Differentiating between exposition & backstory

Aaaaaaaoooooh in re: expo is a backstory?@so_you_know

Then would backstory be exposition?@marisabirns

Exposition as backstory in film, often flashback scene (dreams, memories, etc.)@AllInky

So an ‘info dump’, however it is done, is not exposition?@Story_Craft

Now, we did have a great conversation about exposition on #storycraft Sunday, and I did go back on Twitter yesterday and answer every blessed question asked that I could find. But you know what the thing is about Twitter?

A hundred and forty characters.

So I’ve decided to do exposition on the advice column all week this week and address the questions that seem to kind of fall into similar areas.

First and foremost: Is exposition backstory?


Exposition and backstory are not the same thing. That’s comparing apples to oranges. The problem comes from so many oranges being cooked in apple pies. People get confused. “But if you put them in apple pies, doesn’t that make them apples? Isn’t the part where I tell what happened before my hook”—with which hook you have all VERY INTELLIGENTLY begun your stories—“the exposition? Because my teachers always told me it was.”

Yeah. Well, sorry about your teachers being mistaken. Or your being mistaken, which they didn’t address. Or that hottie who sat next to you in that particular class and made everything going on at the front of the class sound like Charlie Brown’s adults: “Wha-WHA-wha-wha?

Exposition and backstory are not the same thing.

CAN backstory be exposition?


Backstory can be cast either in exposition, in which the writer taps the reader on the shoulder and pulls them out of the scene to fill them in on everything they need to know in order to follow the story from here on (“Listen, I just got to tell you, Jane’s so furious at Babita about this because Babita ate Jane’s pet rabbit when they were children, and Jane never got over it, especially when their parents were divorced the following week and it turned out Babita knew it was coming and Jane didn’t”); or backstory can be cast as flashback, in which the writer shows the reader the scenes in which that earlier story occurred (child Jane discovers the empty cage and goes in the kitchen to find child Babita licking her lips).

Backstory is one of those things a writer sometimes needs to put into a story. Exposition and scene (flashback, when you’re talking about backstory) are your choices of how to put it in.

It’s like choosing between a bike and a unicycle for the part of your performance where you have to stand up and wave your arms and yell.

Lots of people choose the bicycle. But that doesn’t make bicycles and yelling the same thing.