E. E. Knight (eeknight) wrote,
E. E. Knight

I've made the mistakes so you don't have to

When it comes to Thud and Blunder, there's nothing like a good infodump to kill off your story.

I made some iffy choices in my early work, but I got away with it, somehow. Maybe specfic readers have thicker skins when it comes to a riot-hose of backstory being turned on them. Poor devils, they're used to the abuse.

I get text from writers with two characters sitting in a room telling each other backstory right out of the "You'll remember, of course, Jim, that the Sassafrans are nitrogen-breathers, which means..." cliche playbook. Ouch. Nothing hurts like reading a conversation of two people agreeing on everything. It always reminds me of Patton Oswalt's quote about Burbank: "A history of things working out fine..."

I can understand the impulse. We're all used to "learning" in a quiet environment like a classroom, where you can concentrate on what you're supposed to be remembering. There's an impetus to do this for (or rather to) readers, so they can get it all down on college-ruled paper.

I still kind of like the pamphlet on the Kurian Order Val read early in Way of the Wolf. Yeah, big no-no, but I thought it might make the readers identify with him by learning at the same time he did. I always liked the scene in 1984 where Winston Smith reads Goldstein's forbidden book (Orwell's publisher objected too. Just like mine! I shared an experience with a literary hero of mine!).

You're doing a disservice to your readers when you present them with the information they need to know to understand your world (or the backgrounds for your characters, or whatever) in a couple of ways when you do this, though. For one thing, it's absolutely static and therefore boring. For another, the authorial hand is visible, cold on the reader's throat like a doctor checking your glands.

So, how do you do it better me? I'm not that smart, and it's easier than you think.

Let's look at three economical and exciting presentations of information the readers need to know.

Two will be movies most of you are probably familiar with.

One of my favorite presentations of a "This is London..." Edward R. Murrow-style setup is the opening five minutes of Dawn of the Dead. We're in a barely-functioning, chaotic TV news studio where the employees are starting to lose it. There's a zombie crisis going on, explained by a "Doctor" guest on a news show.

"Every dead body that is not exterminated becomes one of them. It gets up and kills. The people it kills get up and kill."

Which is about as economical an explanation of a zombie apocalypse as I've ever heard.

Romero's taken the classic "two men talking about the situation" and given it a lively twist -- the interviewer is disagreeing with the doctor and basically shouting him down, camera men are walking off in disgust, people are throwing things, running up into camera Jerry Springer style, and producers are yelling at each other about sending the audience to knocked-out rescue stations. All around, there are ominous, quiet little discussions that human society is losing it. "We're blowing it ourselves," Fran, the main female character says.

This scene gives the audience the cosmology, so to speak, of Romero's zombie menace. You come out of it knowing just about everything you need to know. All that's left to do is to meet the zombies.

Another great "basic backstory" scene appears in the first Terminator movie about a third of the way in, where as Kyle Reese is driving, having just rescued Sarah Connor in the bar with the "come with me if you want to live" line, he explains just what she's up against. Rather than giving us all this information in a place of safety, Reese is talking while screeching through the streets of L.A., speeding, blowing off red lights, swerving dangerously, and giving the classic

"It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse...and it absolutely will not stop. Ever! Until you are dead."

description of the Terminator. He says they have to ditch the car and they go to a parking garage. Their blasted, beaten car is spotted and the police start searching the garage, one of the cruisers being driven by the Terminator. There Sarah objects to the whole story, saying that they don't have machines like that. As Reese loads his shotgun and the Terminator drives around searching, Kyle gives the Skynet/John Connor backstory.

There's a lot of tension to this infodump. They're hunched down in the front seat, hiding from the police cruising by, Kyle is filling his gun, and the Terminator is driving around scanning. You know that any second all hell can break loose. It's pretty much the exact opposite of the static, leaky classroom setting I used in Way of the Wolf to talk about the Preentities and the Kurians, and much better for it.

