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Back story, the bane of the SF and Fantasy Writer.

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on November 6, 2010

We’ve had a request this week from Sally, who would like to:

‘see a post about how to feed in back story without swamping the narrative drive and tension’.   ‘

We writers of speculative fiction spend so much time building worlds, with distinct societies each with their own  history then we try to write about the people who live there. This leads to the dreaded info-dump. The people who live in the writer’s invented world already know their customs and history. How is the writer going to convey this to the reader?

If you’re Tolkien you won’t worry, you’ll put it all in, including the poetry you wrote about events that happened a thousand years ago.

But this is hardly ideal. The modern reader wants ‘bang for their buck’ they want to be swept away on an adventure, not to be lectured.Since I am always having trouble with this one I asked the ROR team for their insight.


Richard Harland says:


One method is for the author simply to tell what happened.

Five years ago, Denny had had an affair with …
The house had been inhabited by drug gangs, and a brutal murder had occurred just months before Vee and Lorrie moved in …

If you kicked off your first chapter with a dramatic scene, telling some backstory could be a way of starting your second chapter. Old-fashioned, but simple and economical.

For a writer nowadays, the obvious method for feeding through a backstory is to have a main character remember the past. It’s effective so long as it doesn’t look like a cheat. The only thing worse than a character standing in front of the mirror and thinking about his/her appearance is a character standing in front of the mirror and remembering about his/her past life and recent history. So corny and clichéd!

Please, can we have a character’s memories genuinely prompted by something that happens, something that’s said? And when they are prompted, can they look like genuine memories rather than a plot synopsis?

When we remember past events, we rarely run through the full story—this-led-to-that-led-to-the-other—which we already know. We zoom in on the emotionally charged highlights and the bits that are relevant to us right now.

I reckon backstory memories often seem more plausible when they’re questions rather than statements. We don’t pore over the detail of past events merely to re-state them to ourselves, but we do when we’re puzzled or uncertain about what happened. We might run through the whole chain of cause and effect if we’re trying to spot something that doesn’t gel, something that doesn’t make sense to us.

For the rest of this article see Richard’s free writing tips here and here.

Dirk Flinthart says:

Backstory and exposition is some of the toughest material to work into a decent narrative. It’s especially difficult in speculative fiction, where your story may depend upon some element which is entirely impossible in the world as we know it.

I think that the real trick isn’t fitting the stuff in. I believe it lies in knowing how much to leave out.

The joy of reading is that it’s an interactive, constructive process. The readers literally rebuild the narrative in their minds as they work through the story, and it’s that process of engagement, that act of rebuilding which constitutes the most engrossing and rewarding part of reading a story. The very best stories leave you full of questions and suppositions afterwards, imagining what might have happened next, or what might have occurred ‘off-screen’ at crucial moments in the plot development.

The point I’m making is that every time we provide backstory, we take away from the reader an opportunity for creation, for real engagement, for ownership of the story. Every time the author says canonically: “C happened because A and B happened first, in that order”, we eliminate the rest of an infinite alphabet of possibilities that the reader might well find more intriguing than our own.

Naturally, there are times when backstory is necessary. But in practice, it’s usually far less necessary than new authors imagine.

If you must incorporate backstory, in practical terms there are at least three ways to manage it without too much slowing. Of course, you can always step out into the professorial, explanatory storyteller POV beloved of the Tolkien school of writing, but unless you’re lining up to churn out a thousand pages or so, that’s probably not your best bet. (Still, there’s a market for it, obviously!) But if you’re interested in keeping the story moving, the easiest way to incorporate necessary backstory is to have one of your characters deliver it. There are three ways to consider this.

1) None of the characters knows the information, but they have to find out: In this case, discovering the backstory becomes an integral part of the story. Clues are delivered. Information can be obtained, but uncovering that information is a quest in itself, an obstacle to be overcome before the plot can be fully resolved. Think about crime fiction: scenes of interrogation, examination, detection, and so forth. The trick is to remember the old rule: every scene requires conflict of some sort – so if your characters are just going to go to the library to look up old land deeds, for example, someone else should get there first and steal the critical information, or lose it in the vaults. Or perhaps the information is kept secure, and it has to be stolen. There are as many ways to carry this out as there are stories, but it can be remarkably effective.

