What Does Backstory Do in Memoir or Fiction? #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

The question of “why” continues in memoir and fiction. Why this protagonist? Why now? Why does what happens in the story present matter to the protagonist?

Through backstory, we find the why of the present story we are trying to tell, according to Lisa Cron, the creator of the Story Genius method of writing. The reader wishes to understand why the protagonist behaves as she does. What is her backstory?
In memoir as in fiction, backstory shows the reader why what’s happening in the story—the story action—matters to the protagonist.
            In Victoria’s memoir story, she had always revered those who went to college. College graduates were smarter than she was, she felt. They were successful, in her mind. And, the college-educated were in charge of her children’s education—especially her special needs oldest daughter.
            Victoria dealt with these feelings of inferiority until the high school guidance counselor told her that her oldest daughter shouldn’t go to college. She wasn’t capable. She wouldn’t be able to handle the work.
This is where the writer brings in “why this matters to Victoria.” Without the “why” of the story, the memoir would be merely surface. Who cares? Just stick the child in special education and let the educated people deal with teaching the child.  
            But Victoria had never done that. She was a team player and always supported all her children through their education. Until now. Until high school. Victoria didn’t feel knowledgeable enough to teach her children high school subjects.
            Okay. But why let this bother Victoria? Why did what the counselor tells her matter so much to Victoria?
It matters because Victoria has always wanted to be included among the college-educated. She feels she could be a better mother, if she is college-educated.
Then go to college, the reader thinks.
But Victoria believes, at the time the memoir story opens, that the opportunity to attend college has passed. She has five young children, the oldest special needs. Her husband travels for work.
To go deeper, Victoria was told by her father she wasn’t smart enough herself to succeed in college because she too struggled in her early education. Her father felt he was saving his daughter from possible failure in life.
This is why what is happening in the present memoir scene with her daughter’s high school guidance counselor matters so much to Victoria. This is where specific backstory comes into play.
            You put story-specific backstory into the scene at a moment when something triggers the protagonist to think back to a particular past situation or action in order to make sense of the present situation.
A protagonist may use his or her personal backstory to make a decision on how to respond or how to act in a specific confrontation or situation in the story. Backstory helps the reader understand why the protagonist is reacting the way she is.
            Think about it in your own life. We use our own personal backstory; how we were brought up, our experiences and learned life lessons, to make sense of our present world and personal life. Our past—our backstory—helps us to decide what to do next in life situations. Our past helps us to make meaning of our present.   
            Backstory can be a few words, a few paragraphs of explanation, or even an entire scene to explain what happened in order to show why a character acts the way she does in story present.
Backstory is uniquely tied to the origin scene in story. In the origin scene, a flaw is found in the logic of the protagonist. Where is this scene in the life of your protagonist, the particular flaw that is addressed through your story or memoir? Why did Victoria believe she wouldn’t succeed in college? We’ll address this next month.
Please offer me any feedback about the logic of Victoria’s memoir story, for it truly helps me to move forward in my work. Also, feel free to pose memoir topics. I will share what I know through my blog posts.

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30 thoughts on “What Does Backstory Do in Memoir or Fiction? #AuthorToolboxBlogHop”

  1. The challenge with backstory is not to include too much, and to ensure we include it as the right time. As you show, that's even more of an issue in memoir (where the author knows *all* the backstory) than in fiction where the author sometimes works the backstory out as we write).

    I love Story Genius.

  2. True, Iola. Because it's the life of the memoirist, the writer knows everything. But the memoirist must remember to ONLY provide the backstory related to the point she is trying to make with the memoir. Only story-relevant backstory is necessary in any memoir or fiction.

    I love Story Genius, too! Thanks so much for your comment on Adventures in Writing, Iola. It is greatly appreciated. All best to you!

  3. You are wise to consider info dumps, Anna. Backstory comes into play only when the protagonist is facing a decision or action and she thinks back to a previous connected incident. Backstory should not be linked to narration or world-building set up. Setting the scene is not backstory.

    Thanks so much for leaving a note on Adventures in Writing. It's greatly appreciated. All best to you.

  4. More wise words coming from you, and I love how you give the examples of your own memoir and story. You seem to be right on track and know so much on the subject that I think you are doing great, making good progress and focusing on the right difficulties, finding answers as you move on. Having no experience with memoir yet, I have nothing to add. I am learning from you, so thank you!

    I still have to find/create that origin scene in my memoir and will try to see backstory in relation to that.

  5. Thank you for your kind words, Liesbet. I really appreciate your words of encouragement. It's my pleasure to help other writers as I learn something new each time I read someone else's blog post.

    The origin scene usually happens in childhood. It's a misunderstanding. But I'll get into that next month. It's always a pleasure seeing you here at Adventures in Writing, Liesbet. All the best to you!

  6. I went back to college as a mature student as well. I didn't have any children though, and so even though I felt as 'Victoria' did, I certainly didn't face the kinds of obstacles she did. I like that you spell out why the 'why' is so important in terms of character motivation. Thanks!

  7. Good for you, Raimey! Bravo to anyone who either starts college later in life or returns to college later in life and survives to receive a degree. While I'm sure college is difficult at any age, the more mature student deals with a different mindset. At least I did. Many times an older college student comes to class set in her ways or not privy to the education a younger student may have had. There is so much going on in the older college student's head. And I need to make sure it is all on the page.

