A hero guns down a villain.
In a film, this moment would take seconds (depending on the director’s love of dramatic slow motion effects). Point, bang, ouch, it’s over.
But behind the scenes, movie buffs know that a lot of planning went into that single moment: script writing, storyboarding, sound design and perhaps some music, lighting, experimenting with different camera angles, and even costume choices.
No doubt some of these things are explained in the director’s commentary or DVD extras – the home release of Star Wars: Episode III has a particularly interesting documentary about how many man hours go into one minute of footage. But for the most part, viewers will never know how much work goes into that single gunshot.
It’s the same with writing.
The finished manuscript may be what you hand to the editor, but many writers know that there is far more behind it: character sheets, maps, plot outlines, previous drafts and alternate versions of the same scene, paragraphs that never made it and, yes, that silly version you wrote after too much coffee where the hero suddenly develops heat vision and melts the bad guy instead.
A 50,000-word novel can have thousands more words scribbled into other documents or on spare pages. They are the words behind the words.
Every writer has a different system, and might even use other methods depending on the project. None of them are right or wrong; it’s whatever works best for you. Haven’t ever made such notes before? You might not need them, but if you think you do, ask another writer how they do it.
I can only draw from my own experience. For most novel attempts, I tend to have a chapter-by-chapter outline. This may or may not go into great detail. It might be a case of “Ch14: hero chases villain to rooftop, reveals reasons for revenge, shoots him, makes cocky comment”. Or it might be as simple as “Ch5: hero buys coffee”. If I want to elaborate on who he meets there, what he says, what he does, whether or not Starbucks gets his order wrong, I can. If not, I’ll just wing it – sometimes that’s how you stumble on your best stuff.
For my time-travelling sci-fi story, I’ve had to do two chapter plans: one for the order in which events occur in the novel, and one in chronological order that explains all the jumping back and forth in time. Even then, it’s hard to work out what character is where and when – time travel is really confusing stuff, but a lot of fun too.
I even have notes under the chapter plans on all the possible endings I might have, because sometimes you just don’t know which one is right until you get there.
For my fantasy series, I’ve gone even further: I’ve set up a Wiki. Like Wikipedia, but entirely centred around my novels. Not only does this include character profiles and general lore, but even details like what tavern is on what street, and which districts of my city are next to each other.
While Tolkien bundled many of these ‘words behind his words’ into The Lord of the Rings’ appendices, I think it’s safer for my readers’ sanity that mine remain locked away in my laptop. Maybe that’s not the case for you.
The point is don’t be afraid to write words that are relevant to your novel but don’t actually add to your word count. (Don’t go too nuts – you do want to finish your story, after all)
The purpose of such notes is to make everything clear to you, so you understand your story inside and out or back to front. When you do, your writing will be inherently better and your world or story more compelling.
Rowling’s magical world feels complete because she has a complete version built in her head. It’s like a day trip to France: there’s more countryside and villages beyond the outskirts of Paris. You never see it, but you know it’s there. Just as when a hero guns down a villain, your readers will know there’s a hell of a lot more work behind it.