Nancy: WU UnConference Lesson 2 Con’t: Backstory as the Backbone of Your Story

This scene from Moonstruck packs a punch because we know these characters' backstories.

This scene from Moonstruck packs a punch because we know these characters’ backstories.

In last week’s post, I nattered on about Lisa Cron’s message that backstory is the decoder ring for any story we write. This week, let’s take the discussion one step further. Let’s talk about putting some of that glorious backstory you’re creating into your current WIP.

Gasp! Egads! Not the Dreaded Backstory!

Before you go running for the exits, hear me (channeling Lisa) out. As the author of Wired for Story and Story Genius as well as a long-time writing coach and teacher, Lisa has researched lots of brain science to back up her theory that not only do we need to create our characters’ backstories for our own authorial edification, but also for reader enlightenment and, ultimately, bonding with our characters. Our brains use story to explore different aspects and possibilities of the wider world so we can learn lessons from those experiences without putting ourselves in harm’s way. (Lisa puts it much more elegantly in her books, and really, you should be reading her books!) And because our brains are incredibly efficient machines, they will use the same techniques to decipher fictional stories as they do real-life events.

Let’s think about that in the context of character for a minute. Think back to meeting someone important in your life, for example, your significant other or your best friend. On some level, there was an attraction. In romantic relationships, a varying degree of that is physical. But there are other things. Things you had in common with that person, or things about them that were different that you found intriguing. When you met, you were judging that person in the ‘now’ of your story together.

But by this point in time you probably know a little, or – more likely – a lot about that person’s past. You’ve asked each other questions, told each other stories, most likely even subjected each other to your families of origin. Why bother? Why not be content with the person you see sitting in front of you? Why worry about pesky things like whether s/he was married before or where s/he grew up or whether s/he committed a series of grisly murders in the past? Because in order to understand the whole person who currently exists, we need to have the context of that person’s past. Furthermore, our brains will look to past behavior as the best (although not the only) indicator of future behavior.

Okay, so the brain craves backstory about real-life people. But isn’t fiction supposed to be better/smarter/faster than real life? Yes and no. Fiction has to get to the point. It has to, in fact, have a point, as we discussed a few weeks ago, and all paths of the story need to drive home that point. But remember those crazy efficient brains of ours. In following and deciphering the fictional story and deciding whether or not to attach to the protagonist and other characters, your brain is going to go with tried and true methods. It’s going to look for context. It’s going to ask what happened in the past to gather clues about what is most likely to happen in the future. It wants to know these people on a deeper level. It wants to know why they think and act the way they do. And that’s going to require some backstory.

The good news is, you’ve probably been reading and watching and absorbing large chunks of well-done backstory without thinking twice about it. Let’s look at a few examples: John Patrick Shanley’s classic movie Moonstruck, and Carol Rifka Brunt’s bestselling novel Tell the Wolves I’m Home.


Not only is Moonstruck one of my favorite movies, its script is also one of the texts the Eight Ladies analyzed together while studying with Jenny Crusie. There are so many amazing elements to discuss about this story, from the many motifs to the subplots that skillfully underscore the main plot to possibly the best scene on film (the community scene at the end of the movie), that we might need to set up a podcast to discuss the perfection that is this movie (Ladies?). But for now, let’s talk about the importance of backstory to Loretta’s (played by Cher) and Ronny’s (played by Nicolas Cage) relationship.

When we first meet Loretta Castorini, we see her working as an accountant, visiting various business owners who know her, love her, and respect what a good woman and accountant she is. Loretta is solid and staid and playing by the rules. This is reinforced in the scene following the work montage, when Loretta is having dinner with longtime beau Johnny Cammareri. He proposes but doesn’t get down on one knee. She tells he has to get on one knee, which he then does. He doesn’t have a ring. She tells him he needs one, so he gives her one off his own finger. Johnny is then going to fly to Italy to sit with his dying mother and he charges Loretta with mending fences with his estranged brother Ronny. They both do these things because they are the right things to do. And Loretta will always and only do the right thing because she learned her lesson…

Cue the backstory. Loretta was widowed when her beloved husband was hit by a bus. In the proposal scene, she tells Johnny she and her first husband had bad luck because they got married at city hall. She blames her first husband’s death on the fact that they didn’t follow all the traditions and rules of their Italian and Catholic roots including getting married in a church. If she does things right this time, she can get the happily-ever-after she lost (the big lie). She meets Ronny, learns his own tragic backstory of losing his hand and then his fiancee, which he blames on Johnny, who distracted Ronny and caused him to cut off his own hand with industrial kitchen equipment. Ronny believes the big lie that he’ll never feel pain again if he cuts himself off from other people.

