Four Backstory Traps and How to Escape Them

Four Backstory Traps and How to Escape Them

I remember the exact moment when I decided to become a writer. It was the winter of 1987. I was in sixth-period study hall, gripping Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. The book catapulted me into the world of Louis Creed and Jud Crandall, making the rowdy seventh graders around me disappear. Every day that week, I stayed up well past midnight, unable to put Pet Sematary down.

I spent the next few years in various states of terror as I devoured King’s most famous works including It, The Stand, and The Tommyknockers. Stephen King is a masterful storyteller. His skills with dialogue, plot, character development, and scene-setting are incredible. But even during those early years of fandom, I regularly ran across what felt like a major flaw in his books: the backstory problem. 

Early chapters in King’s novels were absolutely riveting. But just as the story began to truck along, he’d interrupt the forward-moving story with a fifty-plus-page U-turn into the past. I remember little of those forays into backstory other than my fervent desire to skip them.

This summer, I experienced a similar backstory trap as I revised my memoir. Despite everything I tell students and clients, I found myself loading early chapters with backstory about my childhood experiences. The problem had my internal editor on high alert. Every move felt wrong, and yet I continued to scramble around in the past, believing it was all essential. 

As I continued to wrestle with this problem, I researched common backstory traps to see which one I’d fallen into. 

Problem One: The Kitchen Sink

Authors want readers to know who their characters really are. And, because the past often predicts the future, sometimes they share everything leading up to the story present. While some backstory might be essential, most of it is unnecessary.  Even when a scene from the past seems like a perfect fit, it’s important to justify its presence. 

In the Writer’s Digest article “How to Weave Backstory Seamlessly into Your Novel,” agent Jeff Kleinman is quoted as saying “Backstory is the stuff the author figures the reader should know—not stuff the character desperately wants to tell the reader. If it’s critical to the character, it’s critical to the reader, and then it’s not backstory.” Look at what the character wants to say and not what you as the writer want to convey.

Solution: Take time to understand who your characters are and what your story is about. Once you’ve solidified the narrative arc, think about what backstory items directly affect your story. Ask your characters what they desperately need to say for readers to understand them.

Problem Two: The Dump

In early drafts, it’s not uncommon for writers to dump essential backstory into the first few chapters of the book. Writers who use this technique sometimes hope wounds revealed on page seventeen will have a huge payoff on page 210. If you’ve sunk a good hook into the reader, they might employ the skip technique to work their way around your backstory dump. But, if your hook is insufficient or the story doesn’t actually start until page eighty, readers are likely to put your book down. Even when readers stick with your story, they might not remember that page seventeen detail if there’s a lengthy gap between initial mention and payoff.

Solution: Place backstory properly. While some backstory belongs in early chapters, other episodes might work best as flashbacks that amplify a pivotal moment. Instead of planting that wound on page seventeen, consider a flashback at the moment when that wound matters most. This can be particularly powerful if the flashback is essential to the conflict or understanding a character’s motivation during a specific scene.

 

Problem Three: The Stand-In

Sometimes backstory is a stand-in for character development. Interesting tidbits from the past are used to create intrigue but they tell us nothing about a character’s present experience. In her essay “How to Tell if Backstory is Sabotaging Your Novel,” Roz Morris writes about this problem using a character who was raised by theater folk as an example. “The writer hopes [the theater upbringing] will make her interesting. It does, to a point, but it’s only the start. The real value is in what it makes her. Does she crave security and a settled life as a result, or has it left her with itchy feet? Perhaps these twin urges are at odds inside her, sometimes pulling her one way, sometimes the other.”

Solution: Develop characters fully in the forward-moving narrative. Place them in interesting scenes where you can show who they really are. Give them quirky mannerisms and fresh dialogue only they can deliver. Let their reactions to other characters and your story’s conflicts define them.  If a colorful backstory exists, make sure it defines who they currently are.

