You know, the thing where you get a decent way into a first draft, then you suddenly realise that everything has so much backstory it could probably fill an entire continent. All these long chains of events that happened which explain some of the reasons why Main Character With Mysterious Past is the way they are and why Huge Big Plot Catalyst Thing has to happen, and how this random thing links with this other random thing which links with this other thing which is actually really essential to everything.
A story, like a house, might seem big when you first go there, but it isn't really. There's only so much space. People don't want to read stuff that's crammed with every little thing that ever happened, because it's like walking through one of those scary houses where no one ever throws anything away. You know, for when the aliens come.
It actually reminds me a lot of housekeeping, because whatever I do, there’s always this endless build up of stuff in my flat. It’s quiet, gradual but constant, like erosion but in the opposite direction. My book collection grows way too fast, every piece of paper in the whole entire universe seems to be magnetically attracted to the desk, and then there's all the weird stuff, cords for charging the camera, washing racks, Star Wars DVDs, strange singing dolls, stray socks. And it's all there, some essential, some not, all these bits and pieces that connect a life together. I try and organise it as best I can, but there's never a definitive victory.
There are those houses in magazines, all beautifully decorated and flawless, and I sometimes wonder if the reason for that is because they've shoved everything in a cupboard. But the cupboard is never in the pictures, because for all intents and purposes a cupboard like that should not exist. People should not have backstory, dammit, or stuff. Life should be straightforward and beautiful. There should not be muddle everywhere. The world should be a tidy place.
Or should it?
Don’t get me wrong, I love those magazine homes, but I can never actually believe that anyone lives in them. Because most of us live in the world and mess things up slightly as we do so, and then we have to try the best we can to fix it so things can be liveable. And on the bad days, when there is a massive pile of stuff on the floor, to navigate when things aren't quite as liveable as they should be. And amongst the mess there's always stuff that connects directly with who we are and where we've been and where we might be going.
Likewise, I love stories about people with backstory so strong that it's almost spilling out of them at every moment. I like characters with history, navigating all the clutter that their past has made, with chains of events that connect with each other which start way back before the story actually starts.
It's hard, trying to get all the essential bits in the right place, the things which tie in with other things, the stuff that lights up other stuff and makes it make sense. And also to get it all in just the right amount. Enough so that there's the presence of people and their world and a sense of wholeness, but not so much that the mystery disappears. So it gets complicated. Some of it slides in quietly, into description, into conversations. And there are flashbacks. I love flashbacks, but they’re big and gawky and have to sit comfortably with all the present day stuff around them so that the story doesn’t get too disjointed. And then there's all the stuff which has to vanish, because it turns out it wasn’t needed after all. But it doesn’t always completely go. It sometimes leaves a kind of residue, a sense of mystery, of fascinating things the author could tell but is witholding instead. And that can be the best thing of all. Dealing with mess well is all about knowing what to throw away.
I think it’s time we give up on thinking that all mess is unhealthy. Mess can be beautiful. It’s just a matter of finding the right place for it.