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Do You Include Backstory in Your Memoir?

Book writing coach Lisa Tener
Your Book Coach

In a book consultation a few days ago, I suggested that a client could make her story more compelling by cutting the backstory (her first chapter was actually called “backstory”–cute in theory but ho-hum-ish in reality).

Rather than make the backstory the appetizer of her book, I suggested the author envision it as a spice to sprinkle judiciously.

In general–and there can be exceptions–when you start with the agonizing details of your drawn out illness on page 1, you lose us. We want to hear about the day it all started to change when you joined a group of strangers and struggled up the mountaintop pre-dawn, all judgmental and                                                                     insecure.

back story
Take us back a little when appropriate….

Sure, as you’re headed up the mountain, give us a little backstory, but we don’t need the loooooooong version.

In fact, the term “backstory” is often used in fiction and film where the backstory helps the writer connect with a character in order to write in that character’s voice and understand the character’s actions. Backstory can also help readers understand a character or narrator– and her circumstances–more deeply. But think actively about what readers need and will keep them engaged.

Sprinkle your backstory like a heady spice.


Be selective. Even if you do want to start with your predicament (such as the illness I mentioned earlier), one paragraph of spot-on description can be more powerful than a whole chapter of same. And, remember, in a memoir, as in a novel, you need to grab readers with something engaging or suspenseful from your first sentence.

Ask your memoir questions here…




Lisa Tener

Lisa Tener is an award-winning book writing coach who assists writers in all aspects of the writing process—from writing a book proposal and getting published to finding one’s creative voice. Her clients have appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, CBS Early Show, The Montel Williams Show, CNN, Fox News, New Morning and much more. They blog on sites like The Huffington Post, Psychology Today and WebMD.

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