Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Challenge of Writing Backstory

A Surprising Challenge

I wrote last week about some of the difficulties I'm having with my new book, contrasting it with the relative ease with which I wrote Amelia's Children. Though both books are paranormal, Amelia's Children dealt with psychic abilities whereas my current work in progress has more to do with magic. I was surprised to find just how complex a thing magic is compared with the simplicity of prophetic dreams and telepathy. But that isn't the only surprise this new book has given me.

The backstory is another aspect of my current book that is giving me fits at the moment. I'm even more surprised by this than I was by the difficulty of writing about magic. After all, Amelia's Children is a murder mystery. What is a murder mystery? At its heart it is basically the primary character's attempt to find out the backstory. Really, mysteries are all about backstory, so why was Amelia's Children so much easier to write than my new book?

The Nature of a Murder Mystery

Yes, murder mysteries revolve around a backstory, but it is often a rather simple one. To the reader it doesn't seem simple because, if the story is told well, the clues are doled out so gradually that the book seems to get more and more complex as it goes along. But that is not how it seems to the writer. While the entirety of the backstory may not be completely planned out when pen is first set to page, nevertheless the writer generally has a pretty good idea of what happened before beginning to write the book. And if the book is a straightforward mystery it all goes back to one event. A murder, in my case. So once I knew who died, who killed her, why she was killed, and how she was killed, the rest was just sprinkling in details to make things more interesting. Those details could be anything I wanted them to be, and it was fun coming up with things to throw into the story.

When the Backstory Is More Complex

The book I am writing now is not a murder mystery. Discovering the backstory is not the main objective, but the backstory is there, nonetheless. And it's a complicated one. There is one major event that occurred five years prior to the current action that binds the main characters together and gives them their motivation for the things they do in the book, but that one event is related to a series of events that have occurred down through the years, all culminating in the new crisis that is the main problem of the story. Just like with a murder mystery, I have to know what happened, why it happened, how it happened, and who was involved. But unlike Amelia's Children, this does not just apply to one event. It applies to multiple events involving multiple characters. And to top it all off each one of these events has to do with magic, meaning that everything that happened in the backstory has to obey the rules I mentioned in last week's post. Yeesh!

Consistency Is Our Friend

Because the plot is so complex, I most certainly did not have all of it planned out when I began writing the book. What that means is that once the first draft is finished I'm going to have to go back and rewrite whole sections to make sure they line up with decisions I made in later chapters about what happened in the past. I almost feel like I need to write a whole separate book just about the timeline and the magic and how it works so that I can have an easy reference when I'm writing the story itself. Right now I'm trying to hold all of it in my mind, with the help of a collection of Post-it notes cluttering up my desk, but I'm becoming overwhelmed. After all, the mind forgets things and Post-it notes can get lost or buried or even thrown away.

Seeing the Light

I think I've finally reached the point where most of the backstory is nailed down. I also have a pretty good idea of what most of the magical rules are, so abiding by them should become easier from here on. So as long as I remember where I put those darn Post-its I should be okay. Maybe. Wish me luck!

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