History in Fiction: What You Don’t Need

Last time we were talking about asking questions to come up with cool made-up history for your made-up world.

Now let’s talk about one of the first and foremost problems we run into when injecting that history into our tales.

You may have heard the phrase “info dump” before. Doesn’t sound pleasant, does it? In short, an info dump is when you spend narrative time informing the reader about the world rather than telling them a story. Here’s the thing: unless you’re actually marketing a fantasy encyclopedia, they signed up for the latter.

The examples go like this:

“Bertram stood and looked at the walls of Castle Skullraven. They were thick stone, quarried from the mountains north of here by King Ravenskull IV, whose father had first settled these lands over two-hundred-fifty years ago. The quarry was difficult to access from the lowlands and the king’s artisan builders had solved the problem by constructing a series of massive ramps and earthworks that could still be seen looming beyond the town like the hulks of an analogy I’m not going to bother developing because this is just an example. Bertram remembered his father telling him stories of the great battle that had raged among those earthworks when the labourers had revolted against the harsh taskmasters of the next king, Ravenskull III, who had ascended the throne amidst whispers that he had poisoned his own father. The court artificers had suspected that the poison had been brought in from the Swamp of Dark Nectar, hundreds of miles to the east, by a travelling caravan of the Oboroë Nomads, whose descendants still lived in the village to this day, and whose blood gave the skin of the villagers its peculiar violet colour.”

There are lots of enticing details in that much-too-long paragraph, and I will toot my own horn by saying I made them all up off the top of my head. But the problem is, here’s how much story is told in those 191 words:

“Bertram stood and looked.”

Hmm. That’s an info dump: the storytelling slams to a halt so you can tell us a bunch of things which I will grant add flavour to your world and might even be interesting… but they kill the pace and they bore the reader. And, to paraphrase my writing coach,

Boring the reader is the greatest sin.

Again: they came to hear a story, not read the history of a made-up world. So how do you communicate all that awesome history that you went to all the trouble of making up?

The advice I’ve come across all takes the form of “sprinkle it throughout the story”. Bertram can notice the earthworks at the edge of town, sure, but the quarry-miners’ revolt can stay safely in your head until it serves the story to reveal it. And maybe that never happens. Or maybe Bertram hires a one-legged man to sneak him into the castle at night, and the man reveals he lost his leg in that quarry.

You can also give details in dialogue, but it’s easy to do this wrong. I’ve heard this referred to1 as “As You Know,” the prototypical example coming from the stage:

A butler and a maid enter the scene.

MAID: As you know, Jeeves, the master is currently in the forest hunting with his business partner from the city.

BUTLER: I do indeed! And, as you are no doubt aware, Hortense, the lady of the house is sequestered in the North Tower, as she has been lo these many weeks, ever since that strange fever overcame her at the Colonel’s ball.

No human beings talk to each other this way, ever. If you want the reader to know the whereabouts of the master, the disposition of his wife, and why those things are taking place… you’re gonna have to do it with more subtlety than this.

For example…

BUTLER: Hortense, you delectable thing! Put that hamper down and accompany me to the root cellar before the master returns from his excursion!

MAID: Oh, Jeeves! Let me just run these linens up to the lady’s sickroom… do you think there’ll be time?

That communicates most of the same information, but it also moves the story, at least the part of the story where the help are fooling around behind their employers’ backs.

Bonus: it creates tension, by imposing time constraints and implied consequences.

The story is your cake. As much as you lovingly craft your world-building, it is merely the icing. Or, if cake isn’t your thing, the story is your taco. The world-building is merely the few drops of chipotle hot sauce you put on there to add the perfect amount of spicy, smoky goodness.

What were we talking about?

Oh, right, world-building. A little goes a long way, and the story has to keep moving. Now, seriously, let’s go eat.

(Next time, something I call Just-In-Time World-building.)

  1. I think by Brandon Sanderson, whose lectures on this topic are on YouTube and you should avail yourself of them at once

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D.J. Jacobson

Becoming a novelist, and documenting the journey.