 

Problem Four: Off-Page Issues 

Sometimes we’re stuck in backstory because it’s safe. We know what happened and how we feel about it.  Early chapters in my memoir introduce important events leading up to my brother’s suicide. Everything else happens after he’s gone. As I approached the chapters leading to that tragic moment, swells of grief washed over me. I realized that while I likely have some on-the-page backstory issues (dumping, anyone?), some of my problems are internal. 

While circling around backstory to avoid painful feelings is a common memoir problem, writers working on thinly-veiled novels are also at risk. This problem can even happen when the plot differs greatly from the writer’s life, but the feeling tone of the conflict rings true to the writer’s experience.  

Solution: Practice self-care and manage expectations about your progress. Allow yourself to take breaks, write at a slower pace, and affirm the power of the process. Give yourself permission to work on something else until the story feels less intense.

Once I realized my biggest backstory trap was off the page, I pushed back a deadline, wrote for shorter periods, and completed more meditations.  As I accepted this part of the writing life, revising became easier. Three weeks ago, my story began sharing its secrets through late-night wakeups and flashes of inspiration. Now that we’re on speaking terms, I can ask my characters what parts of my backstory are absolutely essential.

Meet Our Memoirists: Lisa Cooper Ellison

Meet Our Memoirists: Lisa Cooper Ellison

This post was originally published on the Moving Forwards Memoir Collective Blog 

 It takes a special kind of person to lean into other people’s stories and help them untangle the knotted threads at their centers. It takes a special kind of person to lean into her own story and give it voice with the hope that others in similar circumstances might feel less alone. Author and teacher Lisa Cooper Ellison is, without a doubt, that special kind of person.

Lisa and I first connected over our shared goal of exploring the psychological journeys memoir writers inevitably face when they endeavor to commit words to the page to make meaning of their painful experiences. Since then, I’ve had the privilege of being on the receiving end of Lisa’s generosity of spirit and boundless compassion on more than one occasion and have witnessed firsthand her gentle yet persistent guidance as a writing companion and friend. Her work as a writing coach and editor has enabled her to build a meaningful network comprised of writers at all levels who understand the value of creative support. As a former mental health counselor, Lisa knows the kind of work that’s necessary to peel back the layers of trauma and find healing. As a trauma survivor and memoirist, Lisa has the added credibility of having done that work herself. She’s in the process of completing a memoir called, Lucky Me that confronts the lasting grief of her brother’s mental health crisis and death by suicide. She’s published essays on the same themes in The Guardian, Kenyon Review Online and other publications, she’s written multiple pieces on the craft of writing, and she’s compiled her insights about trauma writing into her forthcoming book, How to Write about What Keeps You up at Night without Staying up All Night.  I recently asked Lisa to tell us more about her writing and her work with other writers, and I invite you to watch our author chat below and read the interview that follows to learn more about this inspiring author.

Heart Speak, The Writing Advice Column #6: When You’re a Writer Who’s Also Being Written About

Heart Speak, The Writing Advice Column #6: When You’re a Writer Who’s Also Being Written About

 

This post was originally published on the Moving Forwards Memoir Collective Blog 

 

 

 

Dear Lisa,

I am writing a memoir about growing up feeling unloved and unwanted by my mother. My oldest son is a writer too. Originally, his MFA thesis was a fictional piece about a group of churches we encountered. Recently, he changed genres and presented his work as a memoir of “his bad childhood.” Three agents want it. 

I know my husband and I did our very best. As I write my book, I am thinking about my own mother and how she will feel.

My son doesn’t want me to read his book, though he intends to verify things with me as he gets his proposal ready. As a writer, I am excited for him and I wish him every success. But now I find myself in the middle and not sure how to process this. I wonder if he’s exaggerating or being influenced in what he remembers. Then I wonder about my own memory and the recollections I have about my own childhood. As a writer who’s also being written about, how do I process this in a healthy way? 

