Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Taking Background For Granted

If you're anything like me, you know that we writers have ideas for whole worlds locked away in our heads.  When I'm developing a story, I'll come up with everything from the characters' quirks to the history of the world in question.  It's exciting to think in terms of worlds no one else knows.

However, the problem of no one else knowing is that getting it down on paper can be challenging.  What I mean by that is that I don't just have to get it down on paper, but I have to get everyone to understand the contextual reasons why things are unfolding the way they are.

Readers are much like aliens visiting our world.  How would you explain to that alien the ethnic strife on our planet without that alien knowing the reasons behind it.  Could they really get the hatred between Shia and Sunni, or the reason for a gun culture existing in the United States but not in Great Britain?  Without the proper context, it would look absurd to them.
(Quite a cultural and fashion statement...but why?)
Our stories are the same way.  To get why we're taking a story in a certain direction, a reader must know the background behind it.  This can be range from the mundane, such as family strife set on the American frontier, to the grandiose, such as an epic science fiction novel set 6,000 years from now.  Whatever the story is, it lacks depth if the reader doesn't get the background.

I've written out lots of stuff that I've had to go back into because I later realized that I took too much for granted.  My new novel, Homecoming, is like that - the background to the story is incredibly important, but I've found myself taking so much of it for granted when writing dialogue or discussing character motivation that I've had to go back and revise.

This problem can be solved, but it takes a skilled writer to solve it in a way that doesn't bore the reader to death.  The most obvious solution is the dreaded info dump where an author gives a full explanation of the context, and it can range anywhere from a paragraph to several pages...or more.  Of course, this is lazy and makes a number of people decide the story is no longer worth it.
(Sometimes it takes a miracle to get people to stay interested)
In my own writing, I've tried to solve this by dropping in hints throughout.  For example, rather than doing a detailed explanation of the alien invasion prior to humanity fleeing Earth, I've put scattered bits in place about parents using allusions to them as a way to scare unruly children or referring in dialogue to our desire to reclaim our homeworld.  I've found that this has to be a carefully controlled process to avoid either extreme.  It also allows the reader's imagination to take root versus giving them everything.

Lots of books and movies - especially movies - take a lot for granted.  The book Battlefield Earth was a high paced sci-fi action novel, leaving aside the Scientology stuff.  However, the movie was terrible, and one of the reasons why was that it was obvious to me, as a person who read the book, that whoever made the movie not only read the book, but loved it, because they took so much background for granted.  If we fall into that trap as writers, people will discard us.

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