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Practically Painless Backgrounds

 

The original colonists of Caspicia had not exactly been Earth-normal types. They were nut cases and dreamers and visionaries, each of them convinced that they had paranormal powers that set them apart from the rest of humanity.

Some of them had been right.

But after twenty generations of interbreeding had distributed those powers among the population, many had forgotten their origins. Merelinde’s family were among them. They prided themselves on an exclusive line of descent from the most important colonists and considered themselves superior to the other families.

“The opening is boring – all background, no story,” Frank told me.

“But that’s all stuff the reader needs to know!”

“Mary, your background as a history teacher is showing. Look, this is fiction; you can’t tell readers that they have to read up on the history of your imaginary world because it’ll be on their final exam.”

“I can’t?” And here I’d thought fiction would be easier than writing real history. Maybe I’d been wrong about that.

“Nope. You need to put it into a scene.”

“As you know, Fabian, it has been five hundred years since our ancestors landed on this world.”

“Yes, Merelinde, and the paranormal powers that some brought with them have been distributed through our whole population by now.”

Frank shook his head. “You have to do more than turn limping exposition into flat dialogue, Mary. Fabian and Merelinde both know the history of their own world; why would they stand around telling each other things they already know?”

“You are so picky! Maybe Merelinde doesn’t already know the whole history.”

“How come? Lousy education?”

“Maybe.”

“Fabian, I can’t marry you. I have to preserve my special powers by marrying someone with a similar heritage.”

“Merelinde, your ego is running away with you. You aren’t any more ‘special’ than the rest of us!”

“Oh, yes I am. I’m a direct descendant of the Landing Lady Merel and I’ve inherited her powers!”

Fabian sighed. “Merelinde, it’s been five hundred years since the original forty colonists landed on this world. We are all descended from all of them, okay? Their paranormal powers have been quite thoroughly distributed through the population.”

“I don’t believe you. Nobody ever told me that. And nobody but me can make fire, so there!”

Fabian snapped his fingers over the wine cup in front of him. A ruby flame rose from the surface of the liquid. “It seems there is a lot that you weren’t told.”

 

 

41 Comments
  1. c4c

    January 25, 2018
    • Chocolate.

      January 25, 2018
  2. Zan Lynx #

    I really like how it changes in the different styles. And the last one is good.

    But if an author is good enough they can get away with anything. For example, Anne Bishop’s Others novels each start off with a history lesson almost exactly like the first example here. And it works!

    January 25, 2018
    • The opening to Serenity is an actual history lesson. Okay, it’s onscreen, but it’s still one of the few times I’ve seen that pulled off successfully.

      January 25, 2018
      • I think it has to do with the tone the teacher/narrator is using. It gives an instant ‘this isn’t exactly so’ vibe which tends to inspire the ‘what’s REALLY going on, let us see…’ which draws people in.

        January 25, 2018
        • There’s a definite “something’s strange” sense. I think in part it was the way the teacher prowled.

          January 25, 2018
  3. The last one’s still kind of weak but…yeah. 😉

    January 25, 2018
  4. Hunting Guy #

    Maybe I’m weird but I kinda liked the first opening.

    January 25, 2018
    • I do as well.

      January 25, 2018
    • The first one feels like a back cover blurb. I’d want to start the story with an impassioned few lines of dialogue between the two, focusing on Fabian snapping his fingers and producing the flame.

      January 25, 2018
    • Dorothy Grant #

      I liked the first opening, but it requires a very certain tone and sort of dry humour to pull off. I loved it when Prachett would sneak those little narrative summaries into Discworld, or into Good Omens, and of course Douglas Adams was infamous for giving us such telling not showing as the dolphin’s farewell of “So long and thanks for all the fish.”

      However, I read a great many people try to include the world history up front, and it was terrible. Even Anne McCaffrey, much as I love her Pern books, in retrospect I always skipped the prolougue and went straight to the action.

      I suspect the answer could be: “Use the last example, not the first or second – unless it’s truly awesome. Because awesome trumps rule of thumb.”

      January 25, 2018
      • Margaret Ball #

        You’re right, the first opening isn’t that bad. Mea culpa – I should have taken the time to look at some of the really deadly world-history-up-front examples instead of trying to do it off the top of my head.

