Interview: Back Story

Where an editor gives some subtle tips on back story

I know that usually when we interview someone it’s a real person, right? But the reason behind this back story interview goes back a very long way. You see, I was but a child, aged nine, when an apple fell from a tree, right in my path. I picked it up; it was shiny, and round, and there was a small hole where a worm had taken a bite. That reminded me of another time, when I was six, and I saw a worm digging into a compost hole. Of course, this reminded me of the fateful time I learnt about death at aged four, when a Magpie swooped down and brutally murdered a worm …

Too much back story at the start of this post for you? Here is my interview with back story on how we can make him better looking.

Lauren: So, back story. Tell me a little bit about yourself.
Back Story: Well, it started when I was but a child, aged nine, when an apple fell from a tree, right–

Lauren: Whoa, whoa, hold up. Is this going to affect the rest of the story we’re reading about you?
Back Story: Well, no, not directly, but don’t you want to know about my past?

Lauren: Oh, back story. Back story, back story, back story … You see, I see you around in a lot of novels that I edit, in particular in the Young and New Adult genres. You’re a useful tool; I think you’re quite handsome, too! But sometimes, you tell me things I just don’t need to know.
Back Story: But I want you to know things about me!

Lauren: And I want to know things about you too! But we need to work out the difference between what we need to know and what you’d like us to know. What do we need to know about your past?
Back Story: That I like the colour blue?

Lauren: Does this change the story later? When in the story do we think “Aha! They like blue and so they must be the murderer/that’s why they’re crying/they’re going to be upset about this?”
Back Story: Placing a little too much emphasis on my favourite colour, aren’t we?

Lauren: Exactly! See the thing is, back story is important.
Back Story: That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you …

Lauren: And I think it is great to have a very detailed history on your hero and heroine. I want to know where they went to or currently attend school, who their parents are, what their home life is like. What’s their first memory, when is the first time they fell in love, who was the recipient of their first kiss–
Back Story: What their favourite colour is?

Lauren: Yes!
Back Story: So what’s your problem with my worm story?

Lauren: Lovely friend, it is so important that YOU know all of that. You need to know everything about your character. The thing is, me, as a reader? I don’t need to know.
Back Story: Then what’s the point in me knowing?

Lauren: You need to know all about your character’s history in order to understand how they would react in certain situations. You need to know everything about them to make them more three-dimensional in your writing, taking them from a dreamy picture of some celebrity you’ve made walk around in your book and blowing them up into a real walking, talking human.
Back Story: So back story can make me write better, but back story doesn’t necessarily make you read easier.

Worm (Swallowtail Caterpillar) And The Apple

Do we need to know about the worm? Photo: Big Stock Photo

Lauren: Correct! That’s not to say I don’t want to know things about your past; of course I do! But you need to make me believe in you first, by presenting a well-rounded, realistic character I care for. Once I care for you, then I’ll care more about your back story.
Back Story: Great! So I’ll chat to you for a while them WHAMMO! Throw in the back story in chapter three.

Lauren: I love your enthusiasm, but not quite. Let’s subtly integrate the back story. Instead of opening the chapter with seeing you as a child at aged nine, why don’t we try to integrate it. Have your hero racing down the street, past a market on his way to thwart the bad guys; paint me a picture of the luscious red apples piled high on the rickety farmer’s cart. Our hero rushes past, hiding behind it, ready to push the cart over sending said apples rolling everywhere so his pursuer slips and falls. Then, he sees a worm slinking to the side of one of the pieces of fruit. He freezes. Worms remind him of death, ever since that first time he saw a magpie brutally stab one when he was only a small boy.
And especially since he found them crawling through his neighbour’s decomposed skull.
See? You can tell me important information by integrating it into the action, and then his reaction tells us how important it is. He froze. If this was an everyday memory, he wouldn’t do that.
Back Story: I see. So you’re saying you want me to incorporate back story into my regular story, not have it in one big chunk together.

Lauren: Yes.
Back Story: Any exceptions to the rule?

Lauren: Of course! You can put a little back story at the start if you absolutely need to; but try and keep it down to a paragraph or less. Remember the golden rule: if it’s that important, why aren’t we seeing it ourselves?
Back Story: Got it.

Cheat’s Version (For Those Who Didn’t Quite Understand My Weird Ramblings)

1. Only tell us what we need to know

2. Try and integrate the back story into the regular action of the manuscript

3. Remember that if it’s that important an event, we should be seeing it ourselves instead of being told about tit


Lauren K. McKellar is an author and editor. Keep an eye on her Blog and Facebook page for more information about books two and three in the Crazy In Love series, coming soon.


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