provides the explanation for the cause of an effect in a character that the audience witnesses near the beginning of the narrative: the character’s flaw or internal problem. Audiences become emotionally involved in a story because they empathise with the characters. A strong conduit for this feeling is seeing the character with an emotional deficit or shortcoming. Therefore the character needs to learn a new quality, needs to develop and transform. In order to learn, first the character must recognise the fault or flaw, and often that involves admitting its cause. In unskillful hands, this can result in the “rubber ducky” moment of a story, when the audience finds out that a character is “bad” because (in the backstory) his rubber ducky was taken from him as a child.
Next to the danger of writing such clichés, backstory (or pre-story) presents organisational challenges for the author. If a character is remembering an event, the contents of the remembrance are a “flashback”, which counts as at least one separate event from the act of remembering. Naturally, in the chronology of events, the remembered ones occur earlier in time than the event of remembering them. So in the narrative, the act of remembering may frame the flashback – a character may be sitting in a rocking chair reminiscing, the reader or audience is then transported to what is being remembered, and then the reader or audience is taken back to the character in the rocking chair. While it may seem a bit arduous to pick this process apart, the author has to know exactly how all events relate to each other in terms of both narrative and chronology.
Sometimes the backstory may become part of the point or premise of the story, for instance when the “present” is used as a narrative frame. In Citizen Kane, the reporter tries and fails to discover the meaning behind the protagonist’s last word before dying, “Rosebud”. Only the audience discovers in a tremendous aha-moment what Charles Foster Kane was thinking during his final breaths. The bulk of the action of the film is told in flashback.
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Delving into the thoughts and memories of a character can be the most riveting aspect of a story. In a novel, an entire scene or event is not always necessary; the author has more freedom to insert more or less at will large or small bits of information from the past, within a chapter or a paragraph, even as part of a sentence. In a movie, on the other hand, the audience usually sees the past as either flashback scenes inserted into the story, or is told about it by a character in a dialogue scene. In theatre, backstory is even trickier to handle.
In a story, the backstories of characters help us understand their psychology, or more specifically their motivation. Backstory provides clear and understandable reasons for the characters’ actions. Often the disparity between what a character wants and what that character really needs is explained by means of an experience that caused what is essentially a trauma. The lack or shortcoming that needs to be repaired is a sort of counterproductive defence mechanism. The character must recognise this, and create change.
In real life, things are rarely so simple. We might never be able to see the reasons behind the people’s actions. But it comforts us to believe that reasons exist and are at least theoretically understandable.
So in this sense, backstory relates to the classic nature vs. nurture argument. As humans, we do not really know why we do the things we do. We have assumptions, but despite the best efforts of various sciences, the real reasons for our actions remain nebulous. The motivation of an individual – why he or she does a certain thing at any given moment – comes from a mix of genetic coding and environmental factors that is too complex to pinpoint precisely, and even the matter of free will is contentious. But we dislike not understanding why we do things and why things happen. As we have noted, we humans prefer to know the agency of phenomena, including the phenomena we ourselves bring about. Not being able to understand the world or ourselves is scary, so on the whole, we would rather assume that it is theoretically possible to understand everything. The way we tell and receive stories reflects this assumption.
This deep function of backstory indicates a deep function of stories in general: to help us cope with the random chaos of life.
Related function in the Beemgee story development tool: