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Marginal Notes

The Web of Writing

Two months ago, in the article on expanding your world beyond the confines of your story, a commenter on Writer Unboxed asked how much backstory she should include. I pointed out that your readers will assume that the history you're giving them will play some role in the plot. The questioner had never thought about the link between backstory and readers' expectations before. Now she is a little more aware of the web of connections between different parts of her writing.

I've written about this web in passing, while talking about genre, but it's critical enough that it deserves a column of its own. Quite simply, you cannot write well if you're not aware of how every aspect of your writing affects every other aspect of your writing.

This awareness doesn't develop overnight. Most writers get into writing because they fall in love with one particular element of storytelling - getting to know an intriguing character, the joy of creating dialogue, the thrill of the slow ramp up to the denouement. When you start out, you aren't yet aware of all the different moving parts that make up a novel - how you need to use beats to anchor characters in a physical location, say, or make sure each character's dialogue has a distinctive vocabulary and cadence.

Even when you start to learn these things - reading books of writing advice or columns like this one - it's easy to overlook the connections between the various bits of your writing. Those of us who write about writing tend to delve deep into one aspect of writing at a time. If you read enough advice like this, you couldn't be blamed for thinking a novel is made up of discrete parts that you can just fasten together, tab A into slot B. If what you're learning is something you've never thought of before, it's easy to get so excited about it that it becomes the solution to all of your writing problems. When all you've got is microtension, everything looks like a scene that drags.

This lack of awareness of how everything works together leads many writers to try to write by the rules. After all, if you see your story as a machine with discrete parts, all of which perform a limited function, then it's easy to think you can just follow the instruction manual when you put it all together. The truth is a lot sloppier. A novel is an ecosystem, where every living thing in it connects to every other one with feedback loops that we might not fully understand.

To take advantage of the web of connections, you need to develop a number of skills. First, you need to habitually pay attention to the web -- to be aware that it is there. Adding a subplot involving a minor character, for instance, gives you an opportunity to vary your pace a bit, giving readers an occasional break from the main plot. If you cut away to the subplot at strategic moments, you can also increase your tension as readers are eager to get back to the main plot. The subplot could fill out more about the minor character's relationship to the major characters, which would affect how they react to one another when they're together in a scene, which could also influence the main character's attitude toward the minor character.

Even adding a single line of interior monologue changes the pace of the scene, makes readers more aware of your viewpoint character's reactions, can make the character seem more contemplative, or can reveal information other characters don't know. If your character is more contemplative, that will affect how they react in other scenes, which can affect action down the line. If you reveal information that the other characters don't know, then, yes, you can increase the microtension as readers wait for the other characters to catch up.

You need to develop the skill of keeping several different things in your head at once. As you write, and especially as you revise, you need to be at least tangentially aware of the big picture - what's happening in your characters' heads, what's going on behind the scenes, what will happen in the next chapter, what your readers will think of the current scene. This is why rewriting is so critical - later scenes reach back and affect how you handle earlier ones. I find that, as I work through a client's manuscript a second time, I see far more details about these connections than I did on the first reading. The same is true for the writer. In order to really grasp the interconnections between all the elements of your story, you need the intimacy that only several passes through the manuscript can bring.

If all of this sounds daunting, then relax. The ability to get all of your elements working together is not an all-or-nothing thing. It's a continuum, which means you can develop the skill over time. When you start out, you may have three or four things working well - your subplots may feed into the main plot effectively, your main character's arc might be nicely paced, your denouement might come as a surprise. And you'll have a decent book. As you develop this skill, more and more elements of your story will work together more effectively, your fictional world will become more authentic, and your readers will find it easier to get lost in your story. And you'll have a better book.

Finally, this skein of interconnected feedback loops means there is no best way to write. You can miss opportunities. You can make inept mistakes. But there is no general rule for nurturing your unique story, your individual characters, and your world. You can only adjust the different elements of your story, watching how they hang together and alter one another, until you get a finished product that matches your vision.