I was reading a newish fantasy novel the other day and every time a new character or place was introduced, the author felt compelled to lather him/her/it in opaque chunks of backstory.
Binky “Bosco” Sorenson walked into the Taberna Generica. He was called “Bosco” because of his resemblance to [some guy named Bosco; a page or so of backstory follows]. The Taberna Generica had been established several centuries before so that parties of elves, wizards, rogues, dwarves and assassins could meet before departing on their quests. The first such meeting [was as dull as you might expect; a page or two of backstory follows].
As the door clicked shut, Binky realized he had never heard a door click shut like that before. [A page or two of exposition follows, documenting Binky’s talents in analyzing door-sounds.] He instantly realized that he was facing a danger neither he nor anyone had ever faced since the founding of the Imaginary City. [Scene break.]
Meanwhile, elsewhere in Imaginary City, Sarah “Sample” Semple sat sipping shark-blood as the sun set. She was called ‘Sample’ because [of some tedious reason that has no import for the plot, but takes a page or two to explain.] In the evening she would often [do a number of things; a page or two follows discussing her odd yet uninteresting personal habits]. As she quaffed deeply of the rich red beverage, she realized that it was not shark blood. It was her own blood. [Scene break.]
Standing in the tavern’s entryway, Binky muttered to himself, “Is this the Taberna Generica? By the short and curly hairs of Crom, I think it may be the Taberna Periculosa!” [Pages of exposition follow about the Taberna Periculosa and the peculiar yet somehow boring tavern system in the imaginary city.]
“Author!” I screamed at this point. “This nuisance must cease! Tell the story and let the backstory take care of itself!”
But he kept on doing it. It was almost as if he couldn’t hear me. So I tossed the book across the room to fall in a pile of books that got there in much the same way and fell to brooding.
This exposition thing isn’t a new problem. It’s as old as storytelling. Horace writes about it in the Ars Poetica (and he can’t have been the first):
[Homer] doesn’t begin the Trojan War with Leda’s twin eggs: he always rushes toward the outcome, and he carries the listener along with him into the middle of things, just as if they were familiar. He skips anything he doesn’t think he can make shiny. And he lies so much and he mixes up so many false things with true so that the story’s middle will fit together with the beginning and the end with the middle.
Here’s Horace’s advice to the apprentice storyteller: lie like a rat-bastard. I wish more young people would take it to heart.
So: not a new problem. But I think it’s becoming more acute lately because fantasy novels are running so much longer than they used to. Back when a fantasy novel ran around 60 or 70 thousand words (and most genre fiction came in shorter lengths yet), the writer had to get on with it. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser didn’t have time to explain to each other in “As-you-know-Bob” dialogue what kind of finger-food was being served for lunch at the Silver Eel; they had to get straight to seducing, looting, killing or running like hell. That’s one of fifteen or twenty things that make the stories so great. My favorite quote from the stories (apart from the one you’re thinking of) is the Mouser’s laconic “I was in a hurry. The Spider God was after me.”
Nowadays, with more length at their disposal, many writers feel comfortable with dropping lots of their background material into the text. This is fine, if it doesn’t interrupt the development of the story. I’m not against world-building: nerdism can clomp its foot as much as it likes–as long as it doesn’t interrupt the movement of the story. If it doesn’t aid the progress of the story, if you can’t make it shiny, it should make way for something better. Even if you have a hundred thousand words to mess with, they should still be good words.
Lest I sound like the proverbial “old man yells at cloud” headline, here are a couple of recentish works that do it right–they keep moving toward the narrative issue and don’t skimp on the worldbuilding.
The first chapter of China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station begins: “A window burst open high above the market.” And the story continues more or less in that vein: we find out about the people and their environs by seeing things happen. The shine may be the result of a certain greasiness (e.g. Isaac Dan der Grimnbulin’s memorable arse-scratching), but it’s definitely there.
Likewise Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. It begins with a brutally direct piece of dialogue: “Do your neighbors burn each other alive?” The point NS picks for his beginning saves him mountains of exposition–which is great, because there are mountains more to come, much of it outright in-your-face Encyclopedia Galactica style infodumps. But it works because it works: it moves the story forward, or at least doesn’t keep the story dragging backwards.
So from now on, I’m following Horace’s rules for storytelling: Keep it moving. Keep it shiny or get rid of it. And, when necessary, lie like a rat-bastard.
Now I have to go back and rewrite my first two novels. I’m sure my editor won’t object to a few hundred major revisions at this late stage.