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! 


Why We Read: To Change Our Minds

I’d read Pride and Prejudice twice before—once in high school and once in college. It’s a bit heretical to say this, but I disliked it both times. It offended my burgeoning sense of what it meant to be a woman. In my college class—I’m now appalled by my arrogance—I’d declared that the story was an insult. The main topics are marriage, money, and high society, which really are all sides of the same coin. “All these characters talk about is finding a husband! How is this relevant?”

There is some truth to this. Pride and Prejudice is indeed about finding a suitable husband to secure a good future, and woe be the woman who chooses wrongly. Jane Austen pulls no punches. In the famous first sentence, she tells you what her story is about. Me from the past (as John Green would say) cringes at this sentence.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

I’d harbored these resentments until last September at the Brooklyn Book Festival when I stumbled on the Jane Austen Society booth. If you want to see how passionate these people are about Austen’s novels, mention that you think her works are insulting to women. (Tip: Don’t do this.)

Those “Janeites” got to me. I began to soften. I received an annotated edition of Pride and Prejudice as a Christmas gift, and I devoured the 700 pages (including annotations) in days.


The annotations certainly went a long way in shedding light on social customs and taboos of early-19th century England, things Austen’s contemporaries would have understood. The significance of various carriages, the nuances between addressing Miss Elizabeth Bennet and Miss Elizabeth, the fact that propriety dictated a man should not write to a single woman directly—all were made richer by reading this edition. The major plot point I’d thought unrealistic and manipulative—Elizabeth visiting Pemberley and “accidentally” running into Darcy—was commonplace. People often visited grand estates for tours, even when the owner was in residence.

With few exceptions, women in Austen’s day had little opportunity to improve their station in life. They couldn’t own property, couldn’t earn their own income, couldn’t change social class. They used the only agency they had available to them—saying yes or no to marriage. Austen makes sure we understand this by having Elizabeth refuse first Mr. Collins and then wealthy Mr. Darcy. This is her right. It makes her declaration all the more delicious: “I had not known you [Darcy] a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world I could be prevailed upon to marry.”

In Natalia Sylvester’s post about rereading Little Women, she writes, “Who we are inevitably changes how we read the books we love: suddenly I was catching bits of Louisa May Alcott’s feminism I hadn’t noticed as a young reader…”

In rereading Pride and Prejudice all these years later, I can see beyond my original indignation to a deeper understanding of the characters’ motivations. I am open to the idea that this novel is about much more than marriage and social class. Elizabeth Bennet is, in fact, enterprising. She is using the only means of influence available to her, and maybe in that sense she is a role model.

Do you reread stories? Have you ever had a change of heart? 

Other posts in the Why We Read series.


Friday Five

1. Sometimes when Reggie is tired and he’d like to go to sleep, I find him waiting on the far side of the bedroom between the bed and the windowsill. He’s waiting patiently for me to notice him. This is what I see:

2. How now good lady! A friend who works at Juilliard got us tickets to see the student performance of Henry V. Don’t let the words student performance fool you.  Juilliard is a performing arts college where only 2% of applicants are accepted. So these kids are goooood.  Theirs was a modern interpretation of Henry V:  the actors spoke Shakespearean English, but carried machine guns instead of swords, wore fishnet stockings instead of pantaloons and blared Nirvana during the battle scenes. The king spent lengthy periods sans shirt, which was a very nice innovation. They performed in the round, so the actors had to make all stage entrances/exits through the audience. Sometimes this meant craning our bodies around to see action taking place behind us, but it’s a much more intimate setting that I didn’t mind the trade-off. Because there aren’t that many students in the program, they each took on multiple roles – as many as 5 or 6! I would have given them a standing ovation just for  remembering all of those lines seeing as how I can’t even remember what I had for dinner last night.

Here is the most interesting part. The title of my novel comes directly from a line in Henry V!  A little background: the king has waged war against France with a fairly dubious land claim based on his distant roots in the French royal family.  The climax comes at the Battle of Agincourt. The English are outnumbered five to one against a better supplied and more experienced French army. Henry V delivers a moving speech a la Braveheart to encourage his troops. It’s often known as the St. Crispin’s Day speech. An excerpt from the monologue:

From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother

And…the title of my novel is We Happy Few. I hadn’t even given it a second thought until I heard the line in the moment. Of all the plays my friend could have invited me to, she picked Henry V which contains the line I plucked for the title of my novel now in the hands of an editor somewhere. (Agent, please call me!) Is something going to happen with my novel soon? I hope so!

3. If you build it, they will come! Happy news to report! People have registered for the first The Writers’ Salon session! I’m so glad I won’t be talking to an empty room for 1.5 hours. Hopefully the momentum will keep building. Sessions start on March 12, so there’s still time for to get more interested writers.  

