January 27th, 2017

Story Genius on Backstory

Lisa Cron

Backstory is something writers often struggle with, largely because of the writing myths out there that make it seem like something that’s best avoided. Ironic, because by avoiding backstory, writers tend to doom their novels right out of the starting gate.

The surprising truth is that backstory is the most seminal layer of any novel. Without it, your protagonist has amnesia, so she can’t read meaning into anything, nor can she desire or fear anything except, of course, generically. She wants unconditional love, she fears rejection. Ho hum. Don’t we all?

The damage done by the avoid-backstory-myth goes even deeper. Because writers are often discouraged from using backstory, it implies that they therefore don’t need to create backstory, either. So when asked why their protagonist did something, they’re stumped. Like the client I had who, when asked why his protagonist became a hit woman, paused for so long that it was clear he’d never even thought about it. Finally, he blurted, “Um, because she has abandonment issues?” Nice try.

Show me the person who doesn’t have abandonment issues, and I’ll show you the person who hasn’t figured it out yet. We all have abandonment issues. Story specific backstory would have revealed why she has abandonment issues and why that lead her to becoming a hit woman. Hey, I’d read a book that gave me insight into that decision.

In other words, by avoiding backstory you not only lock your reader out of the story, you lock yourself out.

With that in mind, let’s dive into three very astute questions about backstory culled from the comments on my last post:

From Kathryn Craft: I was wondering if at some point you would address when is the best time to introduce backstory in your novel.

The answer, as the old joke about voting goes, is: early and often. Hopefully, beginning on the very first page. Let’s do a little field research, shall we? (Don’t you just love the fact that we can do field research in our PJs thanks to the trusty Interweb?)

Go to Amazon and check out the first pages of novels from all genres. For example:

  • Take a peek at the first page of You Before Me by JoJo Moyes, which weaves backstory into the second paragraph, giving us a glimpse of the protagonist’s “normal” life
  • Read the opening paragraph of The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, which opens with the line: “I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.”
  • Check out The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison, who not only weaves backstory into the second paragraph (and then throughout that entire chapter), but lets us know what the entire novel will be about in said paragraph.

Backstory is prevalent in every novel, so why do writers almost always ask when to introduce it? Since writers tend to be voracious readers, why don’t we already know that it appears on every page?

The answer is surprisingly simple: Because when backstory is woven in well, you don’t notice that it is backstory. When the protagonist is sweating bullets, trying to figure out what the hell to do in the present – they don’t leave the present, but their mind does. It rips through the past trying evaluate what’s happening, and what their best move is, given their agenda. The protagonist does this because it’s exactly what humans do, too. In literature as in life, right?

Here’s what we miss as readers: Those memories the protagonist rips through are backstory. But because we, the reader, are actively involved in the story, we don’t make that distinction. It’s like the magician’s classic misdirect.

That’s why it’s so easy to believe the writing world when it advises you to stay the heck away from backstory, especially in the beginning of your novel. In fact, writers are often told to avoid “backstory” altogether, as if it will only bog down the story or worse, stop it cold, not to mention bore readers. This couldn’t be less true.

Backstory is the most fundamental layer of story; it is what drives your novel forward, giving everything that happens in it story-specific meaning. Make no mistake: backstory will be present, in one form or another, on every page you write.

Think of it this way — when your protagonist steps onto page one, she brings with her the one thing we never do leave home without: her past. Not merely her memory of past events, but – more importantly – what those events taught her about how the world works.

Our subjective past is the decoder ring we all use to make sense of the world around us. As Faulkner said, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

That’s why you, as the author, cannot write a compelling novel without already knowing your protagonist’s relevant backstory before you get to page one.

So why does the writing world warn us to stay away from it? Because backstory can indeed turn deadly when woven in poorly. Yes, we’re talking about the dreaded info dump. I wrote a whole post on this on Writer Unboxed (here is the link), but right now I want to dive into the next question, so we can figure out how to avoid info dumps large and small, and instead deftly weave backstory into a novel so deftly that no one will even know it is backstory.

