How much backstory is too much? Today we will discuss how to avoid too much backstory in your memoir.
I hope this is not you…
You are memoir writing about a time when you—alas—got fired from your job. As you write about this, you throw in your college studies, how much you loved your major and how eager you were for the workplace. Then you go on to write about the catty politics of the office from which you got fired. You even throw in a vignette about your boss’s spouse who came onto you and another snippet about the wasteful (and tasteless) redecorating your boss commissioned. For good measure, you describe the company’s history and…
The backstory is not necessary—here, at this time. Spend your energy writing what needs to be written.
As you write about being fired, make a note of the backstory details you will want the reader to know at some point—but not now. Later when you are finished with the firing story, you can take the time to write the backstory—or move on to another episode and save the backstory for later. Once it is written, you can insert it into the manuscript where it belongs. Your love of your major will fit into your college chapters and the catty office politics will fit into another chapter—a chapter before the firing. The boss’s spouse coming onto you will also fit into an earlier chapter.
When you overwrite a story by stuffing it with backstory—and many writers seem to want to tell their entire story in what ought to be a vignette—you disrespect chronology and drama and the reader’s patience. Furthermore…
You will find editing a much easier task. No more cut (“Have I missed some text in the cutting? Do I now have a logical sequencing with what is left?”) and paste (“Is this really the right sequence, the right place in the story? Do I have the transitions in place to make this vignette understandable here?”)
What ought the vignette about “being fired” contain?
The firing story ought to have the scene of you being fired—and some lead in and lead out. Your boss’s diction, attire, comportment are all appropriate here. Specific words and setting also fit in. Your internal chatter is good to include. The emotional aftermath—the anger, the embarrassment, the uncertainty—can be incorporated.
The firing vignette needs to be a story of something that happened at one time, in one place, to one person. Not a story about everything.
When you tell only the one story—as it occurred, at the time, to you—you will save yourself the effort and the time of revision later. It’s not only saving the effort to cut and paste. When you write just the scene, you are much more likely to be attuned to the drama of the scene. If you write only what fits into the story, you will not have to weed out elements later to insert elsewhere nor work at recreating the inherent drama.
Memoir Start-Up Package
Writing tips like the one above can be found in the many resources in the Memoir Start-Up Package and will save you much time as you eliminate the floundering (“why is this memoir taking so long to write?”) and get more focused on your writing (Hey, when you know what you’re doing, it isn’t so hard.”)
Whatever you do today, be sure to write a few pages of your memoir.