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WRITE: Frequently Made Errors #2–Too Much Backstory

Posted by on May 29, 2010 in backstory, nonfiction, WRITE | 0 comments

This mini-series addresses common errors writers make. I should have added in my previous FME post that all these represent errors I have made—and may still make at times. But the reason I share them is because when I edit others’ work, I often see similar problems from different writers. That’s why I call them FMEs or “Frequently Made Errors.”

TOO MUCH BACKSTORY can occur in either fiction or nonfiction. All my published work is nonfiction (unless you count some poetry from years ago), so I would call nonfiction my area of expertise. But I do know that in fiction, backstory means the story before the story. Novice fiction writers face the temptation to give too much background information too soon. Almost any fiction instructor urges wannabe novelists to tell the story they intend to tell and allow the characters’ past to unfold alongside it.

This same backstory problem can occur with nonfiction as well. The author of a recent manuscript I critiqued began his book by telling why he was qualified to write it. He explained to his readers what they could expect and what he hoped they would learn. He told about the ways his journey had blessed him and how he hoped it would, in turn, bless them.

Do you see the problem? If you managed to read all the last paragraph, you did better than most people would have done with his manuscript. The advice I gave this aspiring author used the same words I referenced for wannabe novelists: just tell the story. Don’t tell us how you or why you came to write the book. Don’t tell us how wonderful it is. Tell the story. Share the principles. Give us background information along the way if need be, but don’t put your reader to sleep. Backstory doesn’t keep readers reading. Telling the story does.

When you make a new friend, do you find out everything about him or her at your first meeting? Do you automatically ask about childhood experiences, likes and dislikes, or intimate details of work and family life? Of course not. You let the information unfold naturally in the context of your relationship.

If it helps, think of your writing as a relationship with your readers. Don’t break up before you begin. You came to your manuscript to tell a story or teach a truth. Stick with your primary purpose, and leave the backstory in the background—right where it belongs.

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