2) One character knows the information, and can tell another, or act on it. And once again, the key here is to incorporate the delivery of information into the action itself. Absolutely do not have your characters sitting in a bar, drinking quietly, saying things like “Lo, it is written that during the final days of the Fornikarr Imperium the dread tantric master Duu-phuss the Lightly Endowed forged the now-legendary Three Dildoes of Fire at the command of Empress Booblatooie the Ninth…”

It’s acceptable to have one character ask a simple question for a reasonably simple response. It’s even acceptable to have one character deliver vital information to another at a necessary time. But dialogue doesn’t move the plot or develop action, so as a rule, if you can have your characters taking action while the information is passed on, you’re better off. Take the ridiculous lines above: if there was a bar fight going on, involving one of the minions of the enemy, the character delivering the information will have to keep it to a minimum, perhaps shouting it in bursts between clobbering bad guys – or whispering it nervously while the villains stalk the room, seeking their victims. Either way, we’ve got something going on, not just expository dialogue.

3) Both characters know the information, and the reader needs to know it too: This is at once the most interesting, challenging, and dangerous situation. This is the place where new writers start having characters say things like “As you know…”, which is a horrible concept. How often do real world people go around telling each other things that both already know? You’d sound like a pompous idiot if you tried to explain to someone that you’d arrived in “…a motor car, which as you know is a vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine requiring refined petroleum products to operate…”

The joy of this situation for the writer is that it presents not just a hazard, but a real opportunity. If you’re using POV well, you can actually leave out the information, except for appropriate references in dialogue. Taking example above, you might have one character say to the other “… sorry I’m late. Ran out of petrol.”  Naturally, in this real world, the only response to that would perhaps be derisive laughter. But a reader who knows nothing of  cars and petrol now has the opportunity to wonder, and imagine for herself what ‘petrol’ might be.

Done well, this approach greatly strengthens the verisimilitude of the work, making the setting more intriguing and believable, and likewise strengthens the characters as part of that setting. When I edited the Canterbury 2100 anthology, for example, I had three separate stories from different authors, each of which explained why there were wolves running around England in 2109. However, the point of the anthology was to have characters telling oral stories to one another, and as editor, I realised that for the people of 2109, wild wolves would be an accepted fact of life. Explaining them would be like explaining ‘cars’ to you or I. So I very simply cut away all explanation of the wolves, and just left them in the stories for readers to wonder at – and to realise that this was a world in which wolves were a commonplace.

Some of the best examples of this technique come from writers like Cordwainer Smith, or more recently, Terry Dowling. Both of them, in constructing their fantastic worlds, have been quite willing to use evocative names and images without fully explaining them for the readers. We’re left to marvel at concepts like the Congohelium, or Underpeople, or Dowling’s land-sailing ships, all of which are simply accepted by the characters, and integrated easily into the narrative.

This is easily my favourite way of delivering backstory, and when I see it used well, it never fails to draw me into a narrative, and leave me wondering about the implications and the histories left unspoken by the author. The effect of this minimalist delivery is so strong and profound that it illustrates in the best possible way the old saw that ‘less is more’ – and in the case of backstory, the more you can leave to the imagination of the reader, the stronger your tale will be!


Posted in Editing and Revision, World Buildng, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , , , | 8 Comments »

What does a Map bring to a Story?

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on October 23, 2010


Thanks to Chris Large, Geologist Extraordinaire (and writer of spec fic)  we have an insight into how writers can bring more verisimilitude to our world building through maps.

Take it away, Chris.



A map is a pretty standard accompaniment to a fantasy novel, right? You’ve built a completely new world. You’re proud of it, and how well it all fits together. “And look here,” you say, “it’s all on this funky little map.”

