"Required reading" for today's smart writer.

"Required reading" for today's smart writer.
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Thursday, December 5, 2013

Too Much "Backstory" to Your Story?

Tips on Successful Story Development...Courtesy of Alfred Hitchcock

“Sometimes less is more.”---Anonymous

History is an important element to the evolution of just about every good story.
Not convinced here?
Consider one of the most widely read and revered stories of our times: The Bible.
And as you may recall, it opens with, “In the beginning…”

Still, many writers and even professional speakers have difficulty in determining how much background info to include to draw audiences in, engage them, and help them to understand key characters, story plots, and the all-important “5Ws” behind their creative “presentations.”

As an example, here’s a little “backstory” to today’s article..

Last week, I got a call from a relative, who phoned to just catch up, since we hadn’t spoken in awhile. I have somewhat of a love/hate relationship with our phone sessions. On one hand, she’s a good conversationalist and a natural story teller. Many folks find her witty, colorful, well informed, and well-rounded. She often tells us, “Good times don’t owe me nothing.” With her knack for embellishing and spinning a story, it’s not unusual to find her personal “adventures” as entertaining as your favorite soaps!

The "hate" part? Getting her to stay focused and get to the point can be as painful as a visit to the dentist. She bogs you down in unnecessary details and detours. And nostalgic trips that go no where…

Though I love her dearly, I’ve been known to say in the course of our conversations, “Please just give me the "Cliff Notes" version.”

And many busy readers today will want a similar regard and consideration for their time.
There is great truth to the adage, “Sometimes less is more.”

Which is why your story needs to unfold in the “write” amount of time.

In other words, give readers too much history and they will likely get overwhelmed and overburdened in trying to remember too many facts, places and faces. Give too little history, and they’re left with a bunch of unanswered questions and missing puzzle pieces; which can compromise their overall experience and cause "roving eyes" elsewhere.

I like to call it the Alfred Hitchcock method.
For decades, this mystery writer dazzled and dangled audiences because he was a master storyteller. He knew just how to create mystery, by leaving some things out, and yet instinctively knowing what to pitch in. He gave viewers everything they wanted in a “who-dun-it.” Of course I’m much too young to have watched the original version; I’m talking about the recent reruns here. LOL

Any Hitchcock fans out there?
 Here’s a better approach.
Give snippets of information to intrigue audiences. Don’t over elaborate. Give clues like… A missing glove. An anonymous phone call. Don’t insult readers’ intelligence by feeling it's necessary to explain everything in advance.

Of course this doesn’t apply to all genres of writing, but in essence, keep info on a “need to know basis.”

The key is to captivate readers without holding them captive.

Now…that’s my story. And I’m sticking with it!

Agree or disagree? How do you decide how much background info to include in your work, when relevant?





  1. I love Hitchcock (and I'm too young to have enjoyed his movies when they debuted, as well ;). His delicate touch ensured that the audience could use their imagination. The shower scene in "Psycho" is one of the best. We see the blood draining in the shower, but as far as the actual stabbing? No, that's left for the viewers to imagine...

    1. I just watched Psycho last week. Classic Hitchcock. :-) He was indeed a master at his craft. Thanks Sioux. I value your input.

  2. My daughter doesn't have a condensed version of anything. She doesn't speak in complete sentences; she speaks in complete paragraphs. I like "tidbits" and then to the point articles and stories. Over telling is tiring to read.

  3. "Ain't it?" LOL Thanks, Lin. Always a pleasure to connect. :-)

  4. Oh, Jen. This is so true! There's an older gentleman in church who I avoid unless I have an extra 20 minutes to spare - which is rare. I guess we can learn from a lot for the "over sharing" types. LOL

  5. Your comment gave me quite a chuckle. "Amen" to that! Thanks, Sue. :-)

  6. Agree. Several years ago, I attended Nangie101. Nancy Rue and Angela Hunt gave a continuing class at the Greater Philly Christian Writers Conference. The rule: No backstory for the first 30-60 pages. It has served me well. :)

  7. Susan,

    Indeed it has. :-) Thanks so much for adding to the mix here.