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

Jilly: Backstory Break

 BackstoryHow much backstory do you like with your fiction?

I have to confess, I’m a fan. It has to be well done. I don’t like honking great paragraphs of infodump or entire sub-plots set in the past (my cue to skip, even if it’s a favorite author), but I do love to know where the characters have come from and how they have been shaped by their past experiences. If the story is mostly in the now, without being anchored by deep roots, it seems to slip-slide through my brain without making a lasting impression.

I wonder if it’s a British thing? I used to work for a Frenchman, and we spent many a happy hour teasing each other about our national characteristics. He said that whenever you ask a Brit a question, the first thing we’ll do is to put it into its proper historical context. Magna Carta, or Oliver Cromwell, or Winston Churchill. Ahem. I hate to admit it, but he might be on to something.

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