Fine, that’s great – but why? I don’t know the exact landscape of Italy, but I can still read a book set in Umbria without feeling the need to refer to a map.

To a writer, a map represents a series of obstacles her characters must overcome to reach their goal. It can also add depth to her tale, provide her characters with a home, and her readers with a feeling of ‘place’. In the real world however, a map is a representation of the effects of natural land-forming processes on the countryside. These processes are occurring both at surface by way of weathering and erosion, and below the surface in the form of tectonic, mountain-building stresses. Now I’m not suggesting all sf/f authors get themselves down to their local university for a crash course in Geology 101 (though it wouldn’t hurt), but when world-building, paying attention to natural processes will lend authenticity to your landforms and waterways, and give you a much more visually appealing result than simply pushing a river through here, and plonking a mountain down over there.

So what does a map bring to a story? Nothing if its mountain ranges, glacial valleys and winding rivers are geologically ridiculous. In fact, in the same way that a hessian sack will obscure the killer curves of a gorgeous supermodel, a poor map can significantly detract from a ripping yarn. If you include a map in your story, shouldn’t a reader reasonably expect the landscape to play at least as significant a role as one of your main characters? Surely a black and white depiction of Brave New World’s supple hills and sensuous valleys is akin to the opening description of one of its deadly heroines. But you wouldn’t make the mistake of writing a (human) character with a mouth in her ear and four butt cheeks, so why create a map with equivalent flaws?

“Don’t be so pedantic!” I hear you cry. “It’s fantasy!” Okay, but as a writer you don’t want to look foolish, and as a reader you will lose confidence in a story without a solid foundation. Let me give this (slightly tangential, but bear with me) example of an Original Series episode of Star Trek called ‘City on the Edge of Forever’. Ruins dating back ten thousand centuries are discovered on the ‘Planet of Time’, apparently dating it as the oldest planet in the universe. However ten thousand centuries is only one million years. The Earth, which is far from an old planet, is thought to be around four and a half billion years old. Way to go Captain K.

So the Earth’s geological history is long, and humans have been around to witness only a tiny fraction of it. If you’re writing about a world similar to Earth – be it populated by elves, gnomes, trolls, whatever – it’s likely to be of a similar age, and to have undergone similar land-forming processes, and will therefore have similar rocks, mountains, and ore deposits.


It will not, (as I have observed on some maps) have water that runs uphill. Yes, rivers love to flow toward the sea, but under no circumstances will they run over mountain ranges to get there. Neither will they weave strategically between the foothills of the aforementioned ranges, because even though foothills may be little more than the annoying whimsy of your publisher’s cartographer, they still represent high-ground. Water is reasonably predictable in so much as it generally flows in the same direction as gravity’s pull, so unless the dread wizard Aarchon Demonstricus is exerting the mighty power of Jawlock’s Amulet of Fantastical Water Summoning from his secret mountaintop lair, running water will normally stick to lowland regions. If you’re unsure which way is up on your map, try sketching on some contours. It makes things a lot easier.

This said, and once again acknowledging that rivers absolutely and positively adore making for the sea, mature river systems generally won’t strike across county like a sprinter who really, really needs the can. Rather, they will take their time, meandering casually across the flood plain with all the enthusiasm of a pensioner making his way back to the retirement home bus, after a leisurely afternoon of lawn bowls with his mates. The older the river, the more pronounced the meander. This is because water runs fastest around the outside of a river bend, eroding the bank, and slowest around the inside of the bend, depositing sediment previously held in suspension.

People build along rivers because they need water to survive but they can pay a price for this.  Flooding can wipe out a town or a crop. Or flooding can fertilize the land, as it is in Egypt. The Nile flooded every year, bringing rich sediment to the soil and making farming possible. The locals built their lives around these floods. When the floods didn’t come there was famine. Rivers were also used as highways. The Vikings travelled all over Europe via major rivers, settling where Moscow is now, which is where the name Russia (Rus) comes from. So the writer needs to consider which kind of rivers they have in their world and how the locals use these rivers.

