How Much Context?

I recently finished slogging through a non-fiction book for Day Job. The book is very well written, but has a cast of hundreds, covers at least six states, and provides no background. The authors are telling the story of a small group of people involved in the Civil Rights movement, so their focus is appropriate. But I kept falling out of the book thinking, “Sheesh, I know why this happened, and I know what that term means, but I bet other folks are really going to be confused.” Unless you already know a great deal of history,  the adventures take place in a vacuum.

This applies to fiction as well, especially when you have a series. I caught myself launching into the Work in Progress (WIP) without laying any foundation for a reader unfamiliar with the series world. Why? Because I’d done that with Miners and Empire, and could get away with it. Miners had to rebuild a world from the point of view of a different character from the rest of the series. So no backstory was needed, just launching into the tale and building as I went. It is a stand-alone novel in the Merchant universe. Also, the protagonist does not give a rip about politics or imperial events or trade. He wants to get a contract done, get paid, and move on before people start asking questions he cannot or will not answer.

Shikhari #5 does not stand alone. It starts six years after the end of the previous book. I’d better do some context work and back-story or else I will have very unhappy readers.

What about something like the Familiars? I don’t give anyone the least bit of context until, um, [trots off to look at files] the third book in the series, and even then it’s more hints. The first two volumes take place in a vacuum and a lot of “trust me” is involved on the readers’ part. You know that everyone is in or around a major city on a river. You know that they have animal Familiars that are not black cats, or other sorts of cats, or dogs. And the world is sort of like ours, but not. And there’s magic, everyone acknowledges magic, there are civil laws regarding magic (Familiar registration at the DMV, for example), but why? Where did things go different? Who is president? Where’s the city? Nothing.

I got away with it. This time. Urban fantasy is more forgiving of slow context revelation than are some genres. Even so, I filled in some of that context over the course of the next books, adding in the Spell Eruption Event and hints about the arrival of Familiars into the world. If there’s another book in that series, I will have to provide far more context, in part to satisfy readers.

However, I’m not going to do a Frank Herbert and include chunks of memoirs and imaginary reference books as chapter headings to provided the needed information. I could, and I’ve actually done something like that for a blog post (What would a Blue Guide entry about the Drachental be like?). However, that feels too much like Day Job.

There’s a balance between oh, say, including a discussion of colonial politics and policy debate in the Shikari books to explain why thus is so, and letting Shikhari orbit and the people have adventures with the occasional comment about policy and history. I think it boils down to why. Can the reader get and enjoy the story without knowing the detailed why of something? If so, then context is nice to have, but not critical. Will the reader be dreadfully confused and even wall the book without some background and outside information? Then context matters and you’d better work it in.

Ah, an example. Fantasy story, the protagonist is a captain in the king’s army. Major battles have endued against a usurper and her army. All looks well, protagonist is taking a breather before starting paperwork, and trumpets sound. The army of the Great Kurgan is over the hill!  Battle magic, elephants, chaos ensues!

Have you, oh author, even mentioned that this might be a possibility? Did you drop a few hints that the Kurgan hates your king for something that happened between their ancestors, oh, two hundred winters ago? Did someone caution that getting distracted by the usurper might lead to the Kurgan taking advantage of the situation? No? What the fuzz is a Kurgan anyway?


Your book just got walled unless you have a very, very good reason for your PoV character not to know anything and to be caught blindsided.

Like the non-fiction book I mentioned at the start of the piece. There’s no reason given for why discrimination, of what interposition doctrine was (or is), or why some places might react more violently than others did. None of the justifications for Jim Crow were given, nothing about economics or culture or the politics of the 1890s. You are plopped into the middle of the action, more of less, and just have to take things as they are presented.

Fiction writers can’t get away with that nearly as easily.


  1. A big part of the problem is preconceptions on the part of your readers. For example, when I speak or write about South Africa during the apartheid years, I frequently run into comments like, “Oh, yes, Mandela was a communist, wasn’t he?” The speaker then loses interest in anything else I have to say, or hears it all through the filter of “But he was a communist! Communism bad! Communism caused everything bad in South Africa since democracy!” Completely untrue, of course, but it shows how preconceptions can make it almost impossible to get through to some people, even though you provide plenty of facts/backstory/whatever to reinforce your point.

    This applies to my fiction, too. One reviewer of my first novel frothed at the mouth because I had a scene where my protagonist drove a fork through the hand of a spacer trying to steal his dessert. “Impossible! Can’t be done! Not physically possible!” Well, as it happens, that incident was drawn from real life. It was (and is) entirely possible. The fact that the reviewer had a preconception about it prevented him from seeing anything else positive about the book. In my latest novel, too, I had that reaction. I described the rather nasty deaths of a bunch of bad guys. The reviewer was outraged that I’d done so in what (for him) was far too much detail, and gave me a one-star review as a result, advising people not to buy anything else I’d written. Well, I’m sorry he found it offensive, but no other reviewer has ever agreed with him – in fact, I’ve had comments asking why I “toned down” that particular scene! *Sigh*

    Just goes to show: no matter how much backstory you provide, no matter how many reasons there are for something to happen in your book, if some of your readers have their own “filters” in place, none of it will help. They’re going to knee-jerk-react rather than rational-react.

