Duncan Hopwood

What’s the backstory?

January 13, 2016

Ever been in another country or even just a different city and found the news in the local paper unfathomable (and not just because it’s in a language you don’t speak)? It’s probably because you don’t know the backstory.

In fiction – novels, films and tv series – a backstory is the history or background of the character, stuff that happened before the story you’re reading or watching but which influences the way characters behave. Often we learn by means of a flashback of the childhood events that shaped the hero’s personality.

In news stories, the backstory is everything that’s gone on before. Journalists will sometimes treat you to a bit of a flashback to put a story in context but generally you’re expected as a news consumer to be up to speed with the history behind the big stories of today, and to be familiar with the main characters.

The stories that often get the most traction are the ones that develop an existing story, add a new chapter if you like. So the latest politician to be caught fiddling his or her expenses – or just charging for something extraordinary – gets top billing because it builds on the story of the MPs’ expenses scandal, which everyone who reads the news in the UK knows about already.

Another way to think of this is seeing if your story can be tied to a vogue theme. These change over time but may last for years. So vogue themes of the 1980s such as AIDS and the environment have been replaced with migration and religious extremism.

Most brands won’t want to be associated with subjects like that but for groups such as think tanks, they provide a wealth of opportunity to do research, write papers and be talking heads giving their take on the latest chapter in the story.

There are plenty of other, less contentious themes that companies could piggy back on with a bit of thought – student debt, commercial space travel, house prices and sustainable energy, to name just a few that sprang to mind when we asked around the office.

Even if you can’t tap into one of those stories, you can give your own characters a back story by ensuring you don’t make the mistake of failing to put your story in context. Explain how you got here, tell your character’s rags to riches story or the way they have finally found a solution after years of searching for the answer to a problem.

Make your characters resonate. Inject some emotion. Insert a human element. The most successful true stories have a lot in common with fiction.