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. Continue reading

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? Continue reading

Nancy: WU UnConference Lesson 1: Theme

There's an important theme in Law and Order SVU season 12, episode 3. Can you spot it?

There’s an important theme in Law and Order SVU season 12, episode 3. Can you spot it?

Okay, admit it. Your eyes rolled back in your head when you saw the word ‘theme’ in this post’s title, didn’t they? If so, it’s not surprising. Many writers, genre writers in particular – of which many of us here are – are often taught to disregard theme, at least in the early drafts. We’re told a story’s theme will emerge as we revise and dig deeper on later drafts, if indeed it need ever emerge. Who really needs theme anyway, other than your boring high school English teacher? After all, who wants a heavy-handed moral lesson or the author’s worldview shoved down her throat when she’s just trying to immerse herself in good fiction?

According to Lisa Cron, probably everyone.

As Cron discusses in Wired for Story, Story Genius, and workshops (for those of us lucky enough to attend one!), our brains are hardwired for story because story helps us decipher the world around us, and to discover ‘what would happen if’ without physically putting ourselves in harm’s way. In that way, stories are tied to our very survival as a species (sounds pretty cool to be a writer nerd now, doesn’t it?). Other cool things that happen to our brains on fiction are an increased capacity for empathy (through bonding with a protagonist and walking several miles in her shoes) and a willingness to challenge our own world views. And all that cool stuff happens because somewhere under all the scenes and character arcs and plot points and cause and effect trajectory, a story has a specific way of looking at the world, a message, a theme.

Instead of thinking about theme as some sort of moral imperative or high-brow statement to be made at the expense of good story, what if we think about theme as the beating heart of our story? Sound more appealing now? Continue reading

Jilly: Craft Book Squee – Story Genius

story-geniusHave you had enough politics yet? If the answer is no, please check out yesterday’s excellent post by Michaeline, The Election and the Future of the US Writing Market. Plenty of insightful, positive, actionable food for thought there.

If you’re ready for a break from world affairs, let’s discuss creating quality stories to sustain us through the challenging times ahead 😉 .

Last Sunday in Storyteller v Smooth Writer I talked about judging contest entries and understanding the difference between polished writing and addictive storytelling. I said I’d decided not to take any more classes or buy any more writing books until I’d figured out how to make the storyline of my WIP as powerful as it can be.

Yeah, but no. A couple of days after I put up that post I bought a writing book and I’ve been glued to it ever since. I have not been this excited about a craft book, ever.

Continue reading

Nancy: Shades of Gray

Marco and John: Where did they go so wrong?

Marco and John: Where did they go so wrong?

Longtime readers of the blog know I like to binge-watch TV series (I’ve posted in the past about Justified and The Killing). My most recent obsession binge-watch has been the Netflix series Bloodline. Netflix has released two seasons of the show thus far and has ordered one more. The creators have said they have enough material for five to six seasons in total, so there could be even more coming.

Because I like to binge-watch series the way I like to read books – all the way to the end one time through, then returning to favorite episodes to analyze particular story arcs and writing techniques – it’s unusual for me to get sucked into a series so long before the ‘final chapters’ are available. But I’d heard good things about this show from different reliable sources, so I made an exception. The downside to this decision is that season two ended on not one but two cliffhangers, and I want to know All The Things right now! The upside is that there is enough crunchy writing stuff to review and digest that I can (almost) wait for the next season to be released sometime in 2017.

One of the crunchy writing aspects that has occupied a lot of my brain space for the past few weeks is the way the series has had two of the ‘good guys’ each do egregious things, pitted them against each other, and made us root for the one who did a Very Bad Thing over his now-antagonist who only did a Bad Thing. ***SPOILER ALERT***. To discuss what the writers did with this storyline and how they did it, I’m going to reveal some pivotal plot points. If you have any plans to watch the series AND you need to have your story come to you fresh and pure as the driven snow, you’ll want to take your leave now and go watch some adorable kitten GIFs. If you’ve already seen the series OR you’re willing to sacrifice some surprises in the interest of squeeing over good writing, join me for the rest of the discussion.  Continue reading

Justine: Fiction Fundamentals, Part 3: Conflict (2nd Installment)

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 9.09.18 AM

Conflict? Mmm…perhaps. (Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin in “The Princess Bride” (c) 1987 Act III Communications)

Welcome to Part 3 of Fiction Fundamentals. In Part 1, I discussed character goals. In Part 2, I covered a character’s Motivation…the “why” of what they want to do in your story. Last time, in the first of a two-parter, I talked about the Big Enchilada that ties it all together and makes for a good read: Conflict.

This week, I’m delving a bit deeper. I’ll discuss scene- vs. story-level conflict, the difference between conflict and trouble, and those pesky “misunderstandings.”

Scene-Level (or “Mini”) Conflict

Let’s be clear about one thing: conflict must be in each scene in your book. Every. Single. One. However, that doesn’t mean the conflict had to be between your protag and antag relative to their goals, nor does it have to be massive, big-stakes stuff. It can be smaller. Call it mini-conflict, or that which does not directly affect your character’s goals. Said another way:

The conflict in each scene doesn’t have to be directly related to the protag or antag’s stated goal.

Here’s why: Continue reading

Justine: Fiction Fundamentals, Part 3: Conflict (First Installment)

conflict wordWelcome to Part 3 of Fiction Fundamentals. In Part 1, I discussed character goals. Last time, in Part 2, I covered a character’s Motivation…the “why” of what they want to do in your story.

This installment (the first of two) is about the Big Enchilada that ties it all together and makes for a good read: Conflict.

Before getting into the meat of this, let’s set some expectations about conflict:

  1. Conflict is necessary in commercial fiction. Period. No conflict? No story. People don’t want to read about characters who get what they want with no issues or impediments. They want to see characters suffer and earn their rewards.
  2. Conflict is a struggle to reach a goal and should have the reader wondering whether or not the character will achieve it.
  3. Conflict is bad things happening to good and bad
  4. Conflict must be clear, but not overwhelming. It can be too big/too much, drowning your reader in seemingly insurmountable problems.
  5. Conflict doesn’t necessarily have to be one person pitted against another. Sometimes the conflict is circumstances.

Debra Dixon, in “GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict,” makes it very clear:

“If conflict makes you uncomfortable or you have difficulty wrecking the lives of your characters, you need to consider another line of work. In commercial fiction you need strife, tension, dissension, and opposition. If you omit these elements, you won’t be able to sustain the reader’s attention. Even in romance novels – known for their happy endings, sufficient conflict must exist to make the reader doubt the happily-ever-after.”

The net-net? Continue reading