        January 26, 2018
        • BobtheRegisterredFool #

          In 15697 the jKadien reforms solidified the dominance of the emOdh caste, thus increasing the discontent of the younger cohorts of Mudjsaijin officers such as Ejjwoq (commissioned 15701), Wofjink(15707), dWongnim(15708), and Jjehwoog(15711). During the year 15714, Wofjink and dWongnim are believed to have been instrumental in starting the 53rd Rajkekker Civic War, which ended in 15743 with the creation of the Wehjoq Dynasty, and the abolishment of the kJeffv of Weejj. On the sixth morning of 15935, Emperor Fudd Wehjoq was found dead, his eyes gouged out by a spoon…

          Face the facts. You just aren’t a very bad writer. Sometimes you need to leave the job to the one most suited for it. Or, as you say, study and work at it.

          January 26, 2018
          • Draven #

            hate to say this but one chapter of Weber’s current work reads just like that because he wanted to show off how he can use… i am guessing Polish?…. words and names.

            January 26, 2018
          • Margaret Ball #

            Snarf! Gotta get the coffee out of the keyboard AGAIN.

            January 26, 2018
            • Dorothy Grant #

              The Sulamin system is comprised of fifteen planets, two with ring systems, and fourty-five moons. The fourth planet, A’a’a’malaii, has an orbital period of 400 days even, giving each month four ten-days. The colonists from the crashed arc ship Liberte decided to go with the Roman dating system, including Ides and Julens, though five thousand years later in the third reign of Emporer Feng, the sixth month was renamed to Kawaii, in honor of his youngest daughter. Following the civil war after his successor’s death, the name was reinstated as the ruins of the empire strove to recaputure the neo-classical might of its glory days, though the horse nomads of the Northern Steppes claim it interfered with their magic to not use the word the world-spirit prefers…

              There. Mixing six different culture’s names, orbital mechanics. whether it’s scifi or fantasy, which time frame and scale the story begins…

              Is that bad enough?

              …I have sudden visions of a Bulwer-Lytton style contest for bad intro infodumps…

              January 26, 2018
              • AesopFan #

                “I have sudden visions of a Bulwer-Lytton style contest for bad intro infodumps”
                Don’t they call that the Hugo?

                January 30, 2018
  5. Mike Houst #

    First one does feel flat.
    Second one feels textured.
    Third one actually feels 3-dimensional.

    January 25, 2018
  6. Draven #

    as you know, margaret… *gigglesnort*

    January 25, 2018
    • “As I’d thought you knew…” }:o)

      January 25, 2018
      • Margaret Ball #

        As you would have known if anybody had been paying attention, class..?

        January 26, 2018
  7. I actually saw a Free-Limited-Release newsletter from an Indie writer the other day, including chapter one of the offered book– book 3 of n in series. Protagonist wakes up with amnesia, an injured stranger, and a book, in a strange place. Discovers upon reading that the book is her own diary and the patient is her best friend, and now I know far more of the first two volumes than I would otherwise have got from another sort of History Lesson.

    January 25, 2018
  8. c4c

    January 25, 2018
  9. You know, I always like the little articles from Encyclopedia Galactica that Asimov would put at the start of a chapter. Very dry, scholarly, and completely crazy.

    Or you can have an actual history class, with the teacher yelling at Jimmy for nodding off. ~:D

    January 25, 2018
    • I think it can depend on how much you slip in. Anything above a paragraph or two slips into “droning prologue” rather than “taste of history.”

      Mind you, some actual historians can make that style quite interesting, so if you *must* slip in backstory, study how they present information and copy that. H.W. Brands or Ron Chernow would be good places to start.

      January 26, 2018
  10. Bob #

    In Larry Correia’s Grimnoir books, he starts a lot of chapters with quotes from historical figures and documents, but slightly modified, showing how the world’s history is different than ours.

    Stephen R. Donaldson includes ‘Ancillary Documents’ in between chapters in his GAP books.

    Starting out chapters with faux documents or quotes can be an interesting way to insert backstory.

