So much to say, so little to say . . .

May 30, 2008

So it’s the weekend again. Thank goodness. It’s been a really long, really arduous week and all I feel like doing is stretching out on a reclining chair and slurping a frappuccino, loaded with an extraordinary number of calories. Which, on top of last week’s blog (oh, and various previous references to cake . . . ), may make you even more convinced that I am obsessed with guzzling. Er, you have a problem with that?
There’s been a lot going on this week and tons I’d love to tell you about. For a start there’s ………………… And then of course there’s ……………………….. Hah! And I’m desperate to tell you about …………………….. But you know what? Most of what I’ve been doing this week I’m not Ready to Reveal. I’m afraid I’m not one to splurge until just the right moment, plus I take a kind of Hippocratic Oath towards my clients. Well, don’t you agree it would be ghastly to find your name and business out there in the ether before you knew about stuff yourself?

So having thought about it overnight, and recharged my batteries (with apologies to those who read a very truncated version of this post yesterday!), I’m going to dig up a thorny literary topic that is relevant to almost every debut novel I come across. The issue of Back Story, Present Story, and Future Story. Now, Back Story is something you’ll have heard of before – the other Stories I’ve just invented to clarify the importance of the entire shape of, well, the story. If you can get your head around this, you’ll find it so much easier to create really convincing characters who (as we editors say) ‘leap off the page’.

The thing is, your characters don’t only exist within the confines of the obvious, immediate story you are telling. You have to understand deeply – and convey to us, your readers – that, in fact, your characters had lives long before the first page of your novel. They had lives in which they grew, developed, loved, lost, experienced joy and sorrow . . . all of which is compacted into that character whom we meet in the opening pages of your story. Many events, possibly long in the past, possibly just recently, entangled the lives of your characters and brought them together as your story opens. They didn’t just spring into being on Page 1 – they were deeply formed before we ever met them. It’s just that now – as your novel opens – the spotlight has swung on to their world and illuminated them into print. At the end of the story the spotlight will swing away once more, leaving them beyond us, in darkness. And yet we have to believe they are still out there – and that we can imagine what they will be doing, where they will be headed, because of the story you revealed and constructed under that spotlight and long before. After all, if we really know your characters, we’re also likely to know what kinds of decisions and choices they might make in the future.

In practical terms all this means you must have a really strong and thoroughly worked-out grasp of those characters and all the events and dynamics that brought them to your Page 1. This is your Back Story. You will need to reason out the logic of many situations, understand the personalities, deconstruct and reconstruct a whole world (especially if you are writing fantasy or anything supernatural). Everything in your Front Story – the action that takes place within the pages of your novel – depends on a successfully constructed Back Story.

You need to know where you are headed long before you ever start writing. You need a literary road map that will take you from A-Z – the Z being a strong and clear conclusion, that will make sense of all that has happened before. In many cases that ending will leave you with a clue to what the Future Story of those characters might be; what may happen to them after the book is closed or the Kindle is powered down (yes, I am rapidly becoming a big fan of the Amazon Kindle – invaluable for we ‘professional readers’ who have to gobble up print at insane speeds and don’t have enough bookcases). I’m not talking about a sequel (though if you are intending to write one then you need an even clearer set of navigation points) – I’m talking about leaving your readers with a deep grasp of the reality of your characters.

What you cannot do is invent your characters and their lives as you go along. I’m not saying you can’t add bits and pieces and a lot of colour – I’m saying that broadly you need to know where they’ve come from and where they’re headed to.

Grasp your back story, imagine the spotlight swinging on to the stage of your characters’ lives and then away again – and I think you’ll find it very, very much easier to write your Front Story.

Give it a shot! Cheers and wishing you a happy weekend.