Thursday, 14 May 2015

The novel before the novel

Backstory is a critical part of novel writing. The clearest dictionary definition I've read was in Jan Baynham's blogpost on the subject, Backstory. What is it?, in which she defines backstory as:
 "The experiences of a character or the circumstances of an event that occur before the action or narrative." 

Therefore, what's gone before the book begins helps define the characters who the reader will meet in the story, as well as providing the context in which those characters appear at the start of the novel.

The accepted advice is to avoid dropping backstory into the narrative in chunks which slow down the story. It's this consideration which is the subject of Jan's post.

As an author of mysteries, however, my use of backstory is as a critical and considerable part of my planning process. Famously, crime writer Minette Walters said she never plans her novels but just sits down and writes, remarking it would be boring to know in advance what happens in the end (though in an interview with Shots Magazine, she does admit to spending time building her characters).

Unlike Ms Walters, when I set out to write a novel, I do have to know what secret will be exposed in the story before I begin (though I have been know to change my perpetrator during the writing process). In fact, I need to actually plot the backstory in some detail before I'm able to start plotting the novel itself.

Through this plotted backstory, I explore the motivation of my characters and gauge an insight into those characters' reactions to the secret being revealed, which in turn helps me decide on the sequence of events for the novel I'm about to write. This pre-plot also acts as a 'cross-check' reference to ensure that what happens in the novel is a logical and credible continuum of what's happened in the past.

So by the time I've worked all that out, rather than ending up with a simple backstory, I've pretty much got the plot of a whole novel - a novel which never gets written!

While I was writing my first novel, Blood-Tied, I sought advice from author, Margaret James. After she'd read the synopsis and the first few chapters, she said she was intrigued by my protagonist Esme Quentin's backstory and asked whether I'd considered writing the pre-quel to Blood-Tied instead. "But you probably don't want to do that," she (quite rightly) surmised!

Later, as the novel progressed and backstories of other aspects of the novel were revealed, my husband pointed out that these too served as separate plots in their own right, even suggesting that I could use one to write another, completely different, novel. "That's no good," I protested. "It would mean that anyone who read that novel, would already know the secret behind what happens in Blood-Tied!" Besides, it occurs to me now, I'd have to write a backstory for the backstory and I could end up disappearing up my own... well, you know what I mean.

Does this happen to writers whose plots emerge from a series of linear events, I wonder? But then, no character operates in a vacuum, they all need backstory - it makes them who they are, so even if the backstory exists in the author's subconscious, it will still influence the plot. As someone once said, we are all products of our own history. (I think they were the words of a genealogist which, given the subject matter of my mysteries, I find particularly relevant!)

But I don't think I'm likely to find any time soon that I can do away with my double-plot approach to writing. That's OK - I enjoy doing it. It's just that it takes such a long time!

So, writers reading this, how much backstory to you write beforehand? Could it be the bones of a different novel? Have you ever written a backstory and then decided it would make a better novel than the one you were planning? Or do you "sail by the seat of your pants" and rely on your subconscious backstory oozing its way to the fore as you write? I'd love to hear your thoughts.


  1. Thank you for the mention and link to my blog post, Wendy. I'm still no nearer to solving the problem of writing too much back-story rather than 'drip-feeding' it in but at least I am more aware of it now. A great post where you make some very interesting points.

    1. I suppose one advantage of writing a mystery is being able to be... well... mysterious! I do have a tendency to worry about revealing too much too early, so I have to be careful I'm not too obtuse! Having said all that, though, I still have to find ways to drip-feed information from the 'normal' backstory (rather than the plotted version) and, as you say Jan, it's something we writers have to be aware of. A tip I read once was to ask yourself - what does the reader need to know NOW, at this very moment, in order to understand/enjoy the story and what don't they need. I found that really helpful. Good luck with the writing and thanks for dropping by and adding your comment! :-)

  2. You make a good point, Wendy - it's a matter of what the reader needs to know now - but whereas you put only the 'now' in capitals, I'd put 'needs' in caps too. Personally, I think that the best back story is found in the occasional details or remarks that are dropped into the book. I find that far more effective than swathes of back story - more readable too. I hate it when an author launches into a long back story. To me, that seems like self-indulgence.

    I love your idea about the prequel spawning a prequel spawning a prequel. Now that's an intriguing idea - a series that goes backwards in time instead of forwards!

    1. Yes, good point, Susanna. 'Needs' is as vital as 'now'. I do agree about swathes of backstory, I don't want to be screaming "Oh, get on with it!" I want to know what happens next.
      As a writer reading, I'm always on the lookout for clever or interesting ways authors use to slip their need-to-know information into the narrative. Seamless is definitely best and by default the one which you can miss because it's so good!
      Thanks for dropping in and adding your thoughts. Much appreciated.

    2. As well as not liking swathes of back story, I don't like swathes of research on show. Dropping details/information/knowledge seamlessly into the narrative is a real skill.

    3. So true, Susanna. It can be all too easy to get over excited about everything we learn during the process and become overwhelmed with what to put in and what to leave out! (Sorry about the delay in publishing your extra comment, Susanna - not sure where it disappeared to!)

  3. What a great post Wendy - back story is something I have struggled with as I am no doubt guilty of dumping far too much into my first book but I think that is a common situation with first novels - having said that I've also been contacted by some readers who have wanted to know more! So you just can't please everyone anyway. I do sail by the seat of my pants but although I don't write it all down before I start on the main work I know exactly who my character is and what they have been through - I just have to learn not to tell everybody everything!!

    1. My potential hazard is wanting to include all the fascinating things I've learnt during the background reading process! But in the end, only the things that naturally and seamlessly fit in can be used or the novel won't flow properly and be clunky. I guess that's what first drafts are for - to get it out of my system! By then it's much easier to cut.