, a back-story
(also back story
) is the history behind the situation extant at the start of the main story. This literary device
is often employed to lend the main story depth or verisimilitude
. A back-story may include the history of characters, objects, countries, or other elements of the main story. Back-stories are usually revealed, sketchily or in full, chronologically or otherwise, as the main narrative unfolds. However, a story creator may also create portions of a back-story or even an entire back-story that is solely for his or her own use in writing the main story and is never revealed in the main story. In role-playing games
, a character’s back-story is usually called his or her background
The dramatic revelation of secrets from the backstory is a useful term for forming the story, recommended as far back as Aristotle's Poetics.
Examples of back-stories
- Arguably the most extensive back-story ever created is that for Vyasa's ancient epic Mahabharata, which was one of the longest epics ever written with a total of over 90,000 verses (over 2 million words). The core story of the Mahabharata was originally 24,000 verses, while the rest of the epic consists of additional back-story, as well as numerous side stories.
- J. R. R. Tolkien's novel The Lord of the Rings has a very extensive back-story; much of it was published posthumously in The Silmarillion and other books. (Actually, this back-story existed long before Tolkien ever decided to write the novel.) Other fantasy authors, notably Robert Jordan in his Wheel of Time series, have followed suit. J. K. Rowling's back-story for the Harry Potter books is also quite elaborate.
- The Elder Scrolls series of games features a vast and complex backstory. To characters in the games this is of course their history, meaning that many varying and contradictory accounts of backstories in the games exist in the gameworld of Tamriel - the accidental confusion, mythologisation and ideological appropriation of histories in the series gives the games a very rich and compelling atmosphere of authenticity, and maintain the player's interest by allowing them to try and piece together the 'true' version of events. Some events, however, such as the War of the Second House, were deliberately given no definitive 'true' version by the designers, so as to enhance the above-mentioned atmosphere.
- Similarly, the Malazan Book of the Fallen series by Steven Erikson uses ambiguous and mythologised backstories to emulate the ambiguity of real history; his backstory does have a 'true' version however. His use of prologues set millennia before the core of his novels provides readers with an interesting insight into the myths and traditions of peoples in the cores of the books as the reader can see how the events of the prologues have become changed in peoples collective memory by the passage of time.
- The Metal Gear series has an extensive back-story, with many characters in the series having an elaborate history that are explained to the player through radio calls during gameplay or through supplemental information contained in the manuals.
- The Compilation of Final Fantasy VII expands on the elaborate back-story of Final Fantasy VII through plot details revealed in sequels, prequels and side stories.
- The back-stories of the protagonists of the Grand Theft Auto series, revealed in conversations with other characters, generally serve as the motivations of their criminal activities in one way or another.
- The back-story of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past focused on an ancient legend happening long ago in Hyrule. What really happened on that legend was perhaps revealed on the fifth Zelda game, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
- In science fiction, Frank Herbert's Dune series has an extensive back-story, which has allowed other authors to write a series of prequels based on it.
- When George Lucas wrote the original Star Wars movies, he wrote a back-story to explain where the characters came from. That backstory became the source of a prequel trilogy of movies and the Expanded Universe.
- The third Indiana Jones movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, begins with a scene set during protagonist Indiana's childhood, explaining where he acquired his hat, his whip, the scar on his chin and his fear of snakes; this in turn led to the television series, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, which can be seen as a back-story to the movie trilogy. The opening sequence of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is expanded upon in the video game Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb.
- The movies Memento and Irréversible feature the novel orientation of being told backwards in time, scene by scene, with the concluding scenes occurring first, and so in some sense they may be considered as entirely comprising back-story. An episode of Seinfeld had a similar sequence following the story of an Indian Wedding and Kramer's argument with Franklin Delano Romanowski.
- J. Michael Straczynski has written a detailed back-story for the TV show Babylon 5, going back 1000 years.
In a shared universe
more than one author may share the same back-story. The later creation of a back-story that conflicts in some way with a previously written main story may require the adjustment device known as retroactive continuity
The term "backstory" has a slightly different sense when used by the contemporary news media. For a reporter, the "backstory" is, generally speaking, any information that does not make it into the story as reported in the news media. This can include past history, unstated agendas, information about secret sources, unconfirmed rumor, and other material that does not meet journalistic standards, cannot for other reasons (legal concerns, political pressure, editorial decisions) be released to the public, or is simply too long or complicated to report in a news story. In this sense the backstory is not necessarily false or fictional. It simply does not fit the standard definition of reporting.
Since the advent of the internet and of blogs, this journalistic backstory has become much more visible and interesting to the general public. Blogs often focus on the backstory both before and after the standard news story is covered in the media. This is beginning to change the lines between story and backstory and alter the definitions of journalism.
The New York Times has started a daily podcast called "Backstory" in which its editors and senior staff interview its reporters about stories they are working on. The project seems to be designed to help overcome public distrust of the Times and other media by people who assume the backstory is concealed by an elite unconcerned, for reasons of political bias or simple incompetence, about the truth of its official reporting.
CNN now uses its “BackStory” feature to provide “a quick way to catch up on how a story has developed over time.”
In recent years, sustainability advocates have begun to refer to the "back-story" of goods: that is, the impacts on the planet and people created by producing and delivering those goods Without knowing the full back-story of the things we use, they argue, we can't accurately judge whether or not the impacts we are indirectly generating by purchasing them are good or bad. Therefore, many bright green environmentalists believe that greater corporate and governmental transparency is a critical step towards sustainability, so that consumers can make more informed choices, and public opinion can be brought to bear on unethical practices
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