    Thanks so much for your kind words here at Adventures in Writing, Raimey. They are greatly appreciated. And thanks for all you do to help your fellow writer with Author Toolbox.

  8. Few things are worse than plot puppeteering. The motive behind a character is everything. It not only governs why they’re making specific choices, but also what levers might prompt them to change their mind. Many of my favorite scenes challenge a character to choose between two conflicting motives, or question what price they are willing to pay to continue pursuing their goal.

    Offhand I’d be tempted to let Victoria consciously believe that the reasoning is “it’s too late to go to college,” while subconsciously she’s still struggling with the opinions her father expressed so long ago.

    I also agree with Iola Goulton that managing the backstory of a character is always tricky. The backstory itself is “a story”, and there’s a temptation to tell it, but often the better option is to dole it out slowly, prompting audiences to regularly reevaluate their concept of who the character is, and what their motives/goals are.

  9. Backstory is essential and I agree with Raimey that your explanation of why the 'why' is important is wonderful. Story Genius has some amazing exercises to help really pull this out of your story. However, separating the essential backstory from the non-essential has to be so much harder in memoir. Everything in our lives add into the person we are and separating the threads of your own life with a critical eye to find the ones that are crucial has to be a huge challenge. I could easily see myself overlooking the explanation of something because I deem it obvious, which is one of the many reasons it is so important to have someone else read your work.
    At the Writers' Coffeehouse a couple months ago Janet Bashman gave some amazing advice of what backstory to include, specifically in flashbacks, and more importantly when to include it. She stressed the importance that the backstory much be presented at the moment in the story when it is critical to understand the plot moving forward.

  10. Hello and welcome to Adventures in Writing, Adam Michael! Thank you so much for your informative comment. You are exactly correct. I'm working along the lines that externally Victoria believes it's too late for college, but internally she's struggling with her father's comments and that she's not smart enough to succeed in college.

    I agree that sometimes writers can get lost in the backstory and that it needs to be told bit by bit so the reader can see what makes the protagonist tick. Again I truly appreciate your comment on Adventures in Writing. Enjoy your day!

  11. Story Genius is a wonderful book and course for sure, Erika. And yes, separating the essential backstory from non-essential backstory in memoir is trickier than for fiction. In fiction you create only what's needed. In memoir, the writer has the whole picture because it is truth and it all happened. The memoirist needs to only include story-specific backstory, the events that prove the point of the memoir.

    Janet Bashman at the Coffeehouse offers good information, too. You include backstory at the moment when the character is thinking about how to proceed in the present story action. The reader needs this info to understand why the character does what she does in the story action.

    Thanks so much for your kind words here at Adventures in Writing, Erika. Enjoy your day!

  12. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on backstory. We so often hear not to share too much. But what is too much? I write mystery and for me, both the killer and the protagonist must have some backstory. When we are in the mind of a character, we can't just be in the present. That mind includes what happened in the past. Yet, we come back to how much is too much?

    I believe you've answered those questions: 1) Share the backstory when it is essential to understand a character's behavior to move the story forward. 2) Share only enough to help the reader understand the character's motivation. Of course, with mystery, we share tidbits of backstory without giving the entire picture–till the end.

  13. I've read Lisa Cron's story Genius and agree with most of her principals. Even if the reader doesn't know all of a character's backstory, it's vital the writer does. A whisper of a hint to the reader is sometimes better than hitting them over the head.

  14. You are absolutely right, Joan. Whenever you are in the head of the character, there is backstory floating around. The character is always trying to make sense of the present situation based on his or her past. Of course, in mystery–which I love–the writer needs to be mindful of giving too much away.

    It's always a pleasure seeing you here at Adventures in Writing, Joan. Enjoy your weekend.

  15. Hello and welcome to Adventures in Writing, Cheryl. You are right. The writer needs to know everything about the characters and the story. The thing to do is to tell the story bit by bit, offering the reader only what she needs to understand the story right now, as it unfolds. And of course, this includes story-specific backstory of the character.

    Thank you so much for your comment here at Adventures in Writing, Cheryl. Enjoy your weekend!

  16. Hello and welcome to Adventures in Writing, Charity. Thanks so much for following my blog. It's greatly appreciated.

    You're right. Backstory is essential to understanding the why of the story. Thank you for your comment here at Adventures in Writing. Enjoy your weekend!

  17. When I include backstory, I always ask myself why. If I can't answer that, it probably means I just like the backstory but maybe it should be cut from the novel. It's a fine line between boring a reader and moving the story forward.

  18. Backstory can be so important to a story. Done right, it's a seamless and wonderful addition, helping readers enjoy and understand things. Hadn't thought much about it for a memoir, so I appreciate the info here. Hope your weekend is going well! 🙂

  19. It certainly is a fine line with when to include backstory. I find myself sharing backstory that has nothing to do with moving the plot forward.

    Thanks so much for putting the whole point of backstory into a nutshell for us, Kristina. And thanks so much for visiting Adventures in Writing and leaving a note. It's greatly appreciated. Enjoy your Sunday!

  20. Thank you so much for this, Karen. Backstory is supposed to be seamless in story or memoir. It's getting that seamless part down pat that's difficult.

    Thank you for your kind words here at Adventures in Writing. I hope your weekend was great as well. All best to you!


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