Know your plot from your back-story

by limebirdsally

In some aspects of life the only way to learn is by making your own mistakes. Other times, you can just as easily learn from someone else’s! I think writing is a good example of the latter. I like to write brief reviews for books as soon as I finish reading them, really thinking about what did and didn’t work for me as a reader.

Arise Smug Critic: May all who surround you bask in the glow of your intelligent insight.

A few days ago I finished a YA paranormal book, which was written in an engaging manner with good use of pace and end of chapter page turners to keep me intrigued. The writer had created an exciting world and this really should have been a great book…sadly it felt as if it was still an early draft for me. Problems with characterisations aside, the main issue was the writer spent the first three quarters of the book with characters who knew exactly what was going on deliberately holding information back from the protagonist, with no clear rationale for doing so. There was no sense of a developing plot, just a progressive reveal of static information, with details held back purely to keep the protagonist, and by extension the reader, in suspense.

The crux of the problem wasย there was no valid reason why one of the characters couldn’t have just sat the protagonist down at the start of the book and explained everything to her. Of course that would have been boring to read and the writer made sure to weave this progressive reveal of information into pieces of action, but it didn’t change the fact that for 75% of the book the intrigue was based on the protagonist trying to get the other characters to explain her back-story rather than bringing a developing story to life.

Smug Critic was feeling particularly superior at this point – ha ha, what a wally, not even giving the reader a palpable plot until practically the end of the book!

Then it occurred to me:

Er, you know those doubts you’ve been having about the book you’re working on – you know, those doubts how despite all the action and core intrigue there’s something not quite working with the book?

[Sense of trepidation] Yes.

You know what I mean – how the protagonist is having to work out the truth about her paranormal world because the characters who know what’s going on can’t tell her? That’s so frustrating, isn’t it, but actually despite the rules they could just tell her the truth, then she wouldn’t do that thing that causes all the drama that comes later in the book?

[Small voice] Yes.

You’ve only gone and written a book based on back-story rather than plot, you wally!

It might seem like the most obvious thing in the world, but having done it myself and more importantly, having seen someone else do it, I’ve realised just how easy it is. I was so proud of myself, creating all this intrigue and action because the protagonist didn’t know what was going on. But the reality is the bizarre events around my protagonist are going to happen whether she knows the truth or not; and whether another character explains it all to her or she works it out for herself. Essentially I’ve mistaken her being an agent in finding out her back-story as her being an agent in her own story.

So what am I feeling now? Frustrated that I’ve spent so much time going through multiple redrafts of a book that still isn’t a book; like a more apt title for this post would be, ‘know your arse from your elbow’; but also huge relief that I’ve finally identified why my book isn’t working. It might sound completely ridiculous that I didn’t pick up on this before, but it is honestly an easy mistake to make, and maybe even for the reader to miss if they’re not really breaking down what isn’t making them love a book rather than just quite like it. Perhaps also a rethink on my opening gambit that writing is one of those areas where you can just as easily learn by someone else’s mistakes!

Is it just me or is smug critic not looking quite so smug anymore? (Lower case demotion intended!)


29 Responses to “Know your plot from your back-story”

  1. Oh gosh Sally, this seriously made me laugh! I hate that feeling where you’re all smug and like ‘ha, you’re wrong’ and then realise either you’ve been doing the same thing, or they were actually right in the first place.

    Well, at least you know where you want to change your novel, so at least some positive came out of it! (and you realised this before you published it!)

  2. Hey Sally,

    It is both an empowering and debilitating day when we realize what we’re doing wrong with our novels. That was one of my problems with a novel I wrote, except that the backstory was only known by a character whose POV the reader didn’t have. So, even though all the mysterious events couldn’t have been explained by the protag anyway, the “mysterious” plot events were not only confusing, they seemed pointless.

    Take heart in the fact that you have “seen the light”. And now you can make some decisions about how to rewrite.

    Good luck.

  3. Well, I guess the good news is that you found your mistake. Stephen King does say that the best writers read a lot (I always do everything Stephen King tells me to), hehehe. Good luck with your rewrite!

    • Thank you! My next step is to think about what really worked when I read other people’s books and try to learn from that. It’s always so much easier to pick out the bad aspects of a book!

  4. Great post Sally.

    I always think of back story as the prequel. We watched (and enjoyed) “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” ten years before “Butch and Sundance: The Early Days” was made. We loved “Star Wars” when it was still called “Star Wars” not the title it was given 4 years later “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope”.

