Creating the Continuous Dream and Backstory


Creating the Continuous Dream and Backstory

As I have mentioned in other posts, the job of writers is to create what John Gardner called the continuous dream—that is, a story the reader can immerse herself in and live in the world of your fiction. The more you do this, the more your reader finds the story both credible and compelling. Similarly, you need to avoid breaking the dream—that is, momentarily pulling your reader out of the story to wonder something like would Joe really do that? Or worse, abandoning your piece altogether because it didn’t grab him. To keep the continuous dream going, you want to create characters which are both fully realized (i.e. act like real people) and powerfully transmit your message. One way to support that is to write a backstory.

What is backstory?

Backstory is the writer’s exploration of a character’s motives, history, goals, dreams, nightmares and generally, how the character fits into your fictional world. The character is usually your main protagonist but can be others.

Backstory differs from the story you’re writing in that its intent is to inform you, not the reader. It helps you make decisions about where to take your narrative and so may never appear in the actual story.

An example

In my novel, The Honest One, my main character (David) is a hard-driving, ambitious young man who does whatever it takes to succeed. He steals an idea from a colleague to garner senior management’s attention.

At one point, I wasn’t sure where to go next for David to be a fully realized character. The following is a very abbreviated version of what I wrote as I was working through.

Who is David?

He knows he should not steal but does it anyway.

How interesting. Why?

Because he wants to succeed at any cost.

Why is he so driven?

His father Gord tells the truth all the time and has been sidelined and ostracized at work as a result. David knows that truth doesn’t lead to success.

But this, coupled with the ambition, creates an unsympathetic character. Do I want to make David more sympathetic? But then the whole point of the character is lost. I want the reader to be routing for him while recognizing the deviousness. How do I square this circle?

I think the reader would continue reading if David was a compelling character—that is, you can’t stop reading even though he is somewhat unsavory. How do I do that? Would it be enough to see his inner guilt? Or that he has other positive and sympathetic traits? Or something else. But what?

Would it work to have a personal life which isn’t so driven? Does he compartmentalize work and personal life so he can do things at work he could not justify in his non-work life?

As I said, this is an extremely condensed version of what I wrote. In the full version, I would have come up with some possible solutions to my questions and then written some experimental scenes to see if could achieve the effect I wanted. In any case, I hope the example above illustrates that you can use writing about the character to help you work out where you want to go even if the backstory itself never makes it into the novel.

Next post: how to do a backstory.

I Blank when I Try to Write


I Blank when I Try to Write

It happens to all of us. We finally have managed to get our bums in chairs, have two hours when the kids are at soccer practice, and the dishwasher is running. Okay, ready to go! And blank. Blank screen. Blank mind.

As the minutes tick by and nothing happens, the frustration mounts. Come on!

If this happens frequently, you might have writer’s block, but often it is just that you need to trick yourself into starting.

Trick yourself—do a mise en place

Mise en place. In cooking, chefs often will have all the ingredients weighed out, the pots ready, and the utensils assembled before they start to create. You can do the same thing. Tell yourself that you’re not going to write, you’re just getting ready to write. You can:

  • Open and name a new file. If I was going to write, which I am not, what would the file name be? If you start obsessing, just use the date.
  • Set up the formatting. Of the writing you are not going to do, should it be double spaced or single? Indented? Paging.
  • Make a few notes of thoughts to include in the piece. Just a couple of things that you want to remember to include if you were going to write. Which you are not. But might want to describe that street scene from last week. Jot down a few points to evoke it.
  • Any character names you particularly like for this piece? Which you are not going to write. But Anna’s a nice name. Dark hair, I think. Sort of plump—so she can always be fretting about dieting.
  • If you were going to write, which of course you are not, what might the opening sentence be?

And usually by this time, you are well into the writing. I know this shouldn’t work—after all, you’re tricking yourself. Don’t you think you’d pick it up? Well, I may be slower than most, but honestly, it works.

