Backstory – Definition & Detailed Explanation – Screenwriting Glossary Terms

What is Backstory?

Backstory refers to the history and background information of a character or a situation that occurred before the main events of a story. It provides context and depth to the characters and their motivations, helping the audience understand their actions and decisions. Backstory can include details about a character’s past experiences, relationships, traumas, or significant events that have shaped who they are in the present.

Why is Backstory Important in Screenwriting?

Backstory is crucial in screenwriting as it helps create well-rounded and believable characters. By understanding a character’s backstory, the audience can empathize with them and become more invested in their journey. Backstory also adds layers to the narrative, making the story more engaging and complex.

Additionally, backstory can provide a deeper understanding of the relationships between characters and the dynamics of the world they inhabit. It can explain character motivations, conflicts, and decisions, making the story more cohesive and compelling.

How to Integrate Backstory into a Screenplay?

There are several ways to integrate backstory into a screenplay effectively. One common technique is to reveal backstory gradually throughout the story, using flashbacks, dialogue, or visual cues. This allows the audience to piece together the character’s history and motivations over time, keeping them engaged and intrigued.

Another approach is to incorporate backstory through character actions and reactions. By showing how a character responds to certain situations, the audience can infer details about their past and understand why they behave the way they do.

It’s essential to strike a balance when including backstory in a screenplay. Too much exposition can slow down the pacing of the story and overwhelm the audience with information. On the other hand, too little backstory can leave characters feeling one-dimensional and unrelatable.

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Including Backstory

One common mistake screenwriters make when including backstory is relying too heavily on exposition. Telling the audience about a character’s past through long monologues or info dumps can feel forced and unnatural. It’s essential to find organic ways to reveal backstory through action and dialogue, allowing the audience to discover information gradually.

Another mistake is including irrelevant or unnecessary backstory that doesn’t serve the story or contribute to character development. Every detail included in the backstory should have a purpose and relevance to the main plot or character arcs.

It’s also important to avoid using backstory as a crutch to explain character motivations or plot points. Characters should act in a way that feels authentic and consistent with their established traits, rather than relying on backstory to justify their actions.

Examples of Effective Use of Backstory in Screenplays

One example of effective use of backstory in a screenplay is in the film “The Shawshank Redemption.” The protagonist, Andy Dufresne, is a complex character with a tragic backstory that is gradually revealed throughout the film. By learning about Andy’s past experiences and the injustices he has faced, the audience can empathize with his struggles and root for his redemption.

Another example is in the TV series “Breaking Bad,” where the protagonist, Walter White, undergoes a dramatic transformation over the course of the show. The backstory of Walter’s terminal illness and financial struggles drives his descent into the criminal underworld, adding depth and complexity to his character.

In both examples, the use of backstory enhances the audience’s understanding of the characters and their motivations, making the stories more engaging and emotionally resonant. By integrating backstory effectively, screenwriters can create rich and compelling narratives that resonate with audiences.