There we go! Big chunks of backstory woven into the ‘now’ of the story, with details that make those stories stick in our brains. And those details are pivotal when we get to the scene with Ronny and Loretta in the snow. They’ve already crossed the line and done the wrong thing by sleeping together. Now Loretta is ready to leave him and go back to doing all the right things so that she and Ronny can live safe and separate if passionless lives. But Ronny doesn’t just let her walk away. He tells her:

“Come upstairs. I don’t care why you come. No, that’s not what I mean. Loretta, I love you. Not like they told you love is and I didn’t know this either. But love don’t make things nice, it ruins everything, it breaks your heart, it makes things a mess. We’re not here to make things perfect.”

Moonstruck, by John Patrick Shanley. Metro Golden Mayer Pictures.

Because we know Loretta’s backstory, the very specific tragedy of her husband’s death, and her misbelief that doing everything the right way will protect her from losing her chance at happiness, we know – and more importantly, we feel – what Loretta gives up when she follows Ronny up to his apartment. Just like we know and feel what Ronny gives up by asking her to stay with him after spending years isolating himself to avoid just the heartbreak and mess he now knows come with true love. And we care deeply what happens to these two people in part because of those origin stories, which not so coincidentally seeded the ‘big lies’ the characters believe and must overcome. It’s almost like the writer had a plan or something.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home

As Lisa Cron explained during one of her workshops, the great advantage novels have over other forms of story media is the ability to be inside a character’s head, to hear a character’s thoughts, to process events through a character’s unique and hidden-from-the-world lens. This is where using backstory not only informs readers about why a character reacts in a particular way to events, but allows the character to analyze herself and her own emotions through the prism of her life experiences.

A novel that was mentioned multiple times at the WU UnConference was Brunt’s 2012 book Tell the Wolves I’m Home. The story, set in the early years of the AIDS crisis in 1980’s America, is told by 14-year-old June Elbus, whose beloved uncle/doting godfather Finn dies of AIDS. In the aftermath of his death, June has to come to terms with the truth of his life, their relationship, and the fact that Finn loves someone else as much as he loved June. In one scene (partially excerpted here), June is going with her parents and sister to celebrate her mother’s birthday. It’s the first family birthday without Finn, and June (naturally) reminisces about a particularly memorable past birthday celebration, when her beloved Finn was still alive.

That night everyone else was talking. My dad was having a quiet argument with Greta because she didn’t want to put her napkin on her lap. The whole time, Finn sat next to me, folding and twisting his napkin until all at once he lifted it out from under the table and we saw that he’d folded it into a butterfly. We watched as he flew it over to Greta and said, “Here, I have somebody who needs a lap to rest on.” Greta giggled and took the butterfly from Finn’s hand and put it straight on her lap, and my dad looked over at Finn and gave him a smile. I remember thinking that I wanted a butterfly napkin too. I wanted Finn to fold something for me. I was about to ask him, but when I turned I saw that he was staring across the table at my mother. She had the sketchbook open to the inside cover and she was gazing down at that little drawing of herself. After a while she looked up at Finn. She lifted her head slowly, and she didn’t smile or say thank you like you normally would if somebody gave you a present. No. She just sat there, giving him a kind of sad,hard look then shook her head at him, her lips pressed together tight.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home: A Novel, by Carol Rifka Brunt. Random House Publishing Group.

This scene plants a seed that blooms later in the book, when the entire memory takes on a whole new meaning. After getting over the shock of learning about and meeting Finn’s lover Toby, June learns that he taught Finn how to make those napkin butterflies. In fact, although she never met Toby while Finn was still alive, Toby was part of many of the favorite memories June has of her uncle, down to buying June’s favorite cookies so they’d be in Finn’s kitchen when June visited him. And that sketchbook that Finn gave his sister (June’s mother) comes with its own backstory that gets revealed later in the book and adds yet another layer of depth to the story.

The realistically reflective introduction, with June thinking of this past birthday because they’re about to face their first family birthday without him, keeps it from pulling us out of the ‘now’ of the story. Brunt adds to the impact of the flashback scene by making it pull double duty by being key to changing June’s understanding of her entire relationship with Finn. In fact, she makes it pull triple duty by tying it to a future flashback (if you can follow that logic) about the relationship between June’s mother and uncle and that sketchbook. The important details revealed here deepen and strengthen the entire story, and with it, our attachment to the characters.

A Few More Examples

If you need a few more ways to think about using that beautiful backstory you’re going to create for each of your main characters, consider the way Graham Yost (showrunner) and his writers set up a piece of backstory in the very first episode of the TV series Justified that paid off for the next six seasons of the show. A long, long time ago, when I was sharing lessons learned from binge watching that series, I wrote about a pivotal revelation that comes in the first scene between the series hero Raylan Givens (played by the fabulous Timothy Olyphant) and Boyd Crowder (played by the intriguing Walton Goggins).

