Backstory / World Building – how much to include?

I’ve seen some discussion about how SFF novels are allowed to be longer because not only is the author telling a story, but they’re creating an entirely different world that needs to be explained.  But I wonder how much that explanation is really necessary?

I’m someone who can do without a detailed explanation of how an FTL drive works or what the social hierarchy is in the whatever universe.  If I don’t ask people to explain something in my day to day life, then I don’t need to have it explained in a novel either.  (How many years have I driven a car and yet I couldn’t tell you how all the parts I can actually name work together to make that happen.)

I was thinking about this as I started to read The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin.  Right on the back cover the blurb says, “On the planet Winter, there is no gender.  The Gethenians can become male or female during each mating cycle…”

And yet, it took until page 50 of the actual novel for there to be a clear reference to this fact.  There were some hints along the way – discussions about how a person seemed both masculine and feminine and about the proper pronoun to use when discussing someone – but it wasn’t until page 50 that the novel refers to “human beings who were, five-sixths of the time, hermaphroditic neuters.”  And then it continues on with the rest of the story.

In some respects, this gender difference is central to the novel.  (Or at least it is according to the back cover blurb – I’m only up to page 75 at the moment.)  A less skilled or more nervous author might have felt the need to explicitly stop and inform the reader of the gender situation on Winter.  I can picture a prologue where the author presents a scientific report on Winter that explains the hermaphroditic nature of the inhabitants.  Or an “as you know Bob” conversation where the envoy explains the gender difference for three pages.

Instead, Le Guin jumps right in with the story.  With the people and setting.  It can be a little befuddling and the back cover blurb probably helps in a lot of respects because it tells you what the book doesn’t make explicit early on.

I’m sure if I loan this one to my mom it may lose her before she gets engrossed in the story.  (She couldn’t follow The City and the City by China Mieville – my favorite of his novels.)  But I think I prefer my books to do that.  There’s backstory.  Chapters two and four are both stories from the planet, which makes them almost pure world building.  But they don’t feel like it.  They don’t feel like asides or useless details that are only there because someone foreign to the setting is reading them.  They feel like they belong in the story for their own sake.

I don’t know.  Something I’m going to think about further.  But right now I’m leaning towards the less is more approach to explanations about a world or setting.

And, sometimes no matter how much detail you give, it’ll never be enough.  I remember reading a story in high school.  At the end, the woman stabs herself in the chest and they bury her.  I said she killed herself.  My good friend at the time said, “not necessarily.”  The woman stabbed herself in the chest and they buried her.  But, to my friend, this didn’t necessarily mean she had killed herself.  I still have yet to get an adequate explanation of that one.  (If anyone agrees with my friend, please feel free to explain it to me in the comments section.)

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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2 Responses to Backstory / World Building – how much to include?

  1. Aspirant says:

    It is an interesting point that is brought up here. What some particularly good novels do is that they simply let the mystery of how it works remain in the mind of the readers. It is far easier to explain in the storyline sense.

    Other novels use a glossary, Dune is the perfect example actually.

    • mhleewriter says:

      Great example. Sounds like I need to go dig up my copy of Dune and check that out. It’s been so long since I read it. I seem to recall him also using snippets of fictitious works at the beginning of each chapter that gave some sort of background or additional information.

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