    If we can enjoy something without having seen (or read) the prequel, then the storytelling is effective. If we need to see the prequel, or to know the back story, to understand what is going on, then there is something wrong.

    I suppose, by definition, films that were followed by prequels were effective, or they would have sunk without a trace. So we can learn from how they use back story. We can drop in comments such where Princess Leia says in her message to Obi-Wan “Years ago, you served my father in the Clone Wars” and they add depth. The information is recognised by the characters as significant, but we don’t really need to know anything else about it all. (It was only 25 years later that “Episode II: Attack of the Clones” was released and all was explained.)

    So, write your novel, keep a prequel in mind, but don’t write it until the first one has made you rich ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • Ha-ha, rich, pah!

      The prequel is a really good way of thinking about it and actually also thinking about your book as a film, particularly for YA. It can be easy to thinking writing gives you license to waffle, but it really shouldn’t!

      I think Jim Butcher deals with Harry Dresden’s back-story in his series brilliantly. You get the sense that there might have been a book written before the first one, but he just incorporates what you need to know about the character as he goes along and you find you’ve got a good understanding of what happened before that point without having to sit through a long explanation of it.

      Have a great weekend!

  5. So interesting. I have a similar problem with a story I want to tell. It’s timeslip and I am struggling with why the ‘historical’ strand is only being revealed slowly (not to mention the technicalities of that – there are only so many ways the historical protagonist could ‘hide’ stuff to be found 100 years later). This post has made me realise that I must answer these questions, not just let them niggle away in some dusty corner of what passes for my brain … Cathy x

    • Hoorah, I’m so glad someone can learn from my mistakes! I’m terrible for just telling myself I’ll deal with a potential plot issue later on in the book when I get to it as if it’s going to magically resolve itself. Good luck ironing it all out!

  6. “Essentially Iโ€™ve mistaken her being an agent in finding out her back-story as her being an agent in her own story.”

    I think this is one of the hardest issues to face when writing a novel. A lot of times we don’t give characters agency over their actions and they get shuffled along in the plot. It’s tough to come to that realization about your story, but it’s GREAT to realize it now and be able to fix it before a reviewer readers your book and finds the same problem.

    Also, hilarious post. I love the smug critic voice!

    • Thank you!

      I can’t believe I’ve only realised this now, but it’s definitely something I’m now going to be very conscious of in future. One day I’ll learn to actually identify the problem before I’ve written the full novel!

  7. I think it’s easy to get backstory mixed up with plot. Often because, as writers, we like the backstory we write. For myself, I’ve probably taken out enough backstory to write another novel, but if it doesn’t make the plot move forward you need to remove it (no matter how much we like it).

    • Definitely. It’s like Dennis says in his comment, essentially it’s like incorporating a prequel into the main film. Perhaps you could use your backstory in another novel, but if not, being brutal is the only way forward. Thank you for calling by!

  8. Fabulous post, Sally, and something I have been guilty of myself and continue to keep an eye out for. That said, take it as an achievement that you can figure that out in your own book. Setting aside entirely the number of drafts et al it took you to get there, I’ve run into plenty of people who can be faced with that mirror and STILL not see the problem. You also reminded me that no one is more critical of a book and it’s workings than another writer. ๐Ÿ™‚ Also keep in mind, the first step to solving a problem is identifying it.

    • Thank you. Ha-ha, oh yes I’m great at identifying what the problem was with my books after I’ve written them.

      It’s definitely easier to accept something if you’ve worked it out for yourself, but critique partners, writing groups etc. are all there to hold up that mirror. It makes me laugh when limebird Kate talks about Liz from her writing group, but at the same time someone who won’t let anything pass is really going to make you think about what you’re doing.

      Hope the Feb challenge is back on track!

  9. Good luck with your re-write. ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. This is such an insightful post. This has been something I’ve been struggling with recently in my own original writing, so it was nice to find this article waiting for me in my mailbox.

  11. Sally, forgive me for being a little ‘anal’ but that quote, ” the only way to learn is by making your own mistakes” is not correct. The correct quotation is, ” the only way to learn is by making your own mistokes!” Nice post, by the way.

  12. You’ve really made me think about my book now. I need to take a step back and view it big picture style. Thank you ๐Ÿ™‚

    • That’s great, hopefully this will at least get you thinking. I find it helps when you imagine how you’d critique it if it was written by someone else (someone you don’t particularly like!) – it’s always easier to see mistakes when they’re made by someone else. Good luck!

  13. I’m glad you worked out the problems ๐Ÿ™‚


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