For most of last year I worked on a structural edit of my novel Monkey See, based on some very detailed and insightful feedback from an agent (who I have not yet signed a contract with, so must remain nameless). Most of the feedback centred around back-story – or lack thereof.
What is back-story? It is anything that happens before the present moment in which a scene takes place. Back-story might go back a day, a week, or a hundred years or more, depending on the kind of book you’re writing.
Natasha Lester recently wrote a useful piece on back-story explaining that too much back-story is a common mistake for writers, slowing down the narrative and affecting the reader’s immersion. I made the opposite mistake: not enough back-story, which made some of my characters’ actions and decisions hard for a reader to understand.
For example, when the novel opens, one of my key characters, Danior, is a cocaine addict, and in the service of his habit, does some pretty lowdown stuff, like pawning his best friend Chacho’s ukulele, which is one of his most prized possessions. (Did I mention Chacho is a monkey? Yes, a ukulele-playing monkey. He is a dude).
It can be hard for a reader to empathise with a character betraying a friend, and hard to understand why the friend would put up with it, without knowing the bigger picture. That’s where back-story comes in. I knew that Danior and Chacho had survived a pandemic in which Danior had lost everyone he loved. But writing the back-story involved digging much deeper into this. How did Danior and Chacho meet? What was the nature of their connection? (clue: it involves freaky neurological experiments). What exactly was the plague? How was it transmitted? What important people did Danior lose to the plague? How did my characters survive, when so many died?
Answering these questions involved truckloads of research. I seem to remember having a notion that I don’t like research but I’ve realised this is only true if it involves using a microfiche. As long as I can worship at the altar of Wikipedia, I actually like research a lot. The image above is some of the fascinating things I looked up, a few of which strained my not-very-science-y brain.
But, research is only one part of building a back story. Next I had to work out which pieces of research were most relevant for character and plot development and for world building.
The hardest element of the structural edit was packing so much new information into my novel without slowing down the plot too much. The trick to this is to break your back-story into the smallest possible elements and scatter them through the novel as widely as you can, giving the reader only as much information as they need in any given scene. The information which is essential for them to know has to hide on the page, dropped casually into conversation or a scene’s exposition, so they don’t even notice it’s there. Let me tell you, this is easier said than done. After many attempts I still ended up with some big chunks of back-story which I couldn’t break down any further. I sent it back to the agent hoping they might have some ideas on this.
They sure did! Their idea was that I should make the back-story into an entire new book, which would be a prequel to the book I had written. Whoa! This came as something of a shock as there I was thinking I had a book which was almost ready to make its way into the world. And your first instinct when you have only just finished a book is, Please no, don’t make me write another book. After a stiff drink and a lie down, I reflected on some words I had just read in an interview with Sue Monk Kidd:
The job of the writer is to serve her work.
I knew that the best way to serve this work was to take the advice of the agents and give the back-story the space it needed: an entire book of its own. So that’s what I’m working on now. I’ll tell you about that process in my next instalment.
14 thoughts on “Monkey See: Journey to a Book (Part 3) – Structural Edit & Back-Story”
I guess the good thing, Annabel, is that you’ve got substantial slabs of the new book done already (to an extent).
That’s absolutely true, Mike. Of course I still have to write the words but I’ve done all the research and have a plot outline, so I’m much further ahead than I would be when I normally begin a new book.
I’m doing this exact same thing with one of my novels in progress and I’m finding it so difficult to know how much back story is overdoing it and where it needs to be. It’s super hard to do after the plot arc is already in place. This post helped a lot, thanks for sharing.
Yes, it’s a really tricky balance. In hindsight, I think it’s easier to write too much and have to cut it, than to write not enough and have to add it. Having said that, every book and writer is different so that might not be true for you.
Love that quote, and, what’s more, I believe it pays off—both reader and writer end up satisfied. I’m intrigued by the plot of your new story, too, as well as by who the agent is! (You’ll have to whisper it to me …)
Usually when I’m writing I don’t think consciously about whether what I’m writing is present or back story – it grows intuitively, so i don’t think that much about the reader. But with this edit it became really important to think about what the reader needed to know and when, so i was wearing a very different ‘hat’. I think you’re right about both the reader and writer ending up satisfied.
She sounds like a wonderful agent. Thank you for this very helpful post, too. Looking forward to reading your new book 🙂
They are amazing – they have such a good understanding of my book and see things I can’t always see myself.
This is interesting Annabel, and very timely, because in my last review I commented on the succinct backstories. I thought they worked perfectly to refund out what was quite an ensemble cast. The book was an Aussie classic, Mena Calthorpe’s The dyehouse (published by text).
I think it depends very much on the book. Sometimes you feel like you hardly need any back story. Other times the back stories are so interesting that you don’t mind how long they are or if they draw you away from the main story temporarily. It also depends how the back story is used – if a book covers many years then very little back story should be needed because all the key events will be covered in the main plot. But if a story is a slice of time, you might need to know some of the characters’ back stories. In my first two novels all the back story was in the main story. In The Ark I gave practically no back story because it was an ensemble cast, which sounds similar to your story. In a book like Ann patchett’s Bel Canto there are some wonderful pieces of back story, some of which are not essential to the plot but are wonderful in themselves.
And the best part is that the world gets two new Annabel Smith books instead of one! My favourite (new for me) writing term is world building.
Thanks Katie – two – and then later, another two!