The fallacy of the backstory

by Randall Snare

I’m writing a novel. Correction: I wrote a hundred pages, then put it away for 2 years lest I develop trichotillomania. Then I took it out again for a workshop this summer, in attempts to resurrect it.

The workshop was part of a writer’s festival in Kerry, one of the more beautiful parts of Ireland.

 

 

sheep going up a mountain in Kerry

Sheep = tranquility

This is what the workshop leader, a novelist named Sean O’Reilly, told me: “Take out the back story.” To be more specific, he said, “Who gives a shit about that back story? Get rid of it.”

Who cares about your backstory (hint: no one)

I don’t really know what my novel is about. But what happens, in a nutshell, is a young couple buy a house with a hole in a wall that their contract says they cannot fix. Strange things start coming out of the hole, like water, cochineal bugs, and a baby.

This story is about the bizarre and how it grows. Yet I had included reams of information about the couple’s relationship, their time in school, blah blah blah. This is what Sean was so bent out of shape about . And he was right. Explanation bogs down the strange. What’s unexplained is where the mystery is; it’s how those stories operate.

Also, my back story was boring.

How to free yourself from your backstory

I’m a little obsessed with the idea of context. As there are new ways to read things, to get information, context is more and more slippery. But even in one of the older literary forms (the novel), context still has a big question mark over it:

  • What do people need to know and why?
  • When do they need to know it?
  • If they need to know it, where does it go?

That’s what constructing a story is – no matter what you’re writing about. Whether it’s a novel or a product description. Whether there’s a specific goal with your writing or not, you still need to figure out what you’re going to do with all the stuff surrounding the immediate.

Adding backstory will make it bad: just watch

The specific will help us out. Take for example the following paragraph, from the article ‘How to be evil‘ by Joshua Allen, via Mix Online.

Corporate evil is often in the news. Whether we’re lamenting BP’s senseless slaughter of Pelicans in the Gulf, or praising Google for slogans like “Don’t be Evil”, we clearly think that corporations, like people, need to be held accountable for evil.

This is how it would read if Joshua was less discerning with his information:

Corporate evil is often in the news. Whether we’re lamenting BP’s senseless slaughter of Pelicans in the Gulf — which was the largest oil marine spill in the history of the petroleum industry. The spill stemmed from a sea-floor oil gusher that resulted from the April 20, 2010 Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion. On July 15, the leak was stopped by capping the gushing wellhead after releasing about 4.9 million barrels of crude oil. — or praising Google for slogans like “Don’t be Evil” — which is the informal corporate slogan originally suggested by Google employees Paul Buchheit and Amit Patel at a meeting. The official corporate philosophy of Google does not contain the words “Don’t be evil” but is close to the 6th point of the 10 point corporate philosophy of Google which says, “You can make money without doing evil.”–, we clearly think that corporations, like people, need to be held accountable for evil.

That was cumbersome and clumsy. Joshua was writing an intro paragraph to his (awesome) article about corporate and personal morality. He should, as he did, presume that his readers know something about BP and Google. And even if they didn’t, it’s not the point.

Writers need rules (isn’t it annoying?)

There are some guidelines to figuring out what we need to tell our audience, which are simply questions we should ask ourselves before, during and after we write:

  1. What does my audience know about what I’m talking about?
  2. What does my audience need to know about what I’m talking about?
  3. What is the point I’m trying to get across?
  4. What do I want my audience to do?
  5. What is my tone? (eg. corporate = more comprehensively informative, generally)
  6. Who cares?

This is just the start of the long painful process of producing and designing content. But cutting your words can be therapeutic, like cleaning out your closet, or throwing chapters in the bin.

 


 
Written by
Randall Snare
Image by
 
 
 




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2 responses to The fallacy of the backstory

  1. This is really good, Randall. The marketing consultants tell us that our content should tell a story, and that the story should be about our customer — not about us. If that’s true — and I think it is — then the customer already knows his or her backstory. We don’t need to include it.

    Case in point: I finished reading your article, and got your message loud and clear, without knowing what “trichotillomania” means. (Then I followed the link you so thoughtfully provided, and had a nice chuckle.)

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