Other ways to fill the blank space

If the first suggestion doesn’t work for you, you can also try:

  • Keep the fingers moving. Seriously, just type gibberish—sdfgdfgsdfgsdfg—over and over. The act of typing can sometimes kick-start the brain into writing. Or it does it to avoid the boredom—either way, you win.
  • Start your engines, gentlemen, please. I literally type “Okay, start your engines, please, gentlemen (yeah, yeah, I know, sexist). It is 10:15. I will write for 30 minutes until 10:45. No stopping. No games.” I sometimes set an alarm. Doesn’t have to be thirty minutes. It can be five. But no stopping and no diversions.
  • Write drivel. After all, we all do it which is why the blog is called From Drivel to Magic. But when we are getting SERIOUS, we can’t be driveling. But if you are stuck, just write about anything. The blue of the sky (clichés are acceptable when drivelling), the freshness of the breeze, the color of the African violet. But not pick up milk, renew that book, make the doctor’s appointment. Stay in the moment.

If you use these techniques as a way to let yourself loosen up, to open up to the lovely pieces which are waiting to be born, then the trickery is worth it.

I Have No Time to Write!


I Have No Time to Write!

Let’s face it—life is busy. There are always things to do. And another week goes by with no time to write.

Tracking my time

Many years ago, I decided to take up Steven Covey’s suggestion in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to track a week of my life using the table below. Here were my results:

Not important to life goals

Important to life goals

Not urgent






Okay, there was a slight flaw in the process since I found that things like showers, brushing teeth, grocery shopping, sleep, car maintenance, etc., while not important or urgent in the grand scheme of things, soon became both if I didn’t do them.

But it was an excellent reminder that because writing fell into the red box, I did very little of it.

And it also made it clear that I was never going to write regularly if I didn’t create some space for it.

Finding the time to write

You do really have to fight to make the space. It’s all very well to wait for the Muse to show up, but the way your life is going, you’ll be too busy to welcome her in.

So here are some suggestions on how to make the time.

  • Set a regular time to write. Whenever it’s the likeliest that you will have a block of quiet time. Instead of folding the laundry, make the commitment to put your bum in chair and write. Doesn’t have to be great swatches of time. Surely you can carve out two hours a week for your heart’s desire.
  • Protect that time. Don’t check your phone, don’t jump up to do that thing you’d forgotten. If friends want to see you during that period, just say, “Sorry, that doesn’t work for me. What about next Tuesday?” Family is tougher to put off but tell them it’s your time or put up a DO NOT DISTURB sign or close the door or all of the above. They won’t like it but they’ll eventually get used to it.
  • Write in a separate space. Ideally, some place in your home which you can use primarily for writing, reading, reflecting. Doesn’t have to be big or elaborate. Just a chair with a nice view. The home office surprisingly doesn’t work for me. Too many of those urgent/not important things lying around to lure me away. If you have to, find a coffee shop to set up in.
  • Join a writing group. There is nothing like peer pressure to produce a piece. My writing group meets over lunch, so anyone who doesn’t submit a piece has to buy dessert. Evening group meetings—pate, wine, cheap caviar?
  • Do writing retreats. I know people who use writing retreats as the only time they write. Not ideal, but again, it is making space for what is important. Two writing teachers who do excellent retreats are Sue Reynolds of Inkslingers and Barbara Turner-Vesselago of Freefall.

Make yourself a priority

Move what you care about into the important/URGENT box. Do as Harry Potter’s creator, J.K. Rowling, did and live in an infrequently cleaned place to write. I already have the dusty apartment thing down pat. I’m just waiting for the fame and fortune to kick in.

Where a Good Story/Memoir Ends


Where a Good Story/Memoir Ends

In the previous post, I discussed the movie, Lady Bird, and its ending. I think a weak ending has a ripple effect back to the rest of the piece and seems to deflate what might have been a plot that was bopping along well. (There might have been three mixed metaphors in that sentence. Ah, well.) Where a story ends is the topic of this post.

How do I know where to end?

The great thing about writing generally is that you can end your piece anywhere you like. I know I have harped on making sure that you meet the expectations of the reader by including all the component parts of a story arc. However there is lots of wiggle room within that framework. This is also true of memoirs. You need to build the story of your life and end it where it works for the story you are telling.

Endings, like beginnings and the whole writing thing, are so flexible that the best I can do is present my list of probable Dos and Don’ts.

DO end the story as close to the climax as possible. It sometimes works to have a long denouement where all the bits and pieces are neatly connected. But too long a one can leave the reader with the feeling of yeah, yeah, I got it—the butler did it.