From Fae Rowen: After the first, second, and, uh, third readings, my partners here at WITS always tell me my female lead is not likable. It’s definitely NOT because she’s perfect, because she isn’t. She’s usually very angry, though, and there hasn’t been time to sprinkle in the backstory so the reader understands why she acts as she does. How can you be true to your character’s actions and reactions early on?

What makes us care about a character (whether we like said character or not) is not what they do, it’s why they do it. And not simply the surface “why” – as in: Jane just shoved an old man crossing the street because she’s in a hurry and he was walking slow.

What we want to know is something deeper: How is Jane justifying what she just did? What, in her life, taught her that shoving that old guy was okay? Which brings us to the key question the writer must answer: What specifically happened to Jane, in her past, that created the moral compass that this story is putting to the test?

Ah yes, backstory! What the reader comes for is insight into why characters do what they do. And that’s revealed in one way: How is Jane making sense of this? If you take us inside your seemingly unlikable protagonist, and give us insight into how she sees the world as she struggles to achieve her overarching agenda, we will be riveted.

So, how do you sprinkle backstory in? Via your protagonist’s internal struggle as she grapples with the tough choice that every single scene forces her to make. Backstory is always woven into the narrative in service of what’s happening in the story present. This is because the protagonist has called it up to try to figure out what the hell to do in the moment.

So, to circle back around to the question: you’re not looking for places to sprinkle in backstory, you’re looking for places to take us into her head, so we can glimpse her inner struggle – that is: why she’s doing it. In your case, for instance, you might look for the places where your protagonist is doing one of those mean, angry things.

In this pursuit it helps to keep in mind what the German playwright Friedrich Hebbel said, “In a good play, everyone is in the right.” What he meant, I think, is that each one of us has our own subjective reality, and based on that, we are all doing what we believe is right. In other words, no one is mean for meanness sake, or “evil” just because. There is always a logic behind our actions – and that logic is created by what our experiences (yep, our backstory) have taught us. Point being, the more you understand the deep internal why driving what your protagonist does, the more you’ll be able to craft a novel that will have readers caring about them from the get go – even when what they’re doing on the surface isn’t particularly “likeable.” Especially then.

And finally: truth is, caring about a character doesn’t necessarily mean liking them at all. It means being curious about them: not simply about what they do, but about why on earth they’re doing it. Which brings us to the last question:

From Alice Fleury: I am a Joe Friday in writing. Just the facts, ma’am. I am amazed when I read all that stuff the writer pries out of the protagonist’s head. So how does one write more than two sentences of interior thoughts?

Great question! The trouble with “just the facts, ma’am” writing is that it tends to focus primarily on the external facts – that is, what happens. So it traps readers on the surface, locking them out of the real story. Here’s the secret: like info dumps, interior thoughts, in and of themselves, can be deadly. Why? Because unless they relate to something the protagonist (or POV character) is actively struggling with in the moment – something that has an immediate consequence — they will stop the story.

The goal is to avoid taking long trips down memory lane for no real reason. Do not allow a character to muse about things for the sake of musing, and never have characters think about things that don’t impact what they’re going through, but that you – as the author – want the reader to know.

The kind of internal thoughts the reader craves are always in relation to action, that is, to a difficult decision the protagonist is being forced to make in the moment.

Let me suggest an example that highlights everything we’ve been talking about here. Caroline Leavitt’s riveting new novel, Cruel Beautiful World, opens with a 34 page first chapter. The first line of the novel is: “Lucy runs away with her high school teacher, William, on a Friday, the last day of school, a June morning shiny with heat.” The chapter begins that morning, and it’s not till the last page of that chapter that Lucy finally climbs into William’s VW and leaves. The bulk of the chapter is backstory. Over the course of the school day Lucy calls up memories – sometimes in snippets, sometimes in full-fledged flashbacks – as she struggles with the decision she’s making in the story present: to leave home, forever, without telling her sister Charlotte or Iris, the woman who raised them. Both of whom she loves dearly. And yet she leaves, having convinced herself – via her reading of past events – that she’s doing the right thing, and that neither Charlotte or Iris will suffer too much upon discovering she’s gone. You can read an excerpt here, but my advice: read the whole first chapter, it’s a master class in the importance of backstory, and how to seamlessly weave it in.