    January 25, 2018
    • I like aphorisms too. Particularly when the chapter reflects but twists the aphorism.

      January 25, 2018
    • I was intrigued by how the movie of Dune kept the “documents” from the chapter heads. I thought it was a nice touch. (Yes, I liked the film, long and short versions. I’m Odd.)

      January 25, 2018
    • Mary #

      Some are modified. Some are made up. Some are straight quotes, but twisted by their context. Fun to work out which is which.

      January 26, 2018
  11. The overwhelming majority of backstory that I create for my stories (and I do a lot of it) never makes it into the stories themselves. Mostly it’s not necessary for the reader to know anything more than the immediate situation–I need to know it, because I have to understand not just what it going on now, but also what has led up to it, in order to make the current situation feel real. But that seldom means spelling it out directly, and almost never means “As you know…” expositional dialogue.

    When the bad guys are shooting at the good guys, the reader doesn’t care about the historical forces that have led up to this particular display of violent political action. The reader cares about whether or not the good guys get hit.

    January 25, 2018
    • BobtheRegisterredFool #

      Current project has a cleft point driving an alternate history whose differences are necessary for me to believe in the social worldbuilding my story demands. The readers don’t need to know most of that, just that it is not the history that they are familiar with. I establish that with an exhibit in the museum with the first crazed gunman, and then everything not plot critical can be ignored. I wouldn’t be surprised if I don’t have a single viewpoint that knows who the last President was, and it won’t matter.

      January 25, 2018
      • Or even if they do know, it isn’t pertinent. I’m working on doing this consciously, rather than sear-of-the-pants. Characters know stuff, but the reader doesn’t until they need to for the story.

        January 26, 2018
        • Sear-of-the-pants?

          Ouch!

          January 26, 2018
          • Well I’m not writing non-fiction… *chuckle* I’m trying to channel the liar-liar-pants-on-fire into productive capacity. *grin*

            January 26, 2018
    • AesopFan #

      “Mostly it’s not necessary for the reader to know anything more than the immediate situation–I need to know it, because I have to understand not just what it going on now, but also what has led up to it, in order to make the current situation feel real.”
      I recently read (and don’t remember where) that “the reader should get 10% of the backstory but “feel” like the other 90% is there underneath somewhere; an expert writer could generate that illusion without ever creating the hidden 90%.”

      January 30, 2018
  12. Just re-wrote a chapter opening to address this very problem (the infodump predeliction addiction. I haz it. *hangs head*). It was *supposed* to be a short story in my head. Action-action-plot-suspense-action-denuement-rising action-complication-tension-further complication-really big battle (on a small scale)-revealment-epilogue-teaser (and ain’t that a non-spoilerific summary).

    It now wants to be a trilogy. Crap. *shakes fist at imagionation* Behave!

    Anyway. Exposition that was originally a page and a half is now going to be spread out a whole lot. Will try to keep the angsty weepies low.

    January 26, 2018
    • Zan Lynx #

      I have heard that some writers have the infodump prequel problem.

      “Readers need to know the history to understand what’s going on in this novel.”
      *scribble, scribble*
      “Now, I don’t want to just make this a huge boring infodump, so let’s make it interesting.”
      *scribble, scribble*
      “Oh wow, these characters from the beginning of time when gods roamed the land and founded the Kingdom sound *much* more interesting than my first story…”

      Heh.

      January 26, 2018
      • *chuckle* I cheat. A lot.

        Many of my “prequels” are other stories I’ve written, some of which suck (badly) but are useful for quick and dirty “this is what happened” stuff. Change this and that, scoot this plot point over a bit, ignore the other… It works for me.

        Now if I ever get around to actually writing what happened to them back when, it just might be salvageable. Provided I get the plot points in the right order, that is.

        January 26, 2018
    • *points at Dan and laughs* You just think it’s only a trilogy!

      January 26, 2018
      • Margaret Ball #

        Oh yeah, infodump prequel. Awakening was supposed to be the first book in the Harmony series… then Insurgents cut in line.

        January 26, 2018
  13. Actually, I find Manga Studio to be the most helpful, these days…

    😁

    January 30, 2018

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