Backstory, Writing Process

History: what your novel shouldn’t ‘tell’…

Any world – real or imagined – is a product of past events. The characters who walked the earth long before your story even begins, planted the seeds for pretty much every political, biological, and technological reality your characters have to deal with. The history of the (story) world is an essential part of your story, and yet, it’s exactly the part that a writer should never ‘tell’…unless bad feedback about info dumping doesn’t bother you.

Yes, you guessed it, the current state of my world building is poor and one of the reasons for this is that my story world history is vague. I literally didn’t bother fleshing it out to any significant degree, which I am now working to rectify, before addressing any gaps in my character profiling for secondary characters. The reason for this being that that the story world history might change them and I don’t want to have to do it twice.

All I initially jotted down about my story world history were these notes:

  • The story plays at the end of a great war between humans and mages.
  • Mages lost and are now in the minority and severely persecuted.
  • There is a few people who specialise in tracking mages who are in hiding and don’t dare to gather – the best one at this is our antagonist (John).
  • The Forest also known as the ‘home of mages’ has existed longer than any human or mage can remember.
  • The Forest existed long before the first priestess bore magic (from of a sacred well) and erected the temple at its heart where spirits of all deceased mages dwell eternally to protect the sacred site.
  • The opposing force to magic is a religion that loosely resembles Christianity and that has been gaining support steadily over a series of decades.
  • Religious leaders have been spreading vicious lies about magic and the mage-born, fostering fear and separation and go back to the time before the birth of magic.

I know, right? Whatever made me think I was getting away with this? No detail about the war or what made it significant in the grand scheme of things. No notes about how this war has changed people (I’ll be starting a new research file on exactly this change in people, including soldiers and civilians and how war affected them potentially differently depending on their level of involvement).

Crucially, I didn’t work out how the people managed to win the war and defeat magic (I presume with the help of their god). Doing my homework will change my story, affect the magic system I imagined, and hopefully will make the end product much better. I have already re-written the first scene in light of some new information and feel positive about turning things upside down.

Whilst I am not planning to turn into a watered-down version of J.R.R Tolkien (the man invented whole cultures and languages, each with their own diverse mythology and belief systems, for goodness sakes), I do think that I need a little more than a few notes on the subject of story world history.

So, why never ‘tell’? Because if you do your job and work it all out first there should be no need to spell it all out for your reader. Your characters’ actions, beliefs, thoughts, and words – alongside descriptions of the story world in the present – should suffice to deliver a strong sense of legacy.

After all, one of the big criticisms of Tolkien’s work is that there is just too much explaining going on, and whilst I can’t always agree (the detailed descriptions of life in the Shire at the beginning of Lord of the Rings, helps to understand how much Frodo has to change to survive in much more hostile environments), I can see why readers moan about it.

See ya next time 😉

If you are also struggling to work out your story world’s history, or if you have the opposite problem and are consumed by coming up with more and more detail about what happened before your story began, share your thoughts in the comments below.

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