If you’ve missed our past three blog posts, Midnight Publishing’s staff of professional, award-winning editors and writers has been focusing weekly on the most common “writing mistakes” we come across when working with clients. By giving detailed advice and concrete examples, Midnight Publishing hopes to help our fellow authors (and possible clients!) to identify their potential writing weaknesses before they’ve sunk hundreds of hours into their new manuscript. Now, keep in mind—as your professional hired editor or ghostwriter, we work one-on-one with you to identify personal strengths and areas for improvement not only in your stylistic choices but the storyline itself, and many clients find these services vital (contact Midnight Publishing for a free sample edit of your first 1,000 words!). However, in general, these common “mistakes” are made by lots of authors, new or best-selling, and our main goal is to help everyone improve their writing!
Backstory: How Much is Too Much?
A common writing error that a lot of newer authors make is inserting way too much backstory into the beginning of the book. Essentially, it’s introducing a character and immediately diving into their childhood, or what their favorite food and color are, or how much they were made fun of in sixth grade to explain why they’ve grown into an angry, explosive adult with a penchant for starting fights in bars.
Here’s an example of using too much backstory based on the that last sentence mentioned above:
Larry walked into the bar at half past four, blinking in the darkness of the place. He sat at the only stool available, next to a man who reminded him of a guy he really, really used to hate. Same blond hair, same smug look. Same stupid letterman jacket, except that it’d been twenty years since the stranger must’ve received it, and the thing was threadbare and stained; beaten up, sort of like the man who wore it. A pathetic jock.
But Larry didn’t feel bad for him, oh no. He hated jocks, ever since the time in sixth grade when they all decided he was their human punching bag, toilet bowl cleaner, even their locker inhabitant if they were feeling extra cranky. Larry was never the same since; he’d become an angry, explosive man who couldn’t hold down a job, couldn’t keep a woman, couldn’t do anything, really. Except drink. He never had a problem with that. Oh—and fighting. He never had a problem starting fights, often in bars just like the one he was currently at.
So, there’s nothing inherently “wrong” with the above; it’s informative and maybe even interesting. But it’s honestly just way too much information at once, and not enough immediate conflict. You want to hook the reader, then feed the information about Larry’s past later, in increments.
Larry walked into the bar at half past four, blinking in the darkness of the place. He sat at the only stool available, next to a man with blond hair and a beat-up letterman jacket.
“What’ll it be?” asked the bartender, leaning on the hardwood. Larry didn’t want to look down into the dark shadows of her cleavage, he really didn’t; she was old enough to be his daughter. The blond man seemed to have no such qualms.
“Whiskey. Neat.” The bartender turned to the empty shot glasses, and Larry flagged her down again. “And make it a double.”
The blond man snorted. “That kinda day, huh? I hear you. I hear you loud and clear.”
Larry glanced around, wondering if another spot had opened up. No, he wasn’t going to sit near the family in the corner celebrating something, one of their little kid’s birthdays, maybe. And definitely not near the couple in the other corner, who hadn’t quit swapping spit since he came in. He was stuck. “You think you know something about my day? You don’t know nothing about me.”
The blond man held his hands up in surrender, his pale eyebrows shooting up toward his hairline. He was a good-looking man, and he knew it. Larry suddenly hated the guy more than he’d hated anyone, all because of that easy smile. That you’re-dirt-under-my-shoes air.
Larry itched to punch him, punch the smugness right off his face. He wasn’t the punching bag anymore, and whenever Larry saw an opportunity to remind himself and others of that, he took it with a vengeance.
See what we did there?
Barely any backstory at all. Literally, the only backstory we have is the one bolded sentence about no “longer being the punching bag.” We still get all the essential information but in a much more immediate, interesting premise.
Remember, when it comes to beginning a book, the right way to start (99 percent of the time) is to introduce a character, a conflict, and how that character is going to navigate said conflict. A lot of the time, you don’t even need to go into a character’s backstory with inner dialogue or an Omniscient POV—you can show and not tell us through the character’s behavior and dialogue. Then, if appropriate, insert a bit of backstory like a crumb, giving your readers a taste of the story to come.
Next time, we’ll wrap up our “writing mistakes” series with two more common issues: infodumps and contractions (or the lack thereof). Be sure to contact Midnight Publishing with any and all editing, ghostwriting or marketing inquiries—we love hearing from our readers and we’re always available to discuss getting you on the schedule!