Next we'll look at one of my favorite SF novels, Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper (1964). The central problem in the novel is about the discovery of a small, sapient race on a planet called Zarathustra that has been classified as "uninhabited" and given over to "Chartered Zarathustra Company."
We need to know several things to set up the drama in the story:

  1. The Chartered Zarathustra Company owns the world.

  2. Zarathustra is a valuable and profitable planet.

  3. The company's ownership of the planet is contingent on it being uninhabited by a sapient race.

  4. Sapience is classified by a vague rule-of-thumb frontier policy where an alien is sapient if it can "talk and build a fire."

  5. The little creatures an independent sunstone prospector named Jack Holloway finds, the Fuzzies, exhibit signs of sapience that don't qualify under "talk and build a fire."

Piper accomplishes all this with considerable skill. Usually there's some other problem at the forefront of the drama, he's basically "showing" you the backstory as the characters go about their lives, dealing with everything from office politics irritations to attacks by hostile fauna.

Or while you're falling in love with the gentle, utterly charming Fuzzies.

The book starts with a bang, as Jack Holloway sets off a micro-atomic charge in old riverbed strata on his "claim" and searches for sunstones. Sunstones are valuable luxury goods, they are gemstones that warm and glow in human body heat. He's an independent operator who finds sunstones and sells them to the Chartered Zarathustra Company. He has bad luck. He takes out his frustrations on a "land prawn" -- a big twelve legged bug that likes to get into machinery and chew insulation. It's been abnormally hot this year and the things are breeding like flies in the warm weather. Piper uses this scene to characterize Holloway as a grizzled independent and an experienced frontiersman, used to working alone with brain, body, gun, and gear.

Linked through an examination of a sunstone, we shift to Victor Grego on page 4 who's admiring a gorgeous one he wears as a ring. He's the planetary manager, high in the biggest building on Zarathustra. He's dictating a report to headquarters about the progress they've made that year

And he spoke of other things. Veldebeest meat, up seven percent since last month, twenty percent from last year, still in demand on a dozen planets unable to produce Terran-type foodstuffs. Grain, leather, lumber. And he had added a dozen more items to the lengthening list of what Zarathustra could now produce in adequate quantities and no longer needed to import. Not fishooks and belt buckles either--blasting explosives and propellants, contragravity field generator parts, power tools, pharmaceuticals, synthetic textiles. The Company didn't need to carry Zarathustra any more; Zarathustra could carry the Company, and itself.

That takes care of 1 and 2, no?

Victor Grego gets a call from Leonard Kellog, chief of the Zarathustra Company's science division. Grego doesn't much like Kellog, who he sees as a fussy worry wart. Kellog's latest complaint is that a bush-hopping non-company scientist named Ben Rainsford is kicking up a fuss about a big swamp draining project on Beta Continent that's causing a drought and some abnormally hot weather.

"Suppose he is, Leonard? What could he report on us? We're a chartered company, and we have an excellent legal department, which keeps us safely inside our charter. It' is a very liberal charter, too. This is a Class-III uninhabited planet; the Company owns the whole thing outright. We can do anything we want as long as we don't violate colonial law or the Federation Constitution."

Okay, yeah, it's two men talking, but one is irritated with the other. We get some sense of each of their characters: Kellog is living embodiment of the Peter Principle, and Grego is a smooth, assured, very competent company honcho. While you're wondering what it's like to own and operate an entire planet, you're getting the groundwork for the whole Class III uninhabited vs Class IV inhabited legalism that drives the story later. And, incidentally, takes care of number 3 here on page 8.

In the third scene of the book, we meet a company lawyer and a scientist who are dating. We learn only a little from this scene (but some characterization groundwork is laid that becomes important later when it comes time to choose sides) but it advances what we know by saying that company scientists basically agree with Rainsford about the environmental effects of the big swamp-draining, it's just considered impolitic to say so.

The next chapter begins on page 15. The next two chapters (which pretty much accomplish what's left of the setup) take place at Jack's frontier compound in the boonies of Beta Continent.

Jack Holloway is bugged with himself because he's mislaid a wood chisel, evidently. Men who aren't careful with their gear don't last long in the wilderness. He startles a creature sheltering in his tool shed.

He meets "Little Fuzzy," as he comes to call the creature. It's small, about the size of a human baby, and mamilian. Little