Sincerely,

Never saw this coming…

…..

Dear Never Saw This Coming, 

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says, “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they shouldve behaved better.” How easy it is to be cavalier with this statement when we hold the pen. Yet, when others hold the pen, we shudder. 

You cannot control what your son writes. Nor should you. The process of writing a memoir is the process of voicing our subjective truths. We do this to integrate the experiences that don’t make sense to us. In the process of writing and revising, we discover our wholeness. To apply your version of the truth to his story would stifle his growth. I can see from your letter that you already know this. 

But how do you hold onto your own truth as a writer? And how do you find ways to be okay no matter what he writes? Those are the real questions I need to answer. 

HippoCamp Highlights: Advice on Craft, Platform, and the Writing Life 

HippoCamp Highlights: Advice on Craft, Platform, and the Writing Life 

Every August, I drive to Lancaster, Pennsylvania for one of my favorite writing conferences. Equal parts writer reunion, learning lab, and opportunity to discuss all things creative nonfiction, HippoCamp offers new and established writers a chance to meet and exchange ideas. Attending the three-day conference feels like coming home.

On the drive back to Charlottesville, I thought about what I’d learned at this year’s conference. While I’ll be processing my thoughts for weeks to come, I wanted to share a few golden nuggets with you.

For those of you who don’t write creative nonfiction, I’ve translated my highlights into wisdom for any genre.

The Writing Life

 Writing About Trauma without Retraumatizing Yourself
Lisa Ellison (Hey, that’s me!)
Best Quote (Tweeted by a participant): “If you’re forcing yourself to write about trauma when you’re not ready, you’re retraumatizing yourself.  Emotional wisdom is knowing when the time is right.”

Writing instructors frequently tell us to write about what keeps us up at night. But what if those stories keep you up all night? Or what if those stories make you want to throw up, leave the room, or quit writing altogether? To safely write about trauma, you must P.A.C.E yourself.

P = Prepare for self-care
A = Activate internal wisdom
C = Choose wisely and keep it contained
E = Explore with curiosity and compassion

During my session, I described some of the ways you can P.A.C.E. yourself. In the coming months, I’ll publish a workbook that describes this model and includes exercises designed to help you complete your most difficult projects. Online master classes will be unveiled in early 2020. Stay tuned for updates.

In the meantime, check out my new class: Story Matters: Forgive Your Characters, Empower Yourself

 

Doubt by Any Other Name: Combatting Imposter Syndrome and Finding Your Voice
Athena Dixon
Best Quote: “Determine your kryptonite. If you can identify the issue, you have power over it.”

Imposter Syndrome is a problem that plagues writers of all genres. It’s the source of our “not good enough” feelings. But did you know there are five different types of Imposter Syndromes? You can be a Perfectionist who has to get everything right, an Expert who must know it all, a Natural Genius who would be a total failure if she put in any effort, a Soloist who can never ask for help, or a Superman/Superwoman who has to be the best at everything. Understanding your Imposter type and giving your Imposter Syndrome a name can help you combat it.

Craft

Lightening the Load
Lara Lillibridge, author of Girlish and Mama, Mama, Only Mama
Best Quote: “When you write a story that feels unbearable, there must be moments of breath.”

When it comes to difficult stories, readers need moments of relief. These pauses help the reader recover from emotionally fraught scenes and prepare for new ones. In her presentation, Lara used Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water and Krystal Sital’s Secrets We Kept as exemplar texts. In Chronology, Yuknavitch opens with her daughter’s stillbirth. Her beautiful language plunges you into this terrible moment. Just when you can’t take anymore, she propels you to the surface with sentences like “girl swimmers are hairy.” Each opening line resets the timber of the prose and expectations regarding the emotional intensity of her chapters.

