Nancy: WU UnConference Lesson 2: The Decoder Ring

Portals of the Past, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco CA

Portals of the Past, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco CA

Last week, when sharing some of the great wisdom imparted to me during the early November Writers Unboxed UnConference, I discussed the importance of theme as the heart of your book. This week, I’m going to discuss another essential element of your story: the decoder ring. Heart and a decoder ring. Makes sense, right? Er, perhaps I need to elaborate.

As Lisa Cron said many times during her workshops at the UnConference, when it comes to the story you are writing – the story your main character is telling – the character’s past is the decoder ring to the story. Quoting William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” OK, he wasn’t talking about your story or mine, in that case, but the famous line has been applied to the craft of writing by many writing teachers.

So how does this idea of the character’s past being part of the present-day story jibe with the admonition to stay in the now and not bog down your book with the dreaded backstory? Paraphrasing Lisa Cron, it’s not backstory that’s the problem; it’s poor usage of backstory. In fact, she argues, we not only want the pertinent parts of your characters’ backstories, we need them to understand who the characters are and why they react and behave the way they do. But how do you include backstory without throwing the reader (or the contest judge, in Jilly’s case) out of the story? The trick is to treat the backstory like a camera lens, not a hammer. You are filtering the story through that lens of the past, not banging it over the head like a wayward nail.

As writers, knowing at least some of our characters’ backstories comes naturally to us. After all, it’s how we establish relationships that exist in the now of the story, unless our character just came to town and knows absolutely no one. Even then, the character is bound to like some people and dislike others, make decisions about friendships, pursue or not pursue romantic relationships based on something. The something is the past, past relationships, the people in your character’s previous life who saved or hurt or lied to or loved her. Just as we are each the sum of our experiences, so too are your characters. The past is not past because it tells our brains how to react to the world in the now.

But Lisa Cron asks us to go a step further – in fact, several steps further – than generally knowing each main character’s backstory. She asks us to write it. Not as part of the book. Not as chapter 1. (Nor as chapter 2, after pulling an exciting scene from a later time to lure us in, then backtracking weeks or months or years.) She asks us to write the scenes – yes, full-blown scenes – of those moments in each character’s life that are going to inform the now of the story. The fatal flaws, the psychic wounds, and especially that deeply ingrained lie your character believes at the beginning of the book all came from somewhere. There was a moment in your character’s life that planted the seed of that lie. This is what Cron calls an origin scene. Find it. Escalate the beats. Bring in supporting characters. Ask ‘what happened’ and ‘why’. Answer those questions. Write that scene. Find the next illuminating or important incident in your characters life. Write and repeat.

As fiction writers, we have to be more than experts on our own life journeys; we must also be experts on each of our characters’ journeys. Write scenes from your characters’ lives that occurred before the book begins until you are that expert. And don’t think of this exercise as a ‘one and done’. As your book and characters evolve, you might see another layer you need to explore, or something you need to change to make the now align with the past. If you hit a wall in your plot or a character’s arc, go back to those scenes and dig deeper. Ask what happened and why. Keep asking and answering those questions, and writing and rewriting those origin scenes.

But wait! you’re saying, those are words, precious words! I can’t (intentionally) write thousands of words that aren’t even going to be in my story! Cron’s answer to you would be yes, yes you can. And you should.  If you’re going to have the audacity to be the god of your own story world, you have the responsibility to know everything about that world. Those words from the origin scenes aren’t wasted. They bring with them knowledge.

While that might seem like cold comfort when you’re contemplating all your beautiful words that the world will never get to see, take heart, for you are bound to use some of those words in your book after all. Remember we talked about the lens? Not only will that lens help you as the author know how to have your characters act and interact and react, it will also help your reader understand and bond with your characters. So you’ll get a chance to share some sentences, paragraphs, maybe even the occasional (brief) scene from the past. We’ll discuss how, when, and where to use backstory well next week, but for now think of your character’s past as a lens, the filter to interpret the now for us, a touchstone to ground us in the story. Not a hammer to smash us over the head.

Have you thought about your characters’ origin stories? Have you written them down and made them into full-fledged scenes? Is it something you’d be willing to try?


9 thoughts on “Nancy: WU UnConference Lesson 2: The Decoder Ring

  1. Oh, very nice! I have a major problem with hoarding my words, or writing (and wasting) them. One of this year’s goals was to write stuff I want to write, without worrying about wasting or craft or any number of things. As we slide into December, I have lost some of that determination — which is very much too bad!

    One of the short stories I wrote this year was pure backstory. It was a lot of fun to write and research. I felt slightly guilty because it wasn’t romance. But then I justified it: “It’s backstory! It’s important, too, and as long as I show that my hero *is* looking for true love, just not finding it yet, it should be OK.”

    (-: Just before I read this, I was contemplating abandoning the WIP for a little bit and writing another backstory. I was dithering, but I think I’m a little more firm of purpose now.

    And for word-hoarders — those backstory scenes can make nice free samples on your web page for the book, or could even stand alone in different markets for short stories. And heck, as long as they are fun to write, you (I) have done a good thing. Much better hobby than hanging out in noisy pachinko parlors, watching pinballs go down the funnel, IMO. (-: If it keeps one off the streets, it’s worth doing.

    • Just doing my part to keep shiftless writers off the streets ;-)!

      I’m glad you’re inspired to embrace the backstory. I think that is our way of getting into the skins of our characters, and we naturally do it in our heads anyway. Getting it down on paper forces us to think through our characters’ pasts as logically as we do their present-day lives, and we can learn new and unexpected (and really important!) things about them.

  2. Word hoarding—ha! Well, I have to say, I’m not planning to try this technique at my current stage in the WIP, although I can see its practical application, especially for characters you’re just coming to understand. I think I know my H/H as well as I can know anyone in real life (better, in some cases), and writing down all the backstory at this point would be just a superredundancy. But for discovery—it could be really helpful. Or if you’re having difficulty understanding what characters would do in a given situation. In any event, it sounds like that conference had some really useful and practical techniques to try out. Thanks for the series, Nancy!

    • It’s definitely harder to do this exercise when you are mid-WIP. Lisa Cron is very adamant that writers should do this as part of discovery. Of course, YMMV, etc. – we all have to discover our own process, usually hobbled together like Frankenstein’s monster, then change it with every new WIP. Or maybe that’s just me :-).

      I’m looking forward to your new story! Please let us know when you are ready for critiques or beta reads.

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