Plenty of good panels at Archon, but “As You Know, Bob” was my favorite topic, and the one best-suited to a blog post. The moderator, Christine Amsden, did a fine job, and it was good to catch up a bit with Howard Andrew Jones and meet David Benem. But a panel like this can’t do much more than scratch the surface of the topic; plus it’s hard to lay any topic out clearly during a panel. Much easier in writing.
So, backstory and worldbuilding: how to get it into the story without having one character turn to another and say, “As you know, Bob, we’ve been at war with the Greys for fifty-nine years, and with their technological advantage, they’ve been beating us pretty badly …” or whatever elements of the backstory the author feels have to be delivered to the reader at that time.
Of course, first of all, sometimes those elements of the backstory do not have to be delivered to the reader at all. Howard described how he did a ton of character backstory development for one novel and then his wife and his agent both said, “You know all this history stuff is really kinda boring. Sorry.” So he took it all out, improving the story while retaining the sense of depth that comes from the author knows the backstory, even when he does not explicitly put the details into the real story. So that’s something to keep in mind.
We all agreed, or I think we all agreed, that in general it’s both possible and better to work backstory into the real story a sentence at a time, scattering in the history and so on in tiny dibs and dabs as you go. But if you can’t do that, or if you really must deliver some of the history to the reader in a chunk, here are some of the ways you can do that.
A) Pause the action and deliver the backstory. This often fails. But if you can keep the history lesson just as brief as humanly possible and if the backstory you deliver is actually no-foolin’ necessary for the reader to understand what’s going on, then this can work.
I believe the longest backstory chunks I have set into a story are about three paragraphs long. I did it in Black Dog and also in at least one of the Black Dog stories. The backstory is so important there – war with the vampires, failure of the miasma, sudden revelation of the supernatural – that had to be delivered to the reader and it had to be delivered early on. I worked really hard to cut those paragraphs just as much as possible. I remember going over and over that section, cutting it from about three full pages, snip snip snip.
Even there, where the author is cold-bloodedly setting out to explain history to the reader, it’s essential to do it from the protagonist’s point of view. This is true whether or not you’re telling the story in first or third person. If the protagonist thinks about the history of the world or about her own history, then first, there has to be a reason to think about that right then at that moment; and second, the protagonist has to react emotionally to whatever is being thought about – it has to tie into their personal history; it can’t be a flat recital of history. In The Floating Islands, when Trei is thinking about why he came to the Islands in the first place, well, obviously there is a huge emotional load to that part of the backstory. That’s the easiest kind of backstory to work into the story. When Natividad is thinking about the war with the vampires, there’s some of that, but also some less personal history that gets handed to the reader. That’s why that was more difficult.
B) Prologues. These often fail. Two main failure modes: the history textbook prologue and the battle scene prologue. Those two types account for most of the ineffective prologues out there. Several of the panelists, myself included, said firmly, “When I write a prologue, it’s a good one.” I’m sure we were all correct. But: for heaven’s sake, skip the history textbook and start the story where the story starts. And don’t embed characters in a battle until you’ve given the reader a reason to care about the characters.
Calling the history lesson “chapter one” may help get readers to read it, but won’t help get the readers engaged. When I stopped reading All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, this was why. I’m sure the story started eventually. Soooo many books, so little time, I wasn’t willing to wade through the history lesson to get to the story. And! The history lesson was not necessary. That is a great example of a situation where the author could have let the backstory emerge during the actual story. The backstory was fundamentally simple, not complicated.
One situation that poses interesting problems is when the author has a long-running series and feels, about halfway through, that if a reader jumps in at that point, the reader will be lost. No doubt it’s hard to decide whether to insert a history lesson at the front or whether to skip it. Part way through the immense Foreigner series, CJC delivers a whopping load of history via a letter or some sort of written document produced by Lord Geigi. I don’t know whether any loyal fan of the series read it, or paid attention to it. I skimmed it and thought, Well, it’s okay to do this, I guess, but wow, boring. Yet by that point, so much backstory has accumulated that if CJC had tried to work it into the story, that would also have run a serious risk of being boring, for longer. At least this way, it could be skimmed or skipped.
C) Flashbacks. These can work very well, especially if they are brief. In order to work effectively, every flashback must also tell a relevant story. One author who comes to mind here is Steven Burst, who skillfully used flashbacks to hand the reader backstory when introducing his character and world in Jhereg.
Extended flashbacks have to be relevant to the protagonist, not just the reader; and the protagonist has to have reason to think about the incident at that time. If the flashback was plainly forced into the story at that point to explain history to the reader, it’s not going to work. The interruption to the current action is going to seem like just that – an interruption.
D) Letters. In The River South, Marta Randall uses letters written 13 years ago and never read until the present day to deliver backstory and tie the first book to the second. In her hands, this is a great technique.
E) Eavesdropping. The author can explain backstory to the reader by having the protagonist overhear an argument, debate, conversation, or whatever between other characters. The other characters have to have a reason to be talking about whatever the situation comprises, but that isn’t necessarily all that difficult to achieve. In The Mountain of Kept Memory, it’s fundamental to Oressa’s character that she is sneaky and goes out of her way to eavesdrop on important conversations. I wrote her with this important aspect of her character and developed her personal history the way I did because of the initial eavedropping scene, which exists to explain the backstory to the reader.
F) As you know, Bob. The author may in fact have one character directly explain something to another character. This can actually work just fine, provided that either:
i) The character receiving the explanation is naive and needs the explanation. In that case, the naive character serves as a vehicle to carry the reader into the complex and unfamiliar world of the story. Martha Wells uses this technique beautifully in the Raksura series, where Moon knows nothing about the Raksura to begin with. She uses the same technique less noticeably when she places Rian in The Wheel of the Infinite; he is the foreigner to whom Maskelle must explain things that the reader also needs to know. For Martha Wells, all explanations serve to develop the characters as well as explain the world, which is why that works so well for her.
Andrea K Host also very explicitly carries the reader into the world of the story by use of a naive protagonist in, obviously, the Touchstone trilogy and also Starfighter Invitational. In those cases, the protagonist is essentially from our familiar, contemporary world and therefore serves especially well as this kind of vehicle to carry the reader and enable backstory explanations without infodumping those explanations.
ii) Alternately, the author could just be that skilled. I still cannot believe that Georgette Heyer held my attention for 80 minutes at the beginning of False Colors while one character explains to another what a financial pickle she’s gotten herself into. Yet somehow that was engaging to listen to, even though audiobooks are impossible to skim through lightly.
I would never try to pull that off.