And now, I’m once again open for questions for my next column – leave them here in the comments, or shoot me an email at: lisa@wiredforstory.

About Lisa

Lisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story and Story Genius. Her video tutorial Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story can be found at Lynda.com, and her TEDx talk, Wired for Story, opened Furman University’s 2014 TEDx conference, Stories: The Common Thread of Our Humanity.

Lisa has worked in publishing at W.W. Norton, as an agent at the Angela Rinaldi Literary Agency, as a producer on shows for Showtime and Court TV, and as a story consultant for Warner Brothers and the William Morris Agency. Since 2006, she’s been an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, and she is on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts MFA program in Visual Narrative in New York City. In her work as a story coach, Lisa helps writers, nonprofits, educators, and journalists wrangle the story they’re telling onto the page. She can be reached at wiredforstory.com

26 comments to Story Genius on Backstory

  • So very refreshing to have backstory explained in a clear, understandable way. Thank you!

  • Betty Bolte

    Thanks, Lisa! Your description of backstory woven throughout the story is a great way for me to keep the past integrated into the present for the character. I’ve always said that a person’s combined experience (lived and learned) is a lens through which we view and process current events and our reaction to them. Your explanation said it more clearly.

  • I enjoyed this post having just written last night two chapters with bits of backstory. You make me think I might have done it right.

  • This is an awesome post and the timing is perfect- I can’t wait to hear Lisa Cron speak at the Cal Dreamin’ conference in March!!

  • This topic couldn’t have come through at a better time! I’ve been thinking about how I’m going to pull of a WIP as the first third or so of the story involves three sisters who haven’t spoken in years all on the brink of major life changes as they prepare to attend their grandmother’s 80th birthday party. I’ll definitely be using this article as a reference while I carefully weave in their memories as they struggle with the reasons why they haven’t spoken and how much to share about their present dilemmas during the reunion.

  • Ohmigosh, I’m so hapy right now! And like Alanna, I’m delighted to hear you at the California Dreamin’ conference AND at Cruising Writers. 🙂 *squee*

    All of us at WITS are delighted to have you here. Thank you, Lisa!

  • Lisa, your way of teaching story is like painting, brushstroke upon brushstroke colors mix and blend into an alchemy of layers so complex it sifts through the subconscious with simplicity and elegance. Thank you for you. xo

  • Thank you Lisa, this is valuable information. It does seem that most editors/agents I hear speak on this subject have had to sort through so many poorly revealed backstories they tell writers just don’t do it. Your suggestions – “’just the facts, ma’am’ writing is that it tends to focus primarily on the external facts – that is, what happens. So it traps readers on the surface, locking them out of the real story.” and “The goal is to avoid taking long trips down memory lane for no real reason.” and “The kind of internal thoughts the reader craves are always in relation to action” provide concrete ideas to provide backstory the right way. Thank you!
    Mary

  • carrienichols

    Wonderful explanation of when and how to use backstory. Thank you!!!

  • This was fantastic. So clearly explained and at just the right time.

    I’ve just been told that my protagonist is unlikable at times. When he’s angry he can say very hurtful things to the people he loves. He can also think derogatory things about people (for examples he describes an over-weight woman as being big enough to have her own gravitational pull). For me, this is what makes him real. We all lash out when we’re hurt or angry. We all have the potential to be judgmental and catty. But the impression I get is that it’s not okay to be unlikable. When does a character cross the line between being realistic and being irredeemable?

