Lisa Cron

The Dreaded B-word: Backstory

A few weeks ago, I attended a seminar given by author and story consultant Lisa Cron. You may know her from her popular column at Writer Unboxed, her TEDx Talk, or her book Wired for Story

Her approach to writing fiction is a bit unconventional. She says that everything we have been taught about writing is wrong. (A bold statement!) “The conventions of writing—voice, structure, drama, plot, all of it—are the handmaiden of story…” In other words, focus on the story first and worry about crafting beautiful metaphors later.

But even those diligently outlining their plot with the Hero’s Journey firmly in mind may still forget the critical questions. Stories are not “a bunch of things that happen.” As she reminded us over and over, your story hinges on what those things mean to your protagonist.

Most authors (I’m looking at myself here!) get well into their novels and hit a wall. It’s usually because the events of the story are not connected to the decisions the protagonist makes. Lisa wants you to set aside your outline and stop filling out that character questionnaire. Instead, know your protagonist.

She suggests you ask yourself these five questions before page one:

1.What is yStory Geniusour point? Why do you care about it?  (Not, what is your theme? Let’s get rid of the word theme, she advises.)

There is something you want readers to take away from your story, something with implications for human nature. It may sound a bit cliche at first (It’s better to have loved and lost…), but that’s okay. This is just something to ground you in why you’re writing this story in the first place. Answering this question and returning to it will help you through the difficult times when you want to throw in the towel.

2.What does your character enter the story wanting? What would need to happen for your protagonist to get what she wants and be happy?  Whether or not the character is right about what would her happy or cannot articulate it (for example, a child), there is something she thinks would solve all her problems.

Here, the more specific the better. Winning the lottery is not specific. Picture, in detail, what that would look like for your character. Now you know what getting it would mean to her.

3. What is the misbelief that is holding your character back? This was a big one for me. This smells like the dreaded B-word: backstory. Backstory is the kiss of death, right? Wrong, Lisa says! Often the thing your character thinks is protecting her is actually hurting her. Dig to find the origin of this misbelief. Where did it come from, and why does she believe it?

It is key to understand your character’s misbeliefs as they relate to the problems she is going to face. Pinpointing this in detail will give the reader a sense of urgency and something to be curious about.

4. What is the plot problem that will force your character to struggle with this misbelief? The story problem “grows, escalates, and complicates.” Does this story problem have the power to force the protagonist to face her misbelief?

Most characters will struggle mightily to hold onto their misbelief. It is what has protected them all these years—until now, that is.

5. What is your protagonist’s a-ha moment? This is where the story makes its point. (See question 1, above.) It can come before your character has to do that really hard thing, right in the middle, or just after.

Maybe your protagonist gets what she wants, maybe she doesn’t, but readers can only care if they know what it means to her.
The huge payoff of attending Lisa’s talk was overcoming my apprehension about backstory. (That would be my misbelief!) But, as she pointed out, your protagonist had a life before page one. She didn’t step out of a bubble and into the framework of the novel. To disregard what came before eliminates what made her her. This post just scrapes the surface of Lisa’s new book Story Genius

If you feel stuck and need some guidance in generating story ideas, please consider signing up for my new online class The Writer’s Muse: Explorations in Creativity. This class will be a mini writing retreat with inspirational exercises to help you move through the world as a writer and cultivate your curiosity in a friendly environment. Hope to see you there! 

As a writer or a reader, how do you feel about backstory?

Have a great weekend, everyone!