7 Rules for Backgrounds

by Al Kalar

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. -Ernest Hemingway

In one short sentence, Hemingway wrote the background for The Old Man and the Sea. The sentence tells the reader who, where, and what the story is about.

In times past, it was not unusual for the author to devote and entire chapter (or more) to tell the background scenery and information for the story. Modern readers won’t stand for that.

Background is important for a story, but you have to work it into the story in another way. You can make short, descriptive comments as the story goes along.  You can have one character tell another (but for Plato’s sake, don’t start with “As you know, . . .”).

Now, there are some things you don’t have to belabor.  A table is a table. Most folks know what a stagecoach looks like. Fancy chandeliers are easily visualized, as is a dank dungeon.

But what about the deck of a spaceship?  How about the inside of the old Roman Senate building?  A Colt .45 is no stretch, but how about a Mark VII blaster, or a Roman Pilum and what made it such an effective weapon against an enemy shield?

A short science fiction story of 7000 words could easily expand to 17,000 words because of background material.

A word of warning: don’t let your background material take over and become the story. People want to read about people, not your invented utopia or your concept of Hades (unless you’re writing on the subject).  Yes, some great writers have violated this rule and gotten away with it, but it’s a rare occurrence.  Why buck the odds?

“Although many writers find that they must devote about as many words to the background of a science fiction story as they do to the main line of the story itself, there are others who prefer to sketch in the background very lightly and depend on the reader’s imagination to fill in the details.”*

That being said, here are the “rules”:WinterSunset081202

  1. Make every background detail work. In other words, stick to details that are important to the story. A rhapsodic description of a lovely garden is only important if the description of the garden is important to the plot. If you absolutely must write a peon to a beautiful sunset that has no bearing on the plot, do so, then rip it out of your story and sell it to a greeting card company.
  2. Don’t explain how it works. Just show us what it does. Old science fiction used to be loaded with scientific explanations as to why something worked the way it did, but modern readers won’t even look at those old stories any more (except for nostalgia buffs) because it’s b*o*r*i*n*g.  Today’s reader will accept technology without an explanation.  Nuclear reactors work and they don’t care why (unless they’re physics majors or work at a reactor). Chances are, you don’t know enough about your 2009 Toyota and its computer-driven features to make one yourself, but you know how to drive it. Same for Simon Starchaser; he jumps into his space speeder, puts the peddle to the metal and chases after the bad guy without knowing how the darned thing really works.  And the reader doesn’t have to know either.
  3. Create “new” machines and science carefully. If it contradicts what’s known about science today, you’re on shaky ground.  Okay, faster than light travel is pretty well accepted by SF readers with a wink to Einstein. When you create something new, be it scientific or a new brainwashing technique, experts (and wanna be “experts”) will try to tear it apart just to be “one up” on you.  It’s like the guys who count the shots from a “six-shooter” during a Western film and gleefully write the studio about the new 8-shot pistol the director invented.
  4. Be completely familiar with your background. If you write a story with a scene in downtown Portland, OR, you’d better have visited the area.  A map won’t show you the red brick-paved plaza where the light rail stops, people hang out, or the stairs leading down to the transit office. And it certainly won’t give you the “feel” of the plaza.  You could never describe Powell’s bookstore if you haven’t been in it because it’s unlike any other bookstore you’ve probably visited.
  5. Learn at least the basics of whatever field of knowledge you include. If you’re writing about space travel, know enough to avoid basic blunders such as the one made in the first Star Wars movie (now Star Wars IV, A New Hope) where Hans Solo was bragging about the speed of his spaceship that “made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs”. The author apparently forgot that a parsec is a unit of distance of about 3.26 light years, not time. If you’re writing a scene involving medicine or surgery and you’re not an MD, you’d better consult one. One of the best SF short stories to cross my desk is “Voices” about a trauma surgeon in the emergency room of a futuristic hospital.  It’s written by Bruce Davis who is a trauma surgeon (and a great science fiction writer to boot). It appeared in a collection of SF short stories edited by Al Philipson.
  6. Use care when naming people, places, and things. Names help set the tone of a story.  A square-jawed double-fisted hero named Wimpy Milquetoast has one major strike against him before the first paragraph. Avoid this unless you really want a silly name. Better to call him “Biff” or “James (Jim)”,  A nun named “Bubbles” will never fly, but “Sister Mary” will always be acceptable. Ben Bova suggests maps as a good place to find names for characters.  He adds, “If a name make the reader giggle, get rid of it unless it is a giggle that you are seeking.”*
  7. Always be consistent. Elements to watch are time, wind direction, season, topography, place, physical condition of the players (a man who’s been shot will not be fully recovered the next day, except in the movie, Last Action Hero), who is with whom (groups or pairings), and day/night (I saw a movie last week where two main characters were talking outside at night, went inside for a few minutes, then came back out and it was at least mid-morning).  If your scene is in mid-winter, the next scene had better be in winter unless you clearly show the passage of time. If one chapter has Jane in bed with Henry, the next scene should not have Jane in bed with John unless she’s a slut, cheater, or a member of a free-love Commune.

These rules are not hard and fast nor all-inclusive, but when you break these, or any other rules, do so with a purpose and do it carefully.  There are many other elements to background material often involving poetic skills (say, for a description of an environment) or the senses (don’t just show the rain, involve hearing the drops on the tin roof, the smell of wet leather, the cold slimy feel of rain running down his collar, the clean smell of the formerly polluted air, the steam rising from the Houston asphalt road, the chill of the wind). Taste, touch, hearing, smell, sight; use all of the senses for a scene IF IT’S IMPORTANT or at least sets a tone. Certainly enough to make it “real” to the reader.

*The Craft of Writing Science Fiction that Sells – Writer’s Digest Books – © 1994 by Ben Bova

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