Mr. Back Story, how do you plan to show yourself?
If Mr. Back Story stutters at this point in the interrogation, it’s because he most likely didn’t plan to show anything. He wanted to tell the history, probably in one massive block of information and most likely he wanted to dump it all into the first chapter. There’s something every writer should know about this technique. It doesn’t work unless the author’s intent is to slam the front story to a screeching halt and spin the reader in a 180-degree turn for a visit back to the past. This is a sure-fire way for an author to have his novel tossed onto a rejection pile.
Mr. Back Story, what relevance do you have to the plot?
As in front story, everything brought to light through back story must be relevant to the overall plot. A reader doesn’t care if a character received a bike on her seventh birthday unless the writer gives them a reason to care. For example, the bike is the last gift the heroine’s father gave to her before he disappeared one cold, February night.
Mr. Back Story, how do you plan to present yourself in the manuscript?
If back story is necessary, it is most effectively delivered via layering it into the manuscript in such a way that the front story doesn’t even slow for a stop sign. In other words, the showing of a character’s history should make the reader want to keep turning the page to discover more about that character. Let’s look at the gift from the heroine’s Dad again. Our heroine, Maggie, is currently twenty-eight-years-old. Dad has been out of her life for twenty-one of those years. Maggie’s little girl, Ellie, is also growing up without a father. Maggie hasn’t thought of her dad in a while. What brings on the thoughts of the past?
Maybe Christmas morning has arrived. Maggie awakens and slips by the room where her little girl is asleep. She tiptoes past the guest room she’s given to her visiting mother. Downstairs, she moves to her living room to take a last moment look at the beautiful lights on the Christmas tree and the unwrapped packages underneath its branches. There to the side of the tree is a shiny dark blue bike with a silver bell and blue and silver streamers flowing from the handlebars. Maggie walks over and bends down beside it. She runs her hand over the seat. Tears well up in her eyes. “Just like the one Daddy gave me years ago before he left me.”
Not only is there potentially powerful back story in a few words spoken by the heroine, but there is room to let the back story continue to unfold. Layers keep the audience reading because they are asking questions that must be answered later in the book. In this example, the reader is sure to want to know the answers to two questions: Why did Maggie’s dad leave her, and where did he go? And this leads us to the next question in our interrogation.
Mr. Back Story, what do you have of offer to the front story that can’t be done without you?
If the answer isn’t conflict, emotion, or surprise, or better yet, all three, it might be time to rethink its value.
Let’s say the story is a romance. What kind of conflict does a missing father bring into a romance? The possibilities abound, but here are three: Maggie’s trust in men could be shaken by the abandonment of her father. Maybe Maggie is drawn to the wrong type of man because she grew up without a father in her home. Thinking herself in love with bad boy Josh, she doesn’t see how badly he treats Ellie. When handsome hero, Brian, enters the picture, she isn’t willing to let him into her heart. What if Maggie is constantly looking for her father in the men she dates, but none live up to the fairytale image she has of him. Conflict. Conflict. Conflict. And where there is conflict, there is most often emotion.
On the other hand, what happens to the story if Maggie’s mother walks into the living room? “Maggie, how did you ever find a bike for Ellie exactly like the one your father gave you?” Maggie turns to her mother. “What? I thought you bought it for her?”
In the end, the vetting process for back story should result in a manuscript that presents its characters’ histories in a way that 1) is shown and not told (usually in small blocks at integrals throughout the manuscript); 2) is relevant to the story; 3) tends to leave the reader wanting to know more about the character; and 4) develops conflict and emotion or presents a surprise for the reader.