    Again . . . *Sigh*

    1. With an entire fictional universe, you are at least getting around (or not able to use) as many preconceptions. But you can stick to the immediate area of your characters while slowly adding in bit. Just using terms like “kingdom” “taxes” “peasants” shapes a readers expectations as much as “Detroit” or “South Africa” does.

      The problem is that you’d better understand the assumptions the majority of your target readers will have about those terms. And when they’re wrong . . . you’ve got a real uphill fight on your hands if you want to try to re-educate them.

      1. and peasants buildign cars in the Kingdom of Detroit gives you an entirely different image.

      1. But he wasn’t a mass murderer on the scale he had the opportunity to be on.

        1. But he wasn’t a mass murderer on the scale he had the opportunity to be on.

          Gee. That’s damning with faint praise on a GRAND scale.

    2. In my latest novel, too, I had that reaction. I described the rather nasty deaths of a bunch of bad guys. The reviewer was outraged that I’d done so in what (for him) was far too much detail, and gave me a one-star review as a result, advising people not to buy anything else I’d written. Well, I’m sorry he found it offensive, but no other reviewer has ever agreed with him – in fact, I’ve had comments asking why I “toned down” that particular scene! *Sigh*

      See, it’s things like that that make me wonder. I mean, I’m pretty used to gruesome – gruesome, awful and stomach-churning are part of reality and I’ve never had an issue with the fact that such things happen, usually performed by truly evil people. Some of the stories I have planned have the villains perform some very horrible atrocities – without the description of which the depth of their evil is glossed over. The thing I’m currently plotting out has a number of murders, the violence of which is part of the clues for the protagonists.

      Realistically I can’t prevent negative reader reaction, and some of the comments I’ve seen here about not liking reading about some things in fiction – like say, the death of children, or horrible deaths – make me wonder as well if the whole ‘trigger warnings’ before fiction/book people don’t have a point. As a writer, I find myself hesitating because of those reactions.

      I don’t have a problem with gruesome descriptions myself. But apparently some readers do, and when you adjust… as you noted, some folks wondered why you ‘toned it down.’ So what is a writer to do?

      1. Might be a good idea to provide context or foreshadowing, so that people know “this is a book with bad stuff,” but without having to say so.

        Basically, you need ominous music in the overture.

  2. Is Miners and Empire a book in print?

    I looked for it under that title and couldn’t find it.


    1. Miners and Empire will come out later this spring. I finished writing it last month, and it needs to mellow, then go to edits. Merchant and Empire will be released in a few weeks (Book 4).

  3. And there are people who will claim that “justifications for Jim Crow” means in your eyes or in my eyes, when you are clearly referring to what justified it in the eyes of the people who implemented it, maintained it, supported it, and tolerated it. And most effectively opposing a thing requires really understanding why people implemented it, maintain it, support it, and tolerate it. Most effectively preventing something from happening again likewise requires similar levels of understanding, which is not the same as agreement.

  4. Why is it unreasonable to expect readers to know the back story? If the current book is clearly marked as part of a series, its appearance should prompt a flurry of purchases of earlier numbers – prchases or library draws. Few things are more irritating than to have a jogtrot of high adventure interrupted by six paragraphs of old news.

    1. It is not unreasonable, but for books that can stand alone, or that occur after a time jump, the question is one of balance. How much backstory is too much, and how much is too little?

      Within the story itself, what additional context is needed as compared to earlier books? Can you, the writer, leave things as they were at the end of the previous title, or do you need to add more material to explain something for the reader?

      Another complication can be “years since last volume.” This is less of a problem for those who set their own publishing schedule, but if several years have passed since the last title in the series was released, that could change what is needed to refresh readers’ memories. Print books might not be available any more, and the publisher might not have released an e-book, especially if they retain rights to the titles but not the characters and series.

      1. Indeed – it’s what PG Wodehouse called “the Fink-Nottle Dilemma.”
        This came up with a beta reader for the last Luna City. He suggested very much more description of the various reoccurring characters, and I was … well, I like to be sparing with with that, just because … the Great Wodehouse elucidated in one of the Jeeves-Wooster books; it’s a fine line with a reoccurring character in a series. Explain too much, and the attentive readers are going, ‘We knew this already, Old Sport, move on!” Yet too little, and new readers are going, “Umm – who? And why is this person significant?”
        ‘Tis a dilemma. The Fink-Nottle Dilemma.

    2. Because you don’t want anyone to put down the book because he doesn’t want to track down the others.

  5. I’ve read a number of books where it was obvious the author had created a detailed backstory, but then failed to communicate much of it to the reader.

    I’m willing to wait a few pages to find out why the zprprf phnogisticated the rllldl, but if it’s critical to understand the story and you can’t be arsed to let me know… and that also applies to the authors who think withholding information “builds drama.” (see also: foreshadowing) They’re sleazy techniques covering for lack of being able to craft a proper story, and as a reader, it ticks me off.