4. Y’all know  how I love my soups, so next up on the hit parade: roasted vegetable. This is one of my favorites. It’s hearty with a hint of sweetness. I like to include carrots, parsnips, butternut squash and sweet potatoes, but you could certainly swap in your favorites. Try spaghetti squash for butternut or red potatoes if you don’t like sweet. It’s really flexible though a bit labor intensive with all the chopping and peeling, but well worth the effort. I toss all of the veggies with some olive oil, fresh parsley, salt and pepper and then roast them for about 30 minutes at 425 degrees. Sauteing them would get the job done too, but it wouldn’t result in nearly the same flavor. Once tender, I puree them in the food processor with vegetable stock until velvety smooth. Serve with toasted walnuts on top or swirl in sour cream for a bisque-like soup. Tastes even better the next day.

5. There are only two guarantees in life: death and taxes. I say with relief, pride and just a hint of smugness: I have filed my 2010 tax return. Federal and State! (Doing a little dance over here!) When you get a refund as I do, you get on it as soon as possible. My taxes aren’t terribly complicated, yet it still took me three hours, not including the time I spent getting my receipts organized, etc. Does anyone else think this is ridiculous? Know what else is ridiculous? The confounding IRS language. Maybe it’s just me, but when I read something like this, my eyes glaze over.

The starting point in computing your New York State itemized deduction amount is your federal itemized deductions from federal Schedule A. However, difference between federal and New York State laws make it necessary to make certain adjustments to your federal itemized deductions in computing your New York itemized deduction.

But don’t worry. Help is a click away.

There are situations when a taxpayer may need to manually calculate the taxable state income tax refund using IRS Publication 525. These include: the refund is for a tax year other than 2009, you made your last payment of 2009 state or local estimated tax in 2010, you could not deduct all your tax credits for 2009 or you could be claimed as a dependent by someone else in 2009. If you are required to use Publication 525 then you will need to manually calculate the taxable portion. Enter the correct taxable amount on the State Income Tax Refund Document and enter 2008 as the tax year of the refund. This amount will then transfer directly to Form 1040.

Still need help? Fine.

Enter the amount, if any, of the subtraction adjustments below. These items cannot be deducted from New York income but only to the extent included in total federal itemized deductions.

A – State, local, and foreign income taxes (or general sales tax) from federal Schedule A, lines 5 and 8:

B – Ordinary and necessary expenses paid or incurred in connection with income, or property held for production of income, which is exempt from NY income tax:

C – Amortization of bond premium attributable to 2010 on any bond whose interest is exempt from New York income tax:

D – Interest expense on money borrowed to purchase or carry bonds or securities whose interest is exempt from New York income tax:

Still need help? Then go to your liquor cabinet.

Query to my international friends: Do you have to file yearly paperwork for income tax payments? Is it crazy like this?

Never, Never, Never, Never Give Up

Last week my friend had a baby boy. He is a healthy eight pounds with pink cheeks and a soft bald head. He is her first, and likely her last. When I saw the grainy cell phone photo of him in his yellow duckling cap, I found myself wiping away tears. She is one of my oldest friends. Somewhere I have photos of us in our Brownies uniforms and at our kindergarten graduation.

While this is certainly a happy occasion, none of this sounds especially unusual. Except it is.

My friend and her husband have been waiting for this day for fourteen years. She knew when she was a teen that she’d have trouble conceiving. So they began trying almost as soon as they got married. There were four or five rounds of in vitro treatments involving countless shots, pills, doctor’s appointments, sonograms, and monitoring, not to mention the accompanying nausea, headaches, bloating, hot flashes and general crankiness. I’m barely scratching the surface. Then there was the emotional toll every time the tests came back negative, every time someone she knew accidentally got pregnant or had sex once and got pregnant or, worse, tried for six months without getting pregnant and became inconsolable.

Many times I wondered, why? Why continue to put yourself through this? I would see how terrible she would feel and want her to save herself from the anguish. I would almost wish it for her, if that makes sense It’s okay to move on. It’s okay to say that this dream isn’t going to come true. It’s what I would have done. Fourteen years is a long time. I didn’t understand it.

Ah, but I do. And it wasn’t until I saw that baby’s photo that I realized it. Having a baby despite the odds was her dream and having my novel published despite the odds is mine.  You know, sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees. I have been waiting for my novel to be published. I have spent almost as many years as she writing and revising, combing for agents, revising more, workshopping, revising some more, calling my agent, calling my agent, calling my agent. (Hallooo?) Like my friend, I’ve taken breaks, but I always come back because it’s my dream.

I’m sorry that I only now realized what an inspiration she is. Churchill said, “Never, never, never, never give up.” And she didn’t. She persisted and persevered because she believed. She has encouraged me to do the same.