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William Lashner's PI-Writing Blog

Rocking The Back-Story

Thursday, October 29, 2009

A mystery is pretty much all back-story. Someone ends up dead on page one and then the detective spends the rest of the book trying to figure out why. The richer the back-story, the richer the novel. We spend a lot of time plotting out the search for the truth, but it's just as important to make the back-story work. Nothing is more unsatisfying than spending time in a mystery novel trying to figure out why someone is dead and realizing, at the end, that the reason is stupid. It happens when the author is too in love with the detective to figure out something more than merely killing for love or money. Motive isn't an abstract thing, for it to breathe it has to be set in a real world. That's why it's always important to actually sit down and write out the back-story at some point.

No matter how much you outline something, it doesn't really come alive until you write it. There is something in the process of forming sentences, of penning dialogue, of creating scenes that forces the writer to create a believable world. Something that makes sense in the abstract can look really cheesy when it's written out. And something that just appears in the writing can be the key to everything.

In the book I'm working on, I start in the present, with an action scene in Vegas. But the predicate to what happens in Vegas is the back-story, a series of events that occurred in a lower middle-class suburb outside of Philadelphia, much like the suburb where I grew up, a place I refer to in the novel as "split-level hell." I had the basic premise, and I knew what I wanted to have happen, but it was still sketchy until I wrote the thing. I wasn't sure I would use it, I was considering just writing it and then keeping it in my pocket, something to inform all the stuff that would happen in the present. But still, I felt I needed to write it out, character by character, scene by scene. It came out really well, it ended up being the heart of the book, as back-story usually is, and it's going in the novel. But even if I hadn't used it, just by writing it, the section would have made everything else stronger.

Just for an example, my main character had no real family ties in his present, so I had to figure a past for him that allowed this. An only child, check. A mother who died of cancer, check. But what about the father? Two deaths was a bit much. So I started the whole section with the moment where his father walked out on his mother and him. This wasn't part of the outline I had created, but it ended up being a crucial moment for the kid, creating for him the motivation for everything that followed. Ever since his father left, the kid had been trying to recapture what he had lost, with the disastrous consequences we see in the present. What looks on the surface to be a pure money grab is, in reality, a search for paradise lost, and we all know how that turned out. It never would have happened if I didn't sit down to write the thing. It's hard, it takes time, but it's what we do.

It doesn't exist until you write it, so write it already.


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