  • My revisions are always bogging down on this issue. And it’s clear to me that I’m not writing through the eyes/mind/experience of my character(s) – I’m still too much in my writer’s mind. The examples you gave were excellent – although JoJo’s book title is reversed: it’s “Me Before You.” Love these examples! I’m invigorated and inspired again. Thank you so much.

  • Love the explanation, Lisa, thank you. And I have a question – I’ve read (no, studied) the first half of Story Genius, and it’s changed the way I write. My weakness is plotting (I don’t). So the second half of the book is lost to me – putting together critical scenes, etc.

    Any suggestions for using Story Genius for pantsers who get hives at the mention of the ‘P’ word?

  • Thanks so much for these fabulous insights!

  • Lisa, your post was like a Godsend to me. The whole point of my current WiP is because of the MC’s past. Having backstory is the only way I can write it without making the story a series, which I don’t have the patience for. Thank you.

  • Linda Lee

    A helpful post, Lisa. Thanks for addressing this important writing technique and how it should be employed. Pinned & shared. 🙂

  • Thanks so much. I never realized the interior thoughts of a protagonist was her backstory and how her past experiences effect her decision in the here and now of the story. And thanks for using my question.

  • […] Story Genius on Backstory | Writers In The Storm […]

  • anneclermont

    So excited to read this. I’m just working through The Story Genius with my WIP, trying to dig deeper into my characters’ backstory and motivations (Thank you Orly for your feedback!) I too have struggled with backstory, cutting it whenever I see it on my pages and trying to write without it there because it’s been hammered into me that it’s not needed. I always wanted to talk to an expert about this. For example, I absolutely loved how Ann Patchet wove backstory into so many characters’ lives in Bel Canto – so easily and quickly. Yet I worried that I shouldn’t do any because that meant describing to much and ‘telling’ not ‘showing.’ This is so helpful! I can’t wait to finish going through The Story Genius and hopefully my new novel will be much better crafter right from the start.

  • I’m currently judging for a writing contest, and it’s been eye-opening in this regard. A couple of the entries started so into the action, with nowhere near enough backstory, that I didn’t really care enough what was happening to the characters.

    And yes, this absolutely made me rethink of few of my own stories and how I can weave in more of the protagonist’s background so the reader gets a sense of WHO she is and why she’s making her decisions. Love your practical tips here, Lisa! This really adds to my toolbox.

  • Thanks Lisa. Fantastic post.

    Natasha Lester in ‘A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald’ and Pamela Hart in ‘A Letter From Italy’ feed the type of backstory you mention here – gentle, subtle, exciting, and relevant.

    But why am I encountering more and more hugely popular books with overwhelming backstory?

    Take a book I recently failed to finish – the very successful YA novel ‘Red Queen’.

    Almost every action, every step taken, every word said, was accompanied by a paragraph of internalisation. It made simple actions like changing clothes long and arduous, and potentially exciting action scenes dull and skippable.

    The pace was all wrong: ‘quick, let’s race over and—wait. Stop. Let’s explain how we got here. Now let’s hurry over and—stop. Let me tell you what I’m thinking. Ok, now quick! Before that girl with immense powers strikes out and—of course, that reminds me of when I first got my own powers. Let me tell you all about that. Oh no! Look out! She’s about to—wait, is that the queen over there watching all this? Here’s all the things I’m thinking about her right now.’

    I wonder if that’s why some frustrated reader somewhere said ‘aaaaggghhh with the backstory!’

    In the end, it’s all about balance.

    Lou

  • I am working with revising backstory right now. Fantastic reminders about its importance. It’s not about getting rid of it, but trying to make it a seamless experience for the reader. Thanks!

  • Thank you hugely for dispelling the backstory myth…what you have written makes so much sense.

  • Thank you, Lisa! In working with my protagonist, the character I’m surprised by MOST, I found that while I don’t LIKE him, I do understand him and what drives him because of the backstory! Your approach, so wonderfully explained here, has helped me immensely by bringing the backstory back into the novel! LOVED both of your books – Such good material!! Thank you for such a wonderful article!

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