While we’re on a watery theme, inland water cannot exist in isolation. A lake without a feeder is akin to a barfly without a scotch: it’s either faking it, or it’s only there for messy, late-night sex. Sure, transient water such as that found in salt pans can exist on rainfall alone, but as soon as the rain stops, the pans will dry. Permanent lakes require continuous feed, and that means large catchments and significant supply via creeks and rivers. A glacier is a great source of slow feed for a lake.


But water is only one side of the story. How about mountains? Where do they spring from? Are they the equivalent of acne, popping up unwanted and unheralded across the face of your map? Or is there a more quantifiable mechanism at work? There are two easy ways to build mountains. One is by compressing the landscape until it folds and buckles, the other is by volcanism.

If you apply lateral compression to your landscape it has little choice but to either fold, or fault. If the rocks are ductile they will fold, if they’re brittle they will fault. In the case of faulting, one block will ride over the top of another, creating mountains. Equally, if you apply extension, or pull your landscape apart, one block will drop, creating a valley.

On Planet Earth, the process of plate tectonics dictates where and how the Earth’s crust is created, and where it’s destroyed. A series of mid-ocean ridges are the birthplaces of new crust (and potentially represent the spawnpoint of all life on Earth). Convecting magma from the mantle or asthenosphere, erupts onto the seafloor at divergent margins. To make way for new crust, the plate must move. Where the mobile plate meets a static plate, the mobile crust is subducted and remelted, often resulting in volcanism. If you want to see an example of how to apply this theory retrospectively to a well-known fantasy world, you can read my short piece entitled, “The Tectonics of the Misty Mountains,” appearing next year in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine # 51.

The above theory is dependent on crust being destroyed at the same rate it’s being created. Some geologists don’t believe this is the case, suggesting instead that the crust is destroyed at a much slower rate, and that the Earth is therefore expanding. Of course your characters aren’t going to stand around debating which of the various mountain-building processes are most likely apply to what mountain ranges, but at least if you know, things will make sense on the map.

And how your characters interact with the landscape has to make sense. Say the writer decides the mountains in their world are products of volcanic activity, which is still hissing away. How is this going to affect the people who live in the region? Can they harness the steaming water? People build close to volcanoes because the soil is particularly rich. But, like rivers, there’s a price for this soil as the volcano may erupt again. Do the locals have myths about past eruptions and buried villages?

If the writer’s characters are living in a mountainous region, how they farm will be affected, (terraces, anyone?) as well as how they travel. (Wheels aren’t much use in steep, rocky terrain). If the mountains are particularly high, they will affect rain flow, so the villages on the inland side will be dryer and could struggle to make a living from the soil, while the villages on the coast side will get more rain and live a more comfortable life. This could set up conflict between the two kingdoms. Now you see why where you put the mountains, the type of mountains and what effect they have on the land is important.

Next week see Part Two: Rocks and Ore Deposits, oh my!


Chris is a mineral explorer and has spent more than 15 years looking at rocks, sawing them in half, drilling holes into them, licking them, and sticking little eyes on them and giving them to his kids. Many of those 15 years have been spent in a tent in a desert. He now writes from home in Hobart while completing a MSc in Economic Geology.

See Chris Large’s blog here.

Posted in World Buildng, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , | 9 Comments »

A Beginner’s Guide to Writing for Games

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on July 31, 2010

Meet Leanne C Taylor, games writer and lecturer on interactive narrative.

This is Part One of a two part piece on writing for computer games. The second part will be posted on Tuesday.

A beginner’s guide to writing for games

Writing for computer games is my preferred way of making a living.  There, I said it.  I teach, to improve computer game stories when I’m eventually brought onto a project, because cultivating future co-workers with a strong understanding of story is always a good first step.  I don’t have the patience to write novels, nor the interest in writing screenplays.  What I do have an interest in, is working in a team, and in allowing someone else to take my ideas and run with them to new and wonderful places.  This is why I love computer games.

