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Home > Publications > Quill > Don’t burden your readers with unneeded history


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Friday, June 30, 2006
Don’t burden your readers with unneeded history

By Tom Hallman

A news story is a straight-forward exercise. Start with the facts, introduce a person, strategically place a few quotes and be done with it.

That’s what we call a “story” in this business. In truth, it’s not even close to a story. I’ve never seen any studies, but I bet that most readers — unless it is a dramatic news story about an explosion or murder — don’t typically read to the end of a news story. They read until they get enough information — “facts” — and then move to the next page and the next story.

But when it comes time to tackle a real story, the reporter has to totally rethink not only how they report that story — theme and other issues we’ve talked about in past columns — but also how they structure the piece to let it unfold as a true story.

One of the key elements is pacing. A writer can accomplish that through word choice, sentence structure and whether a scene is built around dramatic or summary narrative — one being closely focused on the moment, the other summarizing the moments.

Another way to tackle the idea of pace is how to deal with the character’s history. This can be one of the trickiest parts of narrative. It remains one of the areas that I’m constantly trying to improve.

How much of a character’s past does a writer need to include in a story? That’s the question I always try and ask myself.

In most cases, even though less is more, writers tend to shovel in too many details. Or we stop the story flow by inserting a chunk of history that becomes meaningless because it has no context.

The key word is context — tell readers only what they need to know at that moment to make sense of the story and reveal deeper aspects of the character.

That’s easier said than done.

Asking yourself what the reader needs to know — and when — will force you to look at your overall story structure and eliminate history that does not move your story forward. The temptation is to be seduced by history.

Years ago, I wrote a series about a district attorney prosecuting a drunk driver who killed several people who were walking along a rural road. At one point, I asked the attorney when he decided to become a lawyer. He told me a wonderful story about being in high school and going down and watching a DA at work.

That was a nice, wonderful nugget in the story. But when I was polishing the piece, I took it out because it was unnecessary history that made the piece bog down. Working to eliminate those little detours can make a 70-inch piece read like a breeze.

When I first started tackling longer narratives, I’d start with a scene and build to a break. My next section would be the “history section.” I’d often start back at birth and work the character up to real time then continue the story.

But it stopped the story dead in its tracks. Readers don’t care about history. They care about history that is relevant to the present.

These days, I try and weave in the history throughout the piece. Here are a couple examples. The first comes from a series about a man who gave up a cushy job in a corporate law firm to start out at the bottom in the DA’s office.

Here are two paragraphs that show how the past can be made relevant:

He called his father, a man who’d worked a series of jobs, always living with financial uncertainty. The only time Stanford had seen his father cry was when he lost his job and had to work as a janitor at the family’s church. His father’s advice was blunt: A man supports his family. If you don’t like your job, tough. Only an idiot leaves $80,000 on the table.

And later in the story:

The law in this office meant people — victims, witnesses, defendants, judges, cops, defense attorneys and jurors. It had nothing to do with abstract rules applied to the business transactions that occupied his time before. His fancy resume — Baylor University, Notre Dame and Stanford Law School — meant nothing. If he couldn’t read people, he’d fail.

The final piece comes from the series “The Boy Behind the Mask.” When you read that series, ask yourself what I didn’t reveal about his character’s life outside the story world.

This paragraph reveals much about the doctor, far more than a long section about why he went to medical school:

Surgery is Mulliken’s life. He works weekends. He hasn’t had a vacation in years. He’s never married and has no children. He dotes on his dog, Girlie, and his cat, Felicia — a cabinet in the operating room carries 19 photographs of them.

Remember, less is more.


Tom Hallman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning senior reporter for The Oregonian. He can be reached at tbhbook@aol.com

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