  6. It’s quite a trick to avoid the Scylla of infodumps and the Charybdis of confusion. I almost never see a story in print that opens with an infodump–editors are good about rejecting those–but it’s way too common to find one where I read 10% of the story (I’m talking short fiction, as usual) before I finally get an idea of what’s happening, at which point I start over because now I can read and understand the opening. A couple of times in reviews I’ve feel a need to say something like “The story puts its worst foot first; tough it out through the first two scenes and you’ll be rewarded handsomely by the rest of it.”

    This is a bit like an NP complete problem in that I can instantly tell when a story has this problem, but it’s quite difficult to say how an author avoids it. However, it does seem clear that an author can often turn an infodump (information the reader neither wants not needs to know) into simple info merely by moving it further into the story.

    1. That’s almost SOP for me; in a first draft of a new book, I’ll put in background information wherever it flows easily. Then I go back and figure out what the reader needs to know at that point, and move the other 90% of the background where it belongs (in some cases, completely out of the book!)

      With series books it tends to work the other way; I don’t put in nearly enough background at the beginning, because the characters and their situation are so familiar to me. Then I have to go back and pretend I’m encountering them for the first time, and steer between the Scylla of giving new readers inadequate background and the Charybdis of boring returning readers with what they already know.

      1. That’s another tricky needle to thread, though, in a series. All that world-building that happened before needs to be clear, or at least glimpsed, but you don’t want to fall into the trap of a “recap chapter,” either.

        1. You’re so right! I’m kind of relieved that the last series wound to a reasonable close with the 6th book. It was getting extremely hard to give new readers enough to go on without fatally boring old readers, and I’m not at all sure that all the needles got threaded.

          The current series is “only” on the third book and I think #4 may be the last. Slightly more manageable.

          1. My friends and I had an epic fantasy we liked back in HS in the 90s (not WoT) where you could more or less skip chapter 1. 🙄 The series is apparently still going, too, although I stopped reading after I nearly walled book 8 for Deus ex.

  7. Heh, regardless of what you do or don’t do, somebody is going to complain. But, having said that, massive infodumps will throw me right out of a story… sigh

  8. I would include enough references for complicated concepts, or if I had a thing that might have only been referred to rarely in other books. A good example is talking about shape-changing in my stories. The biggest issue is that-
    1)You can’t fake anyone that actually exists at that time(long, involved explanation, mostly involving quantum).
    2)The farther you stray from your base form, the more energy it takes and the shorter the duration you can remain in that other form. This is due to a number of protective measures built into her magical superstructure and the concept of Residual Self Image.

    Our main character can age herself up, change her hair color, ethnicity, size of her assets, etc, etc, etc, etc, and can do so for days on a full charge. But becoming male alone cuts that time down by nearly half, and all the other changes needed reduce her total transformation time to become who she was before what happened to twelve hours at best.

  9. One place where more backstory and context might be called for in a series book, besides the first book, is in a prequel. I–and certainly many other readers, especially of non-sequential sets like The Chronicles of Narnia*— will often want to start with the prequels rather than the book you first published. If its necessary context is assumed in a depth only available by reading previously-published works, there’s a problem.

      1. I try to publish in internal sequence, but there’s always some wretched character demanding something–usually his back story–be written.

  10. * The publication order, and worldbuilding sequence, in Narnia is as follows:
    The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
    Prince Caspian
    The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
    The Silver Chair
    The Horse and his Boy
    The Magician’s Nephew
    The Last Battle

    1. I’m so glad I read the Narnia books in publication order. It’s a very satisfying experience, encountering Narnia naively the way Lucy, Edmund, Susan, and Peter do, and then learning more about its history as one goes along. I was dismayed when the recommended reading order was changed to feature The Magician’s Nephew as the first book.

      I think it’s time for me to go have a re-read. Still love those books! 😀

      1. I now prefer the pub order for Narnia, too. As a boy I used to alternate reading orders on those, but others (Wheel of Time, e. g.) drop a single prequel in the middle, publishing-wise. And THERE, the author should expect a fair part of his audience to be coming in fresh.

        1. I have a deep attachment for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as first book, no matter what order the rest are read in. So what if the world Lewis shows us there has its mysteries? The book is about accepting certain mysteries that are not subject to proof or logical explanation.

          1. Er, that last line should read “about accepting certain mysteries that are not subject to proof or logical explanation.”

    2. The first four books are in both publication order and world building order, then Lewis jumps around, first back to right after the first book for the fifth book (my favorite), then to the beginning for the sixth book, and then all the way to the end for the seventh.

      Lewis’ world building also has some inconsistencies (like about the origin of the witch); unlike Tolkien, he seems to have made it up as he went.

      If you include The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s last work was his first (both in being started and world building). Tolkien did change some things as he went along (one reason he never finished The Silmarillion; the biggest example is that he changed Bilbo’s finding of the ring in the Hobbit after its initial publication), but his world building is still amazing.

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