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Back Away from the Egg! Or: Getting Straight to It

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009 | Posted by James Enge

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 MiĆ©ville’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.

15 Comments »

  1. Another great blog, James.

    There is a certain comfort to this. When I’m writing, I feel a certain “weight” of the background info, and I try to stay mindful of not overpowering the reader with it. I want this background info to come out, but writing it all out BORES me. So it’s comforting to hear another writer say “Just write, dude. The background info will come out on its own.”
    After all, background is there because that’s what it is: back-ground. It grounds the story…so it can grow into something alive and moving…it should stay back there and provide “fertile ground” for the story-root to grow in and flower. Just as the nutrients in soil manifest as petals and stalks and other parts of of the living planet above-ground, so will the background elements manifest in the narrative text. How could it not?
    I like your “Keep it moving” mantra, James. You might even say “Keep it growing” (especially when it’s a novel you’re writing).
    Write on!

    Comment by John R. Fultz - February 18, 2009 2:53 am

  2. Enjoyed the post and couldn’t agree more with the sentiment. Do you think the market is driving the trend you note to dump massive amounts of unnecessary detail as a way of “padding” a novel to bulk it out and slow the pace–or that it simply allows it? Would a fast paced, action oriented novel of 70K have a chance these days? And if the expected length of a novel is so much greater now, can such a fast <70K pace actually be maintained for 100K+?

    Comment by Jason T - February 18, 2009 9:07 am

  3. I have always admired the balls on Neal Stephenson, for never hesitating to take twenty pages out of the middle of his book to explain Sumerian religious development, or Turing’s theories on combinatorics.

    I don’t know, though. It seems like if you’re going to use Stephenson as an example, then the argument really boils down to: You can say anything, as long as it’s interesting.

    Which has always been a personal motto of mine, even if those damnable literary agents don’t agree with me.

    Comment by braak - February 18, 2009 11:55 am

  4. And, actually, now that I think about it, draggy exposition–that is, elements of the story that are purposefully slow-moving–can be useful to, and Stephenson (and Homer) is an excellent example of this.

    In Snow Crash, which I think is his most tightly-plotted work, Stephenson always dumps the backstory in right before something important is about to happen; it seems that by consciously interrupting his pace, he can actually generate more suspense.

    I suppose this is a technique with diminishing returns; the longer you take to get to the point, the less extra suspense you can net, and the more likely your readers are just going to give up and go away.

    Comment by braak - February 18, 2009 11:58 am

  5. Hey John: Thanks! I still think I like “moving” better than “growing” though. The book can get bigger without the plot going anywhere.

    JasonT: I see what you mean, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. But I don’t think a 100K book (or even a 50K book) necessarily has to have a frenetic pace: steady progress may count for more, in the end. (“Steady movement is more important than speed,” as Zelazny’s Corwin says somewhere, although he’s talking about moving through shadow.)

    Hey braak: Being interesting is the magic bullet that lets you get away with everything. That’s what I tell the police whenever they show up to arrest me, anyway.

    But I wouldn’t say changes of pace are necessarily bad. Any symphony usually has a slow movement, and not every journey should be experienced at maximum velocity. But a capable narrator knows when to work the changes. Homer is a great example: he often gives a minor character’s backstory only when he’s dying, to lend an extra sting of poignancy to the defeat. And if he wants to work in stuff which is really backstory (e.g. the “wall-watching” sequence in Book 3 of the Iliad) often he hardwires it into the story as it’s unfolding.

    Comment by James Enge - February 18, 2009 6:49 pm

  6. Braak: That exact tendency of Stephenson’s to info-dump is what cause me to abandon his writing. As brilliant as he can be, I just couldn’t handle all the byzantine mathematics information he hit me with during several points of CRYPTONOMICON. But there were many scenes of undeniable greatness in that novel. Overall, though, his “info-dump” strategy left me frustrated and disinterested. Rule One: Never bore you reader. Rule Two: If you have to frustrate your reader, make sure he’s so invested in your characters that he’ll endure the frustration for the eventual payoff.

