Monday, March 09, 2015

The Phantom Menace: Don't start with background

Title: A proposal to supply Acme Corp. with Blagfly Macroscopic Flange 
Background: In 20187, Ignati and Wilhelmina Lightblack noticed the diminishing return on investment of industrial-size household powersource applications for lightsabres. The siblings engaged upon a ten-year research project into the optimal application of flange technology in lightsabres. A side enquiry into the efficiency of something something something dark side ...

That's what was wrong with The Phantom Menace — Chapter One of the Star Wars epic. It was all background.

No one wants to read background. If they do read it, it's because they thought they had to.

One element that made the first Star Wars movie work (Episode Four, "A New Hope") was that it started with action and immediately put the audience into a fully realized universe. That's also part of the appeal of The Hobbit (the book) and George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. The authors have developed complete, consistent worlds, and all the elements they present fit together consistently.

In other words, the author has done the background research, but doesn't force it on the audience.

This principle applies just as well to non-fiction and business communications like proposals and reports. No one wants to wade through background information. They want the point, first. 

Luke Skywalker did not stop to read the history of the Trade Federation, the blockade of Naboo, the destruction of the Jedi Order and the establishment of the Empire. No. His reaction to Princess Leia's message was "She's beautiful. I have to help her by finding Obi-Wan Kenobi." 

Thesis first, background later

Recently, I received a number of reports and proposals that begin with extensive background. 
Page after page of background. 
The authors felt that the audience could not understand the thesis without knowing the background. That's intuitively correct, but the idea falls apart on the quickest analysis.

No matter what the document is, it's competing for its audience's time and attention not just with other documents and reports, but with other media (including Facebook). Before anyone decides whether to invest time in reading a report, no matter how long or short —in fact, before they decide to invest time in anything — they do a quick return-on-investment calculation: will this be worth it? 

Before they start reading, the audience needs to know why they should, and the only way they can make that calculation is if you tell them what their payoff will be. 

Start with the point — the end of your argument. "Your company needs our flanges." Then provide the reasoning that backs it up.

Like Princess Leia: "You have to help us, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You're our last hope." Thesis statement first, then the reasoning.  

Problem, solution

"But what about the problem-solution approach?" you ask. "Isn't that a good way to structure a proposal?"

Thanks for asking. Indeed, it is a good way to set up a proposal, as well as many other kinds of documents. Even a novel. But you should not front-load it with a long description of the problem. Show the oppression, quickly describe why it's a problem, and then show the reader the promised land.
Problem: We cannot tell who is coming to our website, nor what they look at most.
Solution: Lungbreath web analytics software will track who comes to the site, from where, and specifically which pages they spend the most time on. This will allow us to target sales messages and ultimately increase revenue.
Problem: Dirty Bill's restaurants have far too many rats in the kitchen. Not only will the health department shut us down if we cannot get the rat count below municipal standards by next month, the rats are eating so much of our inventory, we are losing money.
Solution: Batta's Better Mouse-Traps® will reduce the rat population in the kitchen by 50 percent in the first month, which will bring the restaurants within Health Department standards. Thus, we will stay in business! 

Write it in reverse

I often find that the best way to do this is to write the introduction last. As the writer, you may find it easier to write the background first. This helps you to understand the situation and its context. For example, you could describe how you first noticed the problem, explain how big a problem it is, and outline what would be the long-term impacts of not addressing the problem. 

You could introduce statistics that show the history of the problem, perhaps linking it to causes and factors that have an impact.

But this comes in the main body of your report. From that analysis, you can write an analysis of the impact of the problem. In business terms, this means how much it costs. Then you could present alternative solutions, and describe their potential impacts and costs. 

Finally, you describe the best solution, in your considered and researched opinion, and make a recommendation. That's called the conclusion. 

After you have finished writing the conclusion, you can write the introduction. Summarize the conclusion. State the solution first, then the problem and the cost of the problem.
Batta Corp.'s Better Mouse-Traps® will solve the increasing rat problem that the Dirty Bill restaurant chain has been experiencing this past year. This modest investment will not only save each location $2,000 per month in food inventory, it will prevent the Public Health Department from closing us down.

That gets the readers' attention. They'll want to read more after that. 


  1. The adage of "Grab the tiger by the tail" is well explained here. Most people want to start at the beginning and work their way through it. We don't need to know how Adam and Eve procreated to explain today's child-birthing practices. Good post.

  2. Anonymous10:26 AM

    Good advice, applicable to everyone. If you want to write a letter of complaint, don't bog the reader down with your life story. Just the facts and what resolution will make you happy.
    Onisha Ellis

  3. Anonymous10:33 AM

    On point, Scott, I do write my background first to get into the mood but I know it isn't part of the book. The book or story begins at the first real action or conflict for my main character.

  4. Good post Scott. I agree!

  5. Excellent advice for every writer, Scott. Like a car's spare tire, back story and background should sit in the trunk and be accessed only when needed.

    I also really liked the solution-problem reverse scenario. I don't think I've ever done that before, or (if I have) I did it unintentionally. This is definitely a writing practice opportunity.

    Kudos and thanks! :-)

  6. Anonymous4:23 PM

    Great advice, Scott. Every writer could benefit from a little reminder now and then.

  7. Great advice, Scott. It can be tough to let go of that back story, though. Sometimes I write it, knowing that nobody will read it. Then I select all of the text from the beginning up to the first bit of action or dialog, and delete it. Writing it can be a useful exercise, but it doesn't belong in the finished work.

  8. Help me Obi Wan Kenobi... You're my only hope.... --- I so agree! And that Star Wars analogy is stellar... as is the Phantom Menace. To quote a "Far Side" cartoon, where the dog named Ginger is listening to his owner go on and on, talking to her... and all she hears is "blah blah blah... Ginger... Blah, blah blah Ginger.." My eyes glaze over, even if someone speaking gives me background facts that are uninteresting or impersonal.

  9. When I first wrote my book THE HUNT FOR XANADU - initially the entire prologue was on the Story of Siddharta - I did a cute take on it, but I felt the readers needed to understand "the who and what" of what he was before journeying into the story. The editor nixed it... sometimes we really shouldn't start with background and let the reader learn through the story... worked for me - great reminder post.