Secrets We Kept is a story of brutal domestic violence that’s passed down through the generations. To allow readers a chance to breathe, Sital created a unique structure where horrific scenes from the past are balanced by conversations in the kitchen between Krystal and her mother or Krystal and her grandmother. Meals serve as a grounding force, reminding you that while this family has suffered, it has also survived.

Keynote Address
Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, among others
Best Quote: “Every project has its own closed image system that may be contained in a character, object, or landscape.  We find the system through the writing process.”

Sometimes we don’t know what we have until we’ve written it. As you begin to examine your work, look for patterns in your prose. Perhaps you always write about the same things or include the same images. An examination of these patterns can deepen your narrative arc. To find the pattern, create a collage of the images and topics that appear in your scenes. Notice the trends then ask yourself what the story is trying to tell you.

The Workshop

Don’t Call Me Brave: Three Memoirists on Writing and Publishing Hard Truths Before, During, and After the #MeToo Movement

Krystal Sital (moderator), Lynn Hall (panelist, author of Caged Eyes), and Amy Jo Burns (panelist, author of Cinderland)
Best Quotes:
Krystal: “Understanding the importance of what you’re writing and what you can lose are critical considerations when publishing your work. And remember that publication is completely worth it.”
Lynn: “I look forward to a world where survivors can tell their stories without someone calling them ‘brave.’ Brave perpetuates the divide between those who share publicly and those who don’t.”
Amy Jo: “You are not your trauma. You are not your book.”

When someone brings a difficult story to a writing workshop, they’re not looking for pity or props. They want you to assess their writing based on what’s on the page not the contents of their heart. While I could talk at length about how to do this, I want to stick with the points these speakers made. Sometimes calling a person brave is a way to communicate sympathy and pity. The term can also be used to elevate those who publicly share difficult stories above those who don’t. Be mindful of what you say to your fellow writers about their work. When you’re thinking of calling someone brave, ask yourself if this is a way to compensate for your own discomfort. If it is, see what you can do to soothe yourself. If your desire to see someone as brave comes from a place of admiration, honor their bravery by honestly and fairly critiquing their work.

Building Platform

Building Your Platform with Instagram
Allison K. Williams
Best quote: “You do not work for social media. Social media works for you.”

Someone at HippoCamp said this session was like willingly drinking from a firehose. There was so much good water, and unlike most firehoses, the water was good. My biggest takeaway from Building Your Platform with Instagram was around engagement. When it comes to platform building, many of us obsess about follower numbers, but real engagement is more important. Likes and comments demonstrate that readers are interested in what you have to say. Instead of growing your numbers, find ways to authentically engage with your current audience. Ask them questions. Promote other people. Tell a story other people will care about. 

Heart Speak, The Writing Advice Column #6: When You’re a Writer Who’s Also Being Written About

Heart Speak, The Writing Advice Column #5: Writing in the Face of Fragile Family Relationships

This post was originally published on the Moving Forwards Memoir Collective Blog 

 

Dear Lisa,

My memoir is about growing up in a family where the default position in any dispute was to totally cut that relative from our lives. It resulted in me growing up in a bubble with no extended family. As a child this seemed quite normal, but as I grew up, I began to realise how dysfunctional and destructive this behaviour was. 

After the death of my parents, I took a leap of faith and reconnected with a number of relatives I had never met. This shed light on an otherwise dark past and brought much happiness to my life.

It has also led to a conflict. I believe my experiences are not unique and hope telling my story will help others feel less alone. I want to write the truth, but I don’t want to hurt my fragile extended family. How do I write my memoir without hurting the people I love?

Sincerely,

Fragile Family

 …..

Dear Fragile Family,

Your letter contains two questions: Should I write this memoir, and should I publish it? 

The answer to your first question is a resounding yes. As Joan Didion says, we write to understand ourselves. If this family pattern is still bothering you, it’s worth understanding. The writing process might shed additional light on your family situation and increase your compassion for them. Over time, the story you’ve always told might evolve. There’s only one way to find out: write it down. 

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