Developing Backstory/World

by Alex
(San Antonio, TX, United States)

Question: I'm rewriting a sci-fi story of mine and running into serious problems when trying to gradually develop the backstory and world. Many books featuring a wholly fictional setting gradually pull the reader in, introducing them to the new world in an interesting and intriguing way. Unfortunately, I'm having a lot of trouble getting this laid out properly.

Just for instance, in this story I have a walled city controlled by a totalitarian regime, plagued by political radicals, and possessing a very specific style and theme. Pretty early on in the book I have to introduce:

-Evil regime
-Leader of evil regime
-Concept of not being able to escape the city
-Ongoing warfare between political radicals
-Architectural aspects
-Historical relations to the world, history of city
-Large presence of steampunk technology
-Social system held within the city
-General outline of locations in the city
-A very heavy atmosphere of stagnation and decay in the city

In my previous version, I just decided to take a whole 10 pages and describe almost all of this in one gigantic chunk, followed by another chunk only a few pages later. Needless to say, this puts most readers to sleep, and seriously hurts the entertainment value of my story. How can I introduce such a vast range of things to the reader in a way that's gradual, entertaining, and actually makes sense?

Answer: See if you can introduce the world by closely following the perceptions of your main character.

In other words, let the reader follow that character, describe what the character is perceiving, and offer explanations just as necessary.

For instance, if you want to introduce the tyrant, could your main character pass by a statue of the tyrant, or overhear a broadcast of the tyrant's speech? That would be an opportunity to explain who the tyrant is. If you want to introduce the class system, could your main character have a run-in with someone of a different class, and use that opportunity to provide a few key facts? Could he get caught up in a street protest by the radicals? Could you convey what the city is like by having your main character take a journey through the city? Could he/she pass by the big outer wall and gate that is permanently shut? Can you describe the decay in the infrastructure, as the character deals with the problems it creates? Etc.

The trick is to throw in little explanations of backstory as events take place, as the action happens, so that you are enriching the scene rather than presenting a lecture.

Think of it like a movie. If you were filming the story, you wouldn't start with a 10-minute documentary about the society. You would simply follow a character and let the viewer see the setting and watch the characters interact. In a novel, you do the same thing by describing bits of the world that the character perceives as he moves through it.

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Bluff the reader
by: Norah

I'm not sure how old this post is, but anyhow.
A useful trick to add on to the blog's advice: act as if the reader already knows everything about your world. The evil regime, the architecture, the limited freedom of the city is as familiar to them as the 2008 economic crisis or the Eiffel Tower... so you only need to mention details, not the basics. The price of coffee has gone up. The curfew just went down *again*. Et cetera. Convince the reader that they belong, like a shy person bluffed into enjoying a party, and they'll get the general structure by themselves. The stories that do this take me in every time.

Limyaael wrote a very good article on casual worldbuilding. It's mostly about culture, but the basic ideas can be extended to everything else.

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