I ended my post last month with the fact that what readers are wired to respond to in a story – to wit: the protagonist’s escalating internal struggle — is not what writers have been taught to focus on. I was reminded of this recently when reading Jason Sheehan’s review  of Lauren Groff’s literary bestseller, Fates and Furies on NPR’s Morning Edition website. By way of praising the book Sheehan called it . . .
“. . . a master class in best lines; a shining, rare example of that most unforgiving and brutal writer’s advice: All you have to do is write the best sentence you’ve ever written. Then 10,000 more of the best. Then find a way to string them together into the story of something.” (italics his)
When I read that, I had to take several deep cleansing breaths, lest my head explode and make a big mess all over the place. Are you kidding me? So it’s about learning to write the “best lines”? That’s the skill writers need to develop first and foremost? THEN they “find a way to string them together into “the story of something”? How could you even do that? The implication, of course, is that once you learn to write 10K pretty sentences, the story will somehow magically appear. That is if you have the rare thing that Groff has. In other words, talent. Wrong, wrong, wrong!
The sentences in a novel are there for one reason and one reason only: to convey the story. It is the story that makes those “best” sentences relevant and gives them their power. To be clear: we’re talking about the power to hijack the reader’s brain, push the pause button, and put the real world on hold while the story unfolds.
And yet, according to the writer’s advice Sheehan so reverently passed on, the story, the meaning, the purpose of those best sentences is an afterthought. Something you add only after you’ve written a slew of “best” sentences. And sheesh, what does “best” even mean in this context? Probably something to do with “love of language,” whatever that means. Which only makes the goal that much more elusive, that is to say vague, frustrating, unattainable.
Make no mistake: there is no “love of language” and there are no “best sentences” that do not include meaning. After all, language by itself is merely random sounds, because language is not a thing in itself. It’s a conduit. Here is Webster’s definition:
Language: the system of words or signs that people use to express thoughts and feelings to each other.
Language is a form of communication, a way of expressing meaning. And where does meaning come from? Context. Story. The point you’re making. Not, and I can’t say this strongly enough, from a random string of “best” sentences.
Story first, plot second, best sentences (optional) and last.
Okay. So the first question is, what is a story? Is it the plot, the things that happen in the story? Nope. The plot is external, and if you focus on the plot before you nail your story, then all you’ll have is a bunch of things that happen.
The story is about how the plot affects the protagonist. And not how the plot affects the protagonist on the surface – as in a rock falls on the protagonist and she says ouch — but about how it affects her beneath the surface. Story is about a changing internal landscape, not an external one.
On that score, I recently read a review  in the New York Times of Becoming Nicole, a non-fiction narrative about a transgender girl, that neatly nailed what a story is, what the reader is mesmerized by, and therefore what writers need to know before they attempt to write even one best sentence. Here’s reviewer Jennifer Senior:
“Reading strictly for plot, Becoming Nicole is about a transgender girl who triumphed in a landmark discrimination case in 2014, successfully suing the Orono school district in Maine for barring her from using the girls’ bathroom. But the real movement in this book happens internally, in the back caverns of each family member’s heart and mind. Four ordinary and imperfect human beings had to reckon with an exceptional situation, and in so doing also became, in their own modest ways, exceptional.” (italics mine)
That is what we come to story for: the inner transformation of the protagonist. How does what happens in the plot transform an ordinary person into an exceptional one? In other words: how does what happens on the surface cause the protagonist to change internally?
You have to know a lot of specific backstory about your protagonist before you can begin to answer that question, let alone create a plot capable of spurring that change.
Because as it turns out not only was Shakespeare right that “what’s past is prologue,” but as Faulkner so brilliantly said, “the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.”
The past is alive, always, in how we make sense of the present. This is something your protagonist can’t do unless you know specifically about his or her past.
This isn’t “pre-writing,” because in addition to allowing you to craft a believable plot, the vast majority of what you’ll uncover about your protagonist’s past will be in the novel, beginning on the first page. That is, in the form of flashbacks, dialogue and the snippets of memory she calls up to decode the plot problem that kicks into gear on page one.
That knowledge – the backstory – is not only laced into the novel, it is precisely what the reader comes for. And, ironically, what writers are often warned not to do. “Don’t give us backstory,” writers are often told, “and while you’re at it, steer clear of flashbacks, and don’t spend much time telling us what your protagonist is thinking, either.” Worst advice ever! What that really means is: don’t do it poorly. Don’t give us an info dump, and don’t let your protagonist simply muse aimlessly over his or her life just because.
But don’t give us backstory? You have to, because backstory is what the protagonist uses to make sense of the hard choices he has to make right this very minute. It’s what he uses to gauge the meaning and consequence of what’s happening. It’s the basis for the decisions he makes and the action he takes. There is no story without backstory.
Want to see what I mean? Let’s turn to our writer in residence, Jennie Nash , who has been developing her new novel, tentatively titled Real Life With People, based on the steps I’ll be outlining in my new book, Story Genius.
