Beef and Backstory

The great thing about developing a world in which to write stories is the fact that you can time travel. And who doesn’t like time travel?

World building is an involved process that goes beyond the creation of mere backstory to give your book beef. It’s also a sliding scale. You can develop just enough of a world if it’s the characters and plot you want to focus on, or you can go full Martin/Tolkien and delve into deep history, theology and language. Your world building can vastly eclipse the scope of your actual story, to the point where a paltry fifth of all the work you produce will even be read.

It creates depth and age, a sense of a bigger shadow lurking behind what you’re currently reading. It may only come in a sentence, or a paragraph, alluding to something that is never again elaborated on in the story, and yet your interest is piqued. You want to know more.

It’s like that when writing the back-story, too. I’ll push the history back and discover that I’m suddenly interested in a footnote that occurred a thousand years ago. And when you take the time to investigate, you’ve got an entire trilogy, or series, that’s sprung fully formed from a single sentence. You have whole millennia to play with, and to make as rich as you want. That’s why Middle Earth is so engrossing, the history of Westeros so rich. There’s so much behind the stories that it begins to feel like real history. The fantastical is removed, and you find yourself immersed, your disbelief suspended so high it’s floated off somewhere never to return, and you’re reading the history as if it’s your own.

Oftentimes, however, too much backstory can slow a story, bog it down in information. A little goes a long way, especially if your story is meant to be fast-paced, or written to flow like a movie. There’s little room for meandering down the sepia-toned boulevards of fancy, no matter how richly imagined.

Take the First Law trilogy, for an example. The books are gritty and rooted in reality. They focus heavily on character and action, provided in half a dozen p.o.v personalities, through which we are able to view Abercrombie’s world from these unique perspectives. We see these people, murderous scum though they all are, develop, deepen and evolve throughout the course of the work, and the backstory is there to complement their journey. It sits in the background, elegant and tucked away, so that you might glance at it from time to time as you read the story. It’s tight and succinct and serves as a side salad to the main dish, rather than part of the main dish itself. We are told only what we need to know, and given tantalizing hints that add mystique to the characters so that you read on wanting to know the full truth. It’s always inferred, never handed out.

Now take that hulking behemoth, A Song of Fire and Ice. It’s a huge lumbering beast of a story, and it’s utterly impossible to stop reading. Why? Because it’s as ponderous as our own history, but it’s also got dragons. The weight of the world the story carries is heavy and rich and vibrant that there’s barely a paragraph without some obscure reference to a point in the past that’s never satisfactorily resolved. We read on wanting to find out what went on a thousand years in the past just as much as what’s happening to the characters now. The story makes for slow going if frenetic action’s your thing. There’s a lot of detail, and had it been written from the perspective of the above example, it could’ve been done in three books, instead of seven, or possibly eight. But it’s the detail that captivates us, or at least, those of us who are into that sort of thing.

I like reading both styles, but I prefer to write in the former. In this style, there is little room for the waffling on of backstory, which is detrimental to the pacing, no matter how sneakily it’s worked into the narrative. I’ll infer or hint at something deeper, and move on. There’s a mystery to solve, after all, and while some background information is crucial, a ton of it won’t help the characters reach the goals that I’ve set them. Sometimes it’ll get away on me, and I’ve had to rein the history in, knowing that as I continue to write books within this world, I can spin it into a much greater tapestry.

To that end, there’s a whole stack of stuff that I’ve had to cut out of The Adventurer’s Daughter. For example, one character’s backstory has evolved into two books, one of which is available for download right now: Serabella. That story takes place five years before AD, while its sequel, Rogues’ Redemption, occurs only months before, providing a bridge between both stories. Currently I’ve written about twenty pages of it, and the details of the plot are eluding me. I’ll upload sections of it as a time, as a sort of online work in progress story, and a way of fitting in a bit of history to complement AD. But for now I’ll leave that to next week, because I know you’ve probably got Facebook photos to tag…