    The whole “info-dump” strategy is basically bad writing…especially from a traditional sense. Padding out a novel with several hundred pages of exposition (i.e. “info-dump”) is not strategy that publishers will get behind. A story should be exactly as long as it should be. (My students often ask me about their papers–“How long does it have to be?” and I always answer “How long is a piece of string? As long as it NEEDS to be.”
    The info-dump strategy is lazy writing. It’s much better for all involved (editors/publishers/readers) to follow James’ philosophy of “Keep it moving” and let the background info come out when it’s necessary–and ONLY when it’s necessary. Or, you could always go the Tolkien route and just dump all that crap into a Appendix!!!
    Every editor will tell you: Balancing exposition with narrative is a KEY skill to good professional writing.

    Comment by John R. Fultz - February 18, 2009 7:44 pm

  7. John: Yeah, I don’t always enjoy it–it took me three tries to get through Cryptonomicon–but I can’t help admire how ballsy at is.

    James: Yeah, I guess that’s right. I always admired the effect in the Iliad, though, when Homer says, “Oh, here’s this great huge problem that’s going to motivate the rest of the narrative. Are you guys excited? Are you EXCITED? Good! Now, here’s a list of every single person that showed up for the war.”

    Comment by braak - February 18, 2009 8:28 pm

  8. For the record, my strings are usually shorter than they need to be.

    Comment by Jeff Stehman - February 18, 2009 8:37 pm

  9. So are most of my students’ essays…

    (Zing!)

    :)

    Comment by John R. Fultz - February 18, 2009 10:49 pm

  10. James,
    Perhaps you could let us know what lies in yonder discard pile so that we may avoid such frustration. Lately, I’ve been pretty lucky and only the ‘E’ word has been so awful I stopped reading.

    Admittedly, I didn’t throw it because I thought I could sell it online to some other poor schmuck.

    Comment by NewGuyDave - February 21, 2009 1:43 pm

  11. Hey Dave: Hm… E word… E word… Another clue, maybe?

    I hate to rip on novels I didn’t actually finish, because I have to realize that the fault might be in me somewhere. But I will go as far as to admit that I didn’t find Lynch’s “The Lies of Locke Lamora” as big a deal as I had been led to believe. And I will confess that I gave up on Bakker’s “The Darkness That Comes Before” 20 or 30 pages in. I might come back to both of them someday, but neither one really seemed to speak to me. (Maybe I just have a bias against writers named “Scott”? I’ve read almost nothing by F. Scott Fitzgerald, in spite of the fact that we share a hometown.)

    Hey braak: I know what you mean: that catalogue of ships, that launched a thousand useless epic catalogs. But I think of it as being one long “message from our sponsors” and just flip past it, like the cigarette ads you find sometimes in old paperbacks.

    Comment by James Enge - February 26, 2009 12:58 am

  12. James: One of the things that I ALSO think is interesting (because I think of all kinds of things as being interesting) is what happens when you look at the Iliad in context with…oh, what are those guys’ names, who did the study of epic story-telling in Lithuania, or something? I don’t remember their names.

    But, anyway, they found that storytellers were generally composing the story as they told it, according to a set of particular instructions, rather than reciting it from memory, and that they even made certain changes to it during the telling in order to appeal to different audiences.

    If the Iliad is, as is suspected by many people, actually a composite of various different versions, put together with an eye towards including everything, then that long catalog of ships is really an artifact of its collection–potentially, assorted storytellers were just giving shout-outs to local listeners (“Oh, and let’s not forget those THRACIANS who showed up!” “Woooo!”), and as the versions were collected and integrated, all those shout-outs got strung together.

    Comment by braak - March 2, 2009 7:23 pm

  13. Also: The Darkness that Comes Before series is definitely worth it if you can struggle past a slow opening. Bakker has the same kind of sensibility, I think, that Stephenson does: he just doesn’t have a problem including everything that he can think of in the story–close up, it can look a little tedious, but once you get some momentum going and see these things in relation to each other, it’s fantastically compelling.

    Comment by braak - March 2, 2009 7:25 pm

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