DO end shortly after the main character has experienced the major life-altering realization or event that you were aiming for. It sometimes works to continue past that point but you need to decide.  For example,  will illustrating in detail how the protagonist has changed her life strengthen the story or make it feel as if it is tapering off into oblivion?


Don’t feel you have to resolve every question your novel raises. As long as the main and most important ones are satisfactorily dealt with, the reader won’t be that put off.  Example of question you can leave dangling: Did the secondary character’s husband’s sister really die of cancer? Memoir writers  especially need to rein in the idea they need to tell everyone’s story which touches their own. You do not.

Don’t feel you have to take things to the literal or figurative death bed. It is perfectly acceptable to portray a slice of a character’s life and end it when it feels right to you.

Don’t spell out how you want the reader to feel about the ending. This is partly a tenet of show, don’t tell. You just show it and allow the reader to decide how he feels about it. This approach can give extra pleasure to the reader as he explores his own reaction to your ending.

The ends need to justify the means

So, generally, your ending needs to be as strong as the plot which is resolves.

Having said that, endings are, I think, particularly idiosyncratic. You may feel the story ends at a different place than I do—as I did with the movie Lady Bird. You may be right; I may be right; we may both be right; there may be no right answer.

If you feel that your ending is a strong one and really speaks to you, by all means go ahead. I have already discussed the annoying phenomenon of authors who break the rules and make it work fabulously. Your ending may be in that category.

But if you’re not sure, then my Dos and Don’ts might help to hone in on an ending which will be as satisfying as the rest of your story.

Lady Bird—The Importance of Endings


Lady Bird—The Importance of Endings

Endings can make or break stories.

Lady Bird is the 2017 directorial debut of Greta Gerwig. The movie is an amazing mix of humor and gut-wrenching conflict between a mother and her teenage daughter. It is a remarkable tour de force when, from the beginning scene to the ending one, the director can make us laugh or cry, seemingly at will. The critics felt it was almost perfect, giving it a 99% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Audiences were also enthusiastic with a 79%.

Although differences between critics and viewers are not unheard of, 20% is still a big chunk of change. Why are the critics are saying, ‘omg, to die for’, and viewers are saying, ‘yeah, very good’? I have a theory about why this happened.

Endings can make or break a piece

I want to emphasize that this is a movie well worth seeing. It is a triumph of acting and direction. But I have to say, I think the ending was in the wrong place.

Near the close of the movie, her parents drive Lady Bird (played by Saoirse Ronan) to the airport so she can return to university. Her mother is not talking to her and it makes for an uncomfortable ride. She drops them off at the curb without saying good-bye, and drives away, presumably to find parking. However, it becomes clear that the mother (played by Laurie Metcalf) is distressed by the leaving. She turns the car around so she can run to the gate. But Lady Bird has already boarded.  

This is where I think the movie should have ended.

Instead, it goes on for a while longer. The last scene is Lady Bird calling home to tell her mother she loves her.

Why does this matter?

Well, the actual ending left me flat. All this tortured drama and all we get is a voice-mail message? The strength of the ending did not match the strength of the material leading up to it.

The problem with weak endings is that it can, as I think it did with this movie, leave the viewer with an unsatisfied feeling. They can change the perception of the piece from omg, to die for—which the movie largely deserves—to okay, nice movie. Because it was not a strong ending, the whole thing seems to drop in value. I think this is what audiences picked up although perhaps not at a conscious level.

Admittedly, there is a problem with where I think the movie should have ended. The traditional story arc assumes that the main character changes or moves forward in her understanding of life. In my suggestion, it would be the mother and not Lady Bird who has that epiphany.

But in the actual ending, Lady Bird’s life-changing realization is not as well-portrayed or as riveting as her mother’s. And leaving a voice-mail saying she loved her mother is without the power of her mother’s change.

As I have mentioned in other posts, the reader/viewer has certain expectations of a story of which they may be unaware. Because it is not a reader’s job to analyze the writing but simply to enjoy it, the disappointment of these assumptions can be expressed as ‘yeah, good movie’ rather than ‘yeah, fabulous movie’ which is what it actually deserved.

So, how can you be alert to the need for an ending to your story which is satisfying and at the same level of intensity as the rest of your piece? Next post.