Peggy Bechko on Writing: To Backstory or Not to Backstory

by Peggy Bechko

Okay folks, this time around we’re going to talk about Backstory…or not, your choice. If you’re not

A nice, simple backstory to put things into perspective, yeah?

interested you can skip away, and I know you will.

But, for the interested, here’s the facts. First, we, as writers, love to get into the story, we love the detail in our heads and all the little things that make our characters tick and the story move. And, we’re often told as we learn writing that backstory is vital.

Well, sometimes it is. Sometimes it’s not.

Basically here’s what backstory is: “As a literary device backstory is often employed to lend depth or believability to the main story. The usefulness of having a dramatic revelation was recognized by Aristotle, in Poetics.

Backstories are usually revealed, partially or in full, chronologically or otherwise, as the main narrative unfolds. However, a story creator may also create portions of a backstory or even an entire backstory that is solely for their own use.

Backstory may be revealed by various means, including flashbacks, dialogue, direct narration, summary, recollection, and exposition.”

Got all that? Okay so what does that mean, really? In plain speak backstory is that vital information that lends oomph to the main story.

So, how do we determine whether to include it or not. Seems like it should always be included, right? Wrong. Backstory information can be overwhelming to the point of smothering the main story if the writer isn’t adept.

Think about this. Whatever scene you’re writing, whether in novel or script – does that backstory tie directly into the action of the scene you’re creating? Backstory is everything that happened to the characters and world in your story before you brought the readers in to experience that world.

But, if your readers (or watchers) don’t need the information to go deeper into the tale and experience what is truly at stake, then it’s not needed. At least not in that scene.

There are basically two main ways to plug some backstory into your tale. It can be slipped in, little by little, revealed as the story moves on. It can also be simply explained outright leaving no doubt you’re plugging in some backstory to enlighten the movie goer or the novel reader.

These two main methods are very different and create very different effects in a story. As in a movie, if the watcher learns gradually about what’s happened to the characters before, it adds to a slow understanding of what underlies the characters motives for doing what he does.

If the backstory is laid out as so much information, telling the reader (if in a novel) what happened and how the character was effected by it or the world changed, it can jerk the reader out of his reader’s trance (the same in a movie).

Even so, both methods can, and have been used effectively. It’s up to us as writers to determine the best way of delivering backstory…and deciding if it’s appropriate and where.

And that brings us to another ‘qualifier’. Ask yourself, if the information is left out, will this particular scene be much less. Will it leave your reader or movie goer wondering just why the heck someone did or did not do something and why the world you’ve created is what it is?



But considering backstory in your novel or script, and taking time to decide how to use it wisely will result in a gripping tale not to be forgotten. It’s one of those ‘underpinning thing’ that simply can’t be ignored.

Peggy Bechko is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. Learn more about her sensational career HERE. Peggy’s new comic series, Planet of the Eggs, written and illustrated with Charlene Brash-Sorensen is available on Kindle. And, while you’re at it, visit the Planet of the Eggs Facebook page and her terrific blog.

Author: LB

A legendary figure in the television writing and production world with a career going back to the late ’60s, Larry Brody has written and produced hundreds of hours of American and worldwide television and is a consultant to production companies and networks in the U.S. and abroad . Shows written or produced by Brody have won several awards including - yes, it's true - Emmys, Writers Guild Awards, and the Humanitas Award.