In a discussion about Crowder’s possible involvement in a church bombing, the character tries to put Givens off his game by asking, seemingly innocently, whether Givens has seen his father (he has not). This leads to thrust and parry between the two, which in addition to being entertaining, informs us that both men have violent and criminal fathers. This sets up the shared psychic wound (inner journey) for each of these characters, who then pursue diametrically opposed outer journeys to deal with that wound. And voila, the writers have set up an amazing nemesis story (shared inner journey, opposed outer journey) whose arc is not completed until the final episode of the last season.

Or you could actually play with time itself, as Audrey Niffenegger did in The Time Traveler’s Wife. Throughout the novel, we meet husband and wife Henry and  Clare Detamble at various ages, life stages, and relationship points. Nothing is linear. Backstory that is referenced in one scene shows up in its own timeline later. Future events are referenced as well, making it clear that the ‘now’ of the story is backstory for some other part of the book. To write this story, Niffenegger appears to have written not only backstory, but entire lives for these characters. But even though there are constantly shifting timelines in the book, the past is referenced, discussed, and shown as impetus for decisions, emotions, and actions in the present.

In discussing the possibly controversial advice to include backstory and even flashbacks in our WIPs, Lisa Cron didn’t back away from the challenge of years of writing advice from hundreds of writing teachers pressing us to keep to the ‘now’ of the story. She opines that advice comes from a well-meaning place of trying to protect  students from writing and incorporating backstory poorly. So don’t shy away from developing backstory, then weaving it and characters’ analyses of their own histories into your work. Just be sure to do it well. Easy peasy, right? Well, like everything else about writing, it’s a process.

I know Jilly’s been working on backstory for her WIP. Anyone else taking up the challenge? How will you use your characters’ pasts to inform the story of their ‘now’?

7 thoughts on “Nancy: WU UnConference Lesson 2 Con’t: Backstory as the Backbone of Your Story

  1. Backstory is a really important part of my writing. My characters all have pasts, and it always influences their actions in the now. I will write down some things in a story bible, especially if I’m working on a longer work. (-: I often discover stuff about their ancestors, as well, because I believe a family can develop a pattern of nurturing that can be good or bad.

    I think it’s important in a first draft to get all that stuff down somewhere — the story bible, a “bits and pieces” file, or right in the text. If I start feeling “Gosh, this is too info-dumpy” then I will change the color of the font or highlight the text. That way, I follow my muse by getting it on paper, but I also feel confident that I will re-work it in the future. (LOL, not sure why this works; it’s glaring on the re-edit usually. Once in a great while, I wonder why I highlighted something because it works.)

    When it comes to the finished product, I like sprinkling, not dumping. It’s even better if the information plays a double or triple duty. Seduction as well as everything else.

    Why do we tell other people our histories, anyway? I usually do it to provide a new insight on someone else’s problems, or to let someone know that they are not alone in their experience (happy or sad). Once in a while, I’ll do it to explain some of my actions, but I’m not sure if that works very well in real life — often it makes my action look like some bizarre talisman! I don’t know if it’s a great technique in fiction to have the heroine pull some stupid stunt and say, “Well, I can’t abide cats. A cat ate my hamsters when I was seven, so naturally I had to run away when I saw the villain’s cat.” Lame. It might work in certain circumstances, but it can Not Work in a spectacular flop-sweat sort of way.

    Good stuff for thought! I wish I could have gone to the conference; it sounds like a lot of thinking went on!

    • I agree, how we use backstory in our work makes a difference. As Lisa Cron would say, using backstory isn’t bad, using it poorly is. She’s also adamant that writers should never write character actions in the now of the story and then go looking for the ‘why’. By prewriting the relevant scenes from the past (and writing more and more of them as the WIP progresses if necessary), the actions should flow out of the reasons, not the other way around. If we truly do it that way, I think we avoid the example you gave. And we won’t always get it right, especially in early drafts because, you know, process and all that ;-).

  2. Great post, Nancy! Lots to think about. I have the backstory of my character in book one of a planned three-part trilogy, and I’m in book 2, so the challenge is seeing how much backstory I can leave out without leaving new readers in the dark.

    • Oh, it’s tough in series! My Victorian Romance series has a new couple for each book so that makes it much easier, but of course the characters from previous books make an appearance. And in that case, now the romance of those now matched-up couples is backstory for the new book, so I must determine what a new reader would absolutely have to know and cut all else. You might be able to think of book 1 as the backstory, and use it sparingly to get only the most vital information across. It’s a tough job, but we are up to the task!

  3. My apologies to readers. In my example of Tell the Wolves I’m Home, I introduced one technique with backstory,layering in memories/thoughts in real-time to help make sense of the ‘now’ story, then shared and discussed a different technique, using a flashback with information related to the ‘now’ and making it pull double or triple duty. Blame my brain-lapse on too many late-night holiday festivities.

    You can use your imagination or references from your own reading to see examples of the first technique, or read Brunt’s book – it’s well worth the time!

  4. Pingback: Nancy: Christmas Story Redux – Eight Ladies Writing

  5. Pingback: Nancy: In Praise of Backstory – Eight Ladies Writing

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