Five minutes after Megan drove away in Felix’s mother’s car, leaving her shattered friends behind in the pool house, she knew she’d made a dreadful mistake. On a blind bend, she stopped, oblivious to the danger of oncoming traffic. She was actually contemplating turning around, driving back to Talitha’s house and telling them no, she wouldn’t do it, wouldn’t sacrifice her entire life for the five of them. They would have to come up with another plan. She’d even gone so far as executing the first manoeuvre in the three-point turn when she thought of something. Yes, that might work…
The words above will never appear in any published version of The Pact; it’s highly unlikely anyone but me will ever see the rest of the chapter. Like several other ‘secret’ scenes, it has been consigned to the area of my filing system that I call ‘backstage.’ Because the published novel, to coin a phrase, is but the tip of the iceberg.
Backstage chapters serve many purposes, alternative endings being but one example. I can’t always see how to draw everything together at the end of a story: this could work? maybe that would be better? And so, like Boris Johnson (allegedly) mulling over the advantages and otherwise of Brexit, I write both scenarios and see which sits most comfortably. They’re also great for developing character. I hate ‘character bling’, that flurry of idiosyncratic detail flung at the reader to give the illusion of depth, but a backstage chapter can be filled with bling. Knowing characters so much better, if only in secret, feeds into the finished work, in a subtle, more convincing manner.
By far the most useful purpose, though, of a backstage chapter, is in solving plot problems. In the latter part of The Pact, the five friends realise they have to track down the letter (the actual pact) that Megan made them sign at the start of the story. Trouble was, I didn’t have a clue where it was. To find it, I had to go right back, to trace Megan’s movements on that fateful night. What happened after she drove away in Felix’s mum’s car? Given her inevitable state of shock, how could she possibly devise a hiding place that would remain sound for two decades? I had no choice but to write the chapter; I had to solve the problems I’d created for myself.
Do backstage chapters need to be written, or can they exist only as vague, shadowy outlines in the author’s head? Well, it depends. My current work in progress (Lacey Flint book 5) has an ending that requires drawing together lots of disparate threads. In my head alone, I couldn’t figure out which characters to involve, how the various steps could unfold, which would be the driving force behind ‘the plan’. I had no choice but to write the chapter in some detail. And then file it backstage.
Perhaps the best, most rewarding aspect of the backstage chapters, though, is when they spark new creative material. Up till now, these have been short stories: Lacey’s Wedding sprang from Joesbury’s surprise proposal at the end of Here Be Dragons. My Craftmen trilogy threw up so many questions: What frightened Father Edward so much in the church one night? The answer is to be found in the ghost story, All Soul’s Eve; whilst the story of the Craftsman’s first three victims is told in Alive! I even have an idea for a full-length novel, springing from draft backstage chapters in the Lacey Flint series.
To those new to the business of writing, spending time on chapters that will never see the light of day feels counter intuitive; especially when the necessary words can feel so elusive. But the richest, most satisfying novels are built on extensive foundations. Fingers crossed The Pact proves to be one of them.