Working on a game, you have to liaise with the game and level designers, to understand the mission structure and overall story outline.  You may also have to work with the modellers, animators, texture artists and programmers if you want to request specific features – once those features have made it from the bottom to the top of the ‘things we’d like to include’ list.  Because, really, that’s what writing is in games : something we’d like to include.

Pre-production Cycle

Let me start at the beginning.  Many games come from a simple idea.  That simple idea can be “What story are we following?” or it could be “This mechanic I created is really fun – how can we use it?”  Neither of these is the wrong way to start a game.  There are no wrong ways to begin.  What’s important is that the game has begun the pre-production cycle.  You’re on your way.

This is when all the planning takes place.  Ideally, the designers and writers would be working together at this stage to flesh out the main story arc, so level environments are easier to pin down, e.g. if someone wants to make an ice planet, how does it fit into the grand scheme of things?  Should it be level 2 or level 16?  How does it fit with the player’s motivation?

This is an important element to remember about writing for games : motivation is not just about the characters within the story.  You have to motivate the player, too.  Ideally, game mechanics being fun and level design drawing the player onward, they should want to continue anyway, but putting what they’re doing into perspective is the writer’s job.  Making them want to kill person X instead of person Y, or making them feel bad (or good!) for having to choose, are all tasks of the writer.  This means you have an invisible character, one that always needs motivating.  How you do that is something I’ll get to in a moment.

Production Cycle

After the pre-production cycle comes the production cycle (surprise!), when the game actually starts to take shape.  The coders, animators, designers et al will be working their butts off to make a playable prototype – essentially a very simple version of the game that’s usually made up of white boxes moving around inside another white box.  Unsurprisingly, this is called ‘white-boxing’.  Meanwhile, the writer may be working away with the designers to plan out the cinematics – the small movies that play during important moments of the game – and come up with ideas for the main missions.

Toward the end of the production cycle – usually about one to one and a half years of solid work – is where the writer comes back in.  Some companies have writers on-staff who stick with one game through the game’s entire lifecycle.  Smaller companies simply can’t afford the expense, which is why some games writers credit themselves as ‘Writer/Designer’ or, as in my case, only work freelance.  The last 3-6 months of the game are crucial in terms of adding dialogue and sorting out mission motivations.  If the main cinematics have been outsourced, they’re usually done by now, and set in stone, so it’s the writer’s job to make the cinematics make sense in context with the game.

Yes, you read that right.  In the year or so since writing the cinematics and agreeing on the overall storyline, many things will have changed.  The mechanics of what the player does, the level order, or even the entire tone of the game itself could have undergone a massive overhaul.  That’s fine.  As an example, one of the projects I worked on had a complete script, from start to end.  It was in the final draft stages and, I thought, almost a wrap.  Then the production schedule took a hit, and half of the levels had to be cut.  This meant that I now had to take my complete story, truncate it, move pieces around, try to salvage my favourite parts, and make something new and just as exciting from the pieces of the old that had already been finalised.  I didn’t mind.  It was a challenge, and it certainly wasn’t anyone’s fault.  90% of writing is rewriting, and nowhere is that more true than in writing for games.

Tuesday: Dialogue in Games and Game Experience

For more of Leanne see her blog.

See her Game Design Aspect of the Month Article in the ‘ International Game Developer’s Association Perspectives Newsletter’ Page 9.

Posted in Writing for Computer Games | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

tips for writing steampunk

Posted by richardharland on April 30, 2010

Hi! Had a good start to the day today. Hollywood interest in Worldshaker has moved up another level – now the movie agency has a definite ‘client’ and wants to talk film rights. So it goes from my literary agent in Australia to an agency specialising in film rights in LA – and my people talk to their people, as they say!

I promised to produce some writing tips on steampunk, and I’m finally keeping my promise. Here goes –

WRITING TIPS FOR STEAMPUNK (as told to a clockwork angel)


Should you do a lot of research? I don’t think so. After all, you’re writing speculative fiction, not historical fact. The worst thing in the world would be to accumulate a mass of information about 19th century clothing, furniture, etiquette or whatever – which you then felt obliged to include just because it’s true.

