Friday, November 2, 2012

Jump Right In: Avoiding Summary or Backstory


Memoir writers often want to summarize the many stories or moments that led to the piece’s present moment. After all, the writers know everything that happened. These, often large, swaths of text read like separate stories.

Here's my advice: If you want to tell those stories, great: tell them. If you want to tell the story that they lead up to, then trust your reader to follow along when you start in that moment.

While summary and backstory can be helpful in many cases, you don’t want your piece to have too much of either. Instead, focus on creating a scene with action. If you add in enough details (clothes, gestures, actions, speech patterns, etc.), the reader will learn necessary details about the character. This is true for essays, creative nonfiction, memoir, short stories and fiction.

Similarly, if you offer what seems like vital information in parenthesis or between dashes (an aside), then you ask yourself why you’re hiding it there. If it is really vital to the piece, then state it directly.

Benjamin Percy discussed backstory – and why to avoid it - in his recent Poets & Writers essay, Don’t Look Back. He writes,

“First, the impulse to explain will insult your audience. That’s their job – part of the pleasure of reading a story is inference, filling in the blanks and becoming a participant in the narrative, a coauthor. As a beginning writer, you’ve had more training in reading than you’ve had in writing – and so you succumb to your insecurity and you announce, you explicate, filling in as a writer those inferences you’re used to filling in as a reader.

Second, stories are about forward movement, and by interrupting yourself to explain history you have effectively yanked the gearshift into reverse. The story is no longer rushing forward – it’s sliding back.”

The entire article isn’t available for free online. Poets & Writers magazine is an incredible resource for writers. I recommend subscribing for the print or electronic version today.

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