By A.M. Justice
How much backstory should I spoon feed my readers?
I belong to a large online writers’ critique group, and I see this question posted almost weekly. Every fantasy and sci-fi writer in the group hops on the thread and gives advice; time and again, the consensus can be summed up as follows:
- Weave background information and world building into the narrative
- Avoid data dumps of historical details
- Under no circumstances put the backstory into a prologue
These days, prologues have about the same cache as mullets. They might once have been cool, even sexy, but now people just shake their heads and turn the page. I don’t care for mullets, but I do think prologues can serve as a useful gateway to a story (I used one to open Blade of Amber). So long as the first sentence (or paragraph) hooks me, I don’t care whether the heading above it reads “Chapter 1” or “Prologue.” If that hook isn’t there, I won’t read the book.
But back to backstory. When I’m reading the second or third book in a series, long recaps can try my patience. I may skim or skip, thinking tell me something I don’t know. Yet when I first read Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers was already checked out of the library, and in my desperation to find out what happened to Frodo and friends, I skipped ahead to The Return of the King. As the Wheel of Time slowly spun out the fate of Rand al Thor over about twenty years in real time (the story spans about three years), I stopped having the time to reread eight or ten or twelve volumes each time a new book came out. Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson provided readers with a glossary, which helped out during some who the heck is this guy? moments, but near the end of the series I wouldn’t have minded a few more flashbacks or even a full-fledged “previously on…” recap.
The Song of Ice and Fire has a rich backstory that not only provides historical context but also amps up the romance and intrigue. (Somebody please ask me my theory of Jon Snow’s parentage—I am dying to hold forth on this topic!) George R.R. Martin weaves Westeros’s history into the present action using rumor, dreams, visions, and the occasional bathtub confession. Yet Martin never recaps events from one book in a subsequent volume—the reader gets one chance. Like the fourteen WOT volumes, the SOIAF books aren’t intended to be stand-alone; they are mega-chapters in one very long, continuing story, and you have to read all the books if you want to find out what happens. And while we wait for Martin to publish the sixth book, we can either choose to reread the first five, or merely anticipate that we’ll lose track of all the players in this fantasy version of the War of the Roses. (Speaking of losing track, where’s Rickon?)
With The Woern Chronicles, I’m taking a different approach, writing an episodic rather than a continuing series. Like the Earthsea Cycle, The Woern Chronicles has an overarching narrative, but each novel contains a complete story that is “about” a different thing:
A Wizard’s Lot: forgiveness
Scion of Sovereigns: redemption
Legacy of the Sacrifice: revenge
You don’t need to read Wizard to find out whether Vic fulfills her mission of revenge in Blade. You don’t need to read Scion to find out whether Ashel finds the strength to forgive in Wizard. Three people close to Vic seek redemption in Scion, and their efforts have little to do with Vic’s original quest for vengeance. Legacy will pick up where Scion left off, but in this final volume, Vic will find herself the target rather than the perpetrator of revenge.
The tricky part in this scenario is that Blade lays the groundwork for the other three books—the repercussions of Vic’s choices in Book One drive her and Ashel’s struggles in Book Two and haunt her family in the third and fourth volumes of the series. And because I intend each novel to stand alone, I have to explain a lot. Why is Ashel disgraced, disillusioned, and exiled at the start of Wizard? Why, in Scion, does Vic fantasize about killing her father-in-law while helping him remain in power? And why in Legacy is everyone afraid of Wineyll?
For readers to answer these questions, they need to know what’s happened in the previous books. To provide essential information without boring readers in Wizard, I use a lot of flashbacks:
The children run like harriers, clamber over each other for the arms of parents and guildmatrons. Surrounded by masks of panic, Geram looks for the one face that reflects not terror but triumph. Men are on their knees, screaming, their hands reaching toward the god whose coming they’d meant to celebrate that night. Women sob in each other’s arms, tear their hair. Hands claw his uniform, begging his help. Twisting out of their grasp, he catches sight of one little girl alone on the grass below, her thumb in her mouth, her eyes frozen on the stage. Following her gaze, he forgets the assassin. Rocking slowly, the queen cradles Prince Ashel’s head, King Sashal clutched between them in the prince’s arms. Deep, shattered sobs crackle from the prince, but the silent queen holds him to her breast, her face etched with the lines of a mother trying to shield her child from the evils of the world.
Oh no! Isn’t there a rule against flashbacks? Probably. However, I use them to not only recount vital information but also advance the story. In Blade, we see the assassination of King Sashal from Vic’s point of view as it happens, but in Wizard I use Geram’s memory of the king’s death to show his first glimpse of Queen Elekia’s humanity. The reader learns (or relives) how Ashel’s father died and also sees the planting of the seed that will blossom into Geram’s love for Ashel’s mother.
Scion and Legacy take place nearly two decades after the conclusion of Wizard, so I use flashbacks far less often and instead rely on dialogue and allusion to provide context. I’m working on revising Scion (in response to beta reader comments), so I’ll let you know how it all turns out.
A.M. Justice writes fiction from distant times and places and chronicles journeys in the here and now. To see more of what’s on her mind, drop by the KnownEarth Works website, follow her on Twitter, or hang out on her Facebook page.