No! The spirit of steampunk is creative anachronism – that is, doing history and getting it wrong. Like steampunk fashion guru Kit Stolen, we’re all anachronauts. What’s matters isn’t the fact but the feel – the feel of a different past era. So, sure, immerse yourself in 19th century novels or non-fiction until you can swim in that world like a sea. Then swim away from it! Use the historical reality as a springboard for your own imagination. Do-It-Yourself—that’s what steampunk is all about!

It helps if something in the 19th century particularly inspires your imagination. For me, it was the gaping difference between the respectable façade of morality and propriety, and the very ugly goings-on behind that facade. The Victorian class structure gave me my inspiration for Worldshaker.


I believe 19th century novelists like Charles Dickens didn’t just observe the world around them, they had a vision of it. And their vision still fascinates today—like the Arthurian vision of mediaval times. It’s a gothic imagination – as in forbidding castles, subterranean caverns, romantic mists and storms – but re-applied to their contemporary reality of fog and steam, cities and factories. What I like is that it’s a dark vision and a suggestive vison, not seen in the clear light of day.

Maybe that’s why it was such a great time for imagining horrors. So many classic horror figures come from that time—Frankenstein’s monster, vampires, Jekyll and Hyde, the Baskerville hounds. On the one hand, the official shiny progressive optimism, but on the other hand, a dark and morbid streak of fear and uncertainty.


The 19th century produced so many iconic figures – great criminals, great eccentrics, great monsters, great rogues. That’s what I look for in steampunk. Characters like Isombard Kingdom Brunel or Jack the Ripper or Sir Mormus Porpentine (oops, I slipped into my own fiction there).

I think steampunk writers have to steer between two pitfalls. On the one hand, you should never just present modern people in 19th century fancy dress—that’s as bad as futuristic SF where the characters still think and speak exactly like contemporary Americans. On the other hand, you should never become so obsessed with historical re-creation that a modern reader can’t get involved with your characters. They have to live across the ages …


If steampunk already has its generic traits, I guess one of them is fast-paced storytelling. I don’t say it ought to be be that way–and if you count China Miéville as at least steampunk-related, then great steampunky fiction can just as well have a very slow pace. But … a strong narrative drive is something that publishers may expect and look for.

Every tip I can offer on maintaining narrative drive in steampunk is also a tip for maintaining narrative drive in any genre, so it’s already up on the web in the STORY section of my website,


Steampunk is in some ways fantasy and in some ways SF. One problem it shares with both is how to introduce a whole world without info-dumping, but it’s not easy to use the classical fantasy strategy and start from a corner. Like SF worlds, steampunk worlds are more likely to be urban, with good communications, so it’s not so easy to arrange for ignorance! In Worldshaker, I take a main character whose very sheltered upbringing has protected him from the realities of his own world; it’s also a world where many of those realities are never spoken about in polite society.


Here again, I think steampunk writers should steer between two pitfalls. You wouldn’t want to have characters lapsing into jargon that sounds 21st century, and you wouldn’t want to use such jargon in your author’s voice either. On the other hand, you don’t have to write like someone writing in the 19th century – if only because 19th century novelists were very heavy and over-descriptive by our standards. And your dialogue still has to be lively and spirited, not just historically accurate.

I guess what I’m saying is that anachronism is okay so long as it doesn’t jar and stick out like a sore thumb. In Worldshaker, there’s one moment when Quinnea exclaims:

‘Oh, I will [be proud of you]. But a mother’s heart … a mother’s care … a mother’s panic attacks …’

As my editor pointed out, the phrase ‘panic attack’ doesn’t really belong in this world of juggernauts. I agreed, and I’d have taken it out – except that that bit of dialogue cracks me up whenever I read it. (It is funny, I swear … okay, you have to be there!) So we left it in, and nobody’s objected yet.



Posted in Creativity, Genre Writing, Steampunk, World Buildng, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , | 32 Comments »