The following is the second scene in Jennie’s novel. In the first scene we found out that the protagonist, Ruby, is a TV writer. On the eve of writing the last episode of their long-running series, Ruby’s writing partner and long time lover Henry was hit by a car while riding his bike. He and Ruby had just had a fight. He was ending their writing partnership. She was angry. He is not expected to survive the crash. Now, she has five days to write the final episode. But she’s a basket case. Her producer, Sharon, is threatening to allow a fangirl to write it, and her sister Nora is threatening to force Ruby to leave her house because she doesn’t think she can take care of herself. Ruby, however, is about to come up with a plan . . .
Notice the bolded sections: They’re places where we get insight into what any of this means to Ruby, and are privy to her inner struggle. Notice how often backstory crops up.
As soon as the sun came up, I showered and put on real clothes for the first time since the accident. I was waiting at Whole Foods when the store manager came to the door with her key to let in the early morning supplicants. I grabbed a cart and began to load it with organic spinach, rosemary sourdough bread, fresh garlic hummus and seasonally appropriate fruit. I went for the most expensive option of everything offered, and finally steered into the meat aisle, thinking I would get stuffed chicken breasts or a marinated roast – something with gravitas I could stick in the oven so that when Nora and the realtor arrived, the house would smell of someone taking care of themselves. I pulled my cart behind a woman with a small white dog tucked into a bag that was slung on her shoulder.
“A pound of the organic grass fed hamburger,” she said. The dog poked its head out and she began to murmur.
“That’s right, sweet Bruiser, Mama’s getting your favorite.”
I knew from my sister Nora how much some dogs were pampered, but I had never imagined anyone buying grass fed beef for their dog.
“It eats organic meat?” I asked.
“She absolutely refuses kibble,” the woman said, “and you can’t really blame her, can you? It’s packed with preservatives and added fillers and the meat they use to make that stuff – arghk.” She made a sound of disgust and scratched the dog behind its ears. “It’s the scraps from the slaughter house floors. It’s enough to turn your dog vegetarian.”
“Dogs can be vegetarian?” I asked – not because I doubted the answer, but because I wanted to hear this woman explain how the descendants of wolves could survive on tofu. It seemed suddenly important.
She laughed. “Of course! You just have to give them enzymes so they don’t have gas from all the fiber.” She took the package of meat the butcher handed her, cooed again to her dog, waved, and headed off toward the eggs. I supposed the dog liked scrambled eggs for breakfast.
“Can I help you, ma’am?” the butcher asked.
It took me a moment to realize he was speaking to me.
“Yes,” I said, and smiled to buy a little time.
I looked down the aisle after the woman with the dog, and something began to take shape in my mind. Sharon’s receptionist thought I should get a dog, and the woman who cut my hair, and the mailman who brought nothing but junk and bills. Nora had been suggesting I get a dog all my life – she, the veterinarian, for whom doglessness was evidence of everything that was wrong with my life. I had no husband, no family, no dog, and my entire ability to connect with the human race was therefore suspect. “You should get a dog!” It was the knee jerk reaction people gave to single women and middle aged women and depressed women and women in pain, and I was now, all of a sudden, all of those things.
If she thought I had a dog, Nora would stop worrying about me. If she thought I had a dog, she would leave me alone. I didn’t have to buy a dog, or adopt one. I just needed a dog for a few hours.
I turned to the butcher. “A pound of the grass fed hamburger, please.”
What actually happens on the surface in that scene? Ruby goes to the market, sees a woman buying fancy hamburger for her dog, learns a couple of surprising facts about what dogs eat, and then buys a pound of hamburger herself. That’s the surface what. And it’s boring. It’s just a bunch of things that happen.
But the scene isn’t boring. Aren’t you curious about why Ruby is buying that hamburger …. and a little worried that it might be illegal, misguided, the cause of even bigger problems for Ruby? Because as we all know, whatever the protagonist does to make things better will only make them worse. Especially in the beginning. Doesn’t it make you wonder what will happen next?
Your curiosity has very little to do with what happened externally, and everything to do with Ruby’s internal struggle. That’s what matters, and that’s what we’re wired to respond to. It’s why even something as seemingly mundane as a trip to Whole Foods on an early weekday morning can be exciting. Because everything is seen as a potential means to an end: how will this help Ruby solve her problem? That’s why it matters. Backstory drives story. The past drives the present.
In order to create the present and the subjective lens through which Ruby views it, Jennie had to know a lot about Ruby’s life. And Nora’s. And Sharon’s. And about Henry, Ruby’s writing partner. In fact, it took months of work before Jennie could write these pages. And it all began when Jennie first came up with an idea for a novel about grief, the cost of human connection, and a woman who doesn’t like dogs. Next month we’ll talk about the steps she took to get from there to here.
Till then, here’s a question that will help you drill down to your story’s core: If you had to pick one moment in your protagonist’s past that defined her before she stepped onto page one of your novel, what would it be?