Why you should write backstory you won’t use

cross-out-wordsA few years ago, I got the oddest suggestion I’d ever heard from an editor: write a few scenes between my novel’s characters that I wasn’t going to include in my final manuscript.

Say what?

I should deliberately spend time crafting scenes I was NOT going to use? How was that going to improve my book, writing scenes I wasn’t going to include in the final version?

Being the people-pleaser/non-confrontational  soul that I am, I didn’t question the editor’s wisdom, even though I thought it was nuts and a clear waste of time.  She was the editor, after all. She had to know what she was doing. So I sighed a great sigh of resignation and set to work writing scenes I wasn’t going to use in my book.

And lo! Before I even finished writing the first ‘unnecessary’ scene, I understood the point of the exercise: by creating more interactions between my characters, I was getting deeper into their heads and personalities. I was basically giving them a more complete personal history and backstory that would more accurately inform and motivate their actions on the pages of my novel. In other words, I was giving them life beyond the book, which would, in turn, make them very real within the book.

Crazy, huh?

Let me give you an example.

“This late-night conversation between Rafe and his mother doesn’t sound natural,” the editor said about a scene in my book. “Try writing another conversation between them that focuses on a different aspect of their relationship. Something from their past.”

So I did. I wrote a scene from Rafe’s high school football years, some 20 years prior to my book’s time frame. As I wrote, I imagined what this man might have been like before he matured, and how his relationship with his mother evolved. He was a headstrong teen then, and while he dutifully respected his mother, he couldn’t appreciate her wisdom at the time; that insight alone helped me revise the dialogue my editor had questioned in my book. It also changed the way I described the interaction between those two characters, and it influenced how I then changed Rafe’s interactions with his female colleague to better reflect his attitude towards women as learned from his mother.

Writing that little piece of personal history for Rafe was like shading in another part of a portrait or adding important information to a personality profile; because I knew his backstory better, I was then able to strengthen another scene in which he confronts a female assassin with conflicted respect, rather than brute force. My ‘unnecessary’ scene that I knew I wasn’t going to use actually helped me produce a more realistic hero.

What can I say? If ‘crazy’ works, I’ll take it. Especially when it improves my writing.

How about you? Have you found some crazy ways to improve what you write?

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About jandunlap

"Archangels Book I: Heaven's Gate" is Jan's new Christian suspense novel that melds cutting-edge science with faith. She is also the author of "Saved by Gracie," her best-selling humorous spiritual memoir and the Birder Murder Mystery series that follows the adventures of ace birder/high school counselor Bob White, who has a bad habit of finding bodies when he birds. When she's not playing with fictional devices, Jan is a birdwatcher, a featured speaker, and the proud mother of five children. She welcomes visitors at jandunlap.com.

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