what’s your story?

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i’ve always been fascinated by the idea of back stories.

the story behind the story

i love the idea of understanding

what led to something,  motivations,  experiences, emotions, circumstances, the why’s

so i set out to find the back story/backstory about the origin of this term

the new york times summed it up very well in the following piece. 

‘Looking for the Candy, Finding a Back Story” was the headline above a review by A.O. Scott in The New York Times about the movie “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”
“Backstory” (one word) was the headline chosen by the New Yorker cultural critic Joan Acocella for her dance review of “revivals of long-absent works by Ashton and Balanchine.”
What’s the history, derivation, hidden motivation or inside skinny — I’m groping for the dramatic term — of this explosion of usage in the arts sections of our media? Whence this seemingly simultaneous lexical development?

It began quietly in the early 80’s, probably among writers creating series for television. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation is from an A.P. dispatch by Jerry Buck in 1982 about the screenwriters Stephen and Elinor Karpf: “They had been compiling characters and back stories for a prospective serial for several years.”

The O.E.D. recently noted that the term’s early specific meaning was a history “created for a fictional character or situation, especially in a film or television series.”When dealing with a fictional character, the writer and director can help an actor play the part by telling him about the character’s life before the screenplay begins: from where he came, his education or lack of it, previous loves, arrest and medical records; this provides motivation and flavor.
A second meaning of back story grew out of that: Why not provide the reader or viewer with the same kind of information about what drives the character’s decisions and that adds color and meaning to an event? That led to the popularity of the prequel, a 70’s term popularized by J.R.R. Tolkien, giving the characters an earlier life and showing the roots of the subsequent story’s events.
Then nonfiction writers adopted the word and applied it to the lives of real people of the past. David Barnhart, editor of the Barnhart Dictionary Companion, spotted what he calls “a figurative extension of the meaning” and supplies a 1986 citation in this book title: “Backstory: Interviews with Screenwriters of Hollywood’s Golden Age,” edited by Pat McGilligan. (Unfortunately for etymologists, no interviewer asked the early screenwriters if they ever used the word backstory.)
That secondary sense — “what happened back then” — is being carried forward. The Baltimore Sun reporter Fred Rasmussen, who has a weekly column titled Back Story, says: “What we’re doing is going back to an original story from the 20’s and 30’s, sometimes only 10 years ago, and updating it for readers. We may know now what or who caused it, and what the motivations were. It’s not a nostalgia column; it’s a revisiting of a news event. We chose the name because we wanted something clipped, and that reflected what the column was about.”
Other lexies have their eyes on the two words (that are sometimes written as one). Joe Pickett, executive editor of the American Heritage Dictionary, supplies us with “Tapir’s Morning Bath,” a 2002 nature book by Elizabeth Royte: “Whalers took out whales, plankton proliferated, pollack boomed, perch and herring went bust, seals and sea lions followed, and so orcas switched their diet to otter.” Then comes a nice boosting: “As the disappearing otter has a back story, so too does it have a front story, a cascade of effects rippling into the future.”
Bringing the varied usages close to home, The Times Magazine has a section on its contents page called “Back Story.” Here’s the meaning, in the opinion of Gerald Marzorati, the magazine’s editor: “My understanding is that the phrase is mostly (though not exclusively) used in Hollywood to describe the potted history and biography of, respectively, the narrative and the characters that will have to be worked into the film — carefully, as not to bog down the unfolding of the edge-of-the-seat stuff that moviegoers have paid their 10-plus bucks for.

“We at the magazine use it on our contents page mostly because of the catchiness of the phrase. What we mean to do in that paragraph is give you a little ‘back story’ on the author — why he or she was the one to have reported and written the piece — and a little ‘back story’ on how the reporting came about or went.” (He can give the section a catchy title, but the guys in the office, and at many other magazines, call it the edlet, for “editor’s letter.”)
That’s the background, to use an archaic term, of back story.

credits: new york times, william safire

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31 responses »

  1. Always enjoyed the Charles Kuralt “On the Road” pieces on television too. The real people of all the towns across the country. I include a modest portion of back story in my fiction. It is a balance game. Not too much but a bit where it counts. But then again I write about the characters, the story goes from there.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Back in my ink-stained days, Beth, the responsibility of back story was to give the present tale context. I always wanted the ‘then’ thoroughly understood as the pieces that led to the ‘now,’ and maybe even pointing the path toward the ‘next.’ Thanks for this cool article today, my friend.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Interesting. By this definition, it appears that histories and biographies are also “back stories.” I had a history professor who insisted on “primary sources,” such as contemporary news sources from the period in question. Primary references are harder to find as you go back in time, so we must rely on secondary references (at least) to learn about history. Because historians are working in their present, their views are necessarily distorted, which makes a lot of history like fiction, with overlays of different time periods intimately woven in. I guess in your context, though, the term “back story” refers mostly to fiction and cinema.

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  4. I like Mike’s point about trying to find balance between narrative and backstory in his writing. But in life, I find myself diving as deeply into the backstory as folks will allow. When you understand the events that shaped people’s lives, it’s often easier to “cut them some slack.” In fact, I think this lack of context is contributing to some of the vitriol we see online these days. In 140 characters we have only the space to bark our opinion, without showing how we arrived there. Anyway … great post! As you can see, I found it quite thought-provoking. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Wrote the comment above before I saw others’ serious take on backstories. I certainly agree that the backstory of a character makes that character more complex and more interesting for a reader. But let me introduce another kind of backstory — the dilemma of reading the author’s own life into what s/he writes. I believe dwelling on an author’s motivation or influences too much takes away from the intent of a poem or novel. Writers take a snippet from life and then we… well, we lie. Yes, the character who is the mother in my novel may have some of my mother’s traits, but to say then that the novel is autobiographical is a disservice to the author. A fellow poet says you have to decide whether to write the truth or the poem. Often the backstory for a poem or a character does have a morsel of truth, but to cement a piece of literature or any artistic form to happenings in a writer’s past isn’t fair to either the art or the writer. Sorry, this is a knee jerk for me, since in college a professor ruined F. Scott Fitzgerald for me by always aligning his novels with his real life in minute detail. I’ve been on a soapbox ever since about it. Bet you wish I’d just stuck with my previous comment, huh.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Not having studied FSF in the minute detail as you, he & Zelda lived an unusual life. It seems to me, his life did influence his writing and imagination a lot. How about Hemingway? Their ‘backstory’, and correlation to their writings, is very interesting to me. ps. I liked your first comment:)

      Liked by 1 person

      • yes, there certainly is a correlation between the writers’ lives and what they write/wrote. it would be near impossible for them not to be influenced by their life experiences.

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