Travelling Back in Story to Move Forward

Back at the end of October, I was like a kid let out of school for summer. But with a firm goal to finish my novel by new semester start. (Next Tuesday.)

Ha, ha, ha!

What naivety! But, oh, how thrilling the challenge! (When I wasn’t gnashing teeth and tearing out my hair.)

An unmet challenge – as it turns out.

But… you know, it doesn’t matter. Not at all, because, though I’ve written and rewritten and deleted heaps of words over the past four months, I’ve learned so much more – about my story, about my characters, and what I’m trying to say. I’ve discovered the real journey my main character is travelling on. And how to articulate it.

Still I struggled with the beginning. I kept coming up against an invisible barrier, blocking me, yet I couldn’t see why I was blocked.

I always knew the beginning needed to be rewritten, because the initial, early draft chapters were really me writing my way into my story and characters. And even though I knew some aspects of these chapters needed to stay as crucial backstory, I struggled with how and where to begin. 

I’ve rewritten the beginning chapter three times now. Each draft not quite working – despite some deceptively good words and ideas. (It’s tricky when words seem good, to discover why they’re not working. Especially if it turns out to be a tiny but destabilising aspect.)

I had the story pinned, but could not pin down my main character. Something wasn’t gelling, and I had no idea why.

This week I set out to write a small snapshot, set a few years before the start of my story.  My intention being to travel back and show one character before he “changed”. Without intending to, within this scene, I captured the essence of my story along with the true relationship of the two main characters. I can see now why things went on to pan out the way they do, yet there is no hint in the actual words on what’s to come.

I also discovered I’d painted a crucial aspect of their older relationship wrong in my first draft beginnings.

The problem lay in my initial setup. I wrote the pair’s relationship, and stuck with it. I forgot to go back and interrogate. Sure, I returned to examine my story starting point and setting, but not my original setup of my characters’ relationship. On the surface, it works. But after writing the scene from their early years, a crucial difference jumped out at me. An expectation seeded in my main character in the original drafts, that is missing in the writing on their early years.

BRAIN FLASH “Ah! That was never supposed to be the way of it.”

This single expectation coloured the way I wrote the next few chapters. In turn, skewing attitudes and responses, and many of the characters’ ongoing outlooks and motivations.

Even before this discovery, I was set to rewrite several early chapters to change the relationship. I was gobsmacked to realise that if I’d written the early year’s piece before I wrote the rest of the novel, I’d have written it differently from the start and saved myself a lot of the work ahead of me.

But that’s what writing a novel organically is all about. Discovery! Growing a story.

I had to write the entire narrative to find out where it was going. Now it’s about going back to the beginning, with the benefit of that knowledge, and knowing truly who my characters are, to test and ensure the narrative line works from beginning to end.

So, if things aren’t working with or between your characters, try taking them back to their earlier years, particularly if they had a connection in their younger years. Let them explore a new situation at that point of their lives – or even, as I did, just their everyday world. If your characters are older, plant them in a different situation than you’re intending for them in your story. Or write them older still and see what’s happened in the intervening years and how they interact now. You might be surprised by the revelations too.

Writing a long-length work of fiction is a thrilling, frustrating, learning journey that takes lots of rewrites and rethinks, but in the end it’s about writing your way into your characters and to where they’re going. Ongoing until the novel is finished. Another lesson learned and a step forward in my writing journey too.

Love to hear if you’ve had an Ah Ha! flash of revelation in your writing. Please share by posting a comment.

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Elizabeth Jane

Great news Chris. I can’t wait to hear the details. And good to have a breakthrough just before going back to uni.

February 26, 2011 at 10:11 pm
Lorraine" alt="Lorraine">


I agree Chris, there is nothing easy about writing a novel and it grows gradually- I often ask what happens next in the middle of dead end and after drafting several options, one really grabs me- often research will help but writing an earlier time frame is a great option- often I find I’ve written part of a story years ago which will now fit into my story- that was the case with Star Jumps- that’s why every part of the writing process is never wasted!

February 27, 2011 at 9:32 am
Dale Harcombe" alt="Dale Harcombe">

Dale Harcombe

Sometimes it just takes the wrong tangent to send a novel right off track. I did that with one a while back and need to go back and pull it back here it should be. It was heading in a vastly differnt direction to what was intended.As for beginnings I always go back and write them after the end has been written on the first draft. It sems to make more sense once you know where you are headed.

February 28, 2011 at 12:47 pm
    christinemareebell" alt="christinemareebell">


    Thanks, Dale. Yes, I can see a lot of merit in your method of writing the beginning after writing the end. I’m usually a real plotter, so the organic process is new to me. (It’s turned out a lot more organic than I’d thought.) I’ve loved the journey, but I can see it also takes more rewriting when something/someone goes off track. My MC is very young to start and I wanted to allow her to grow with her decisions and story, and am pleased it seems to have pretty much worked out that way. Think I’m back on track now. Best, C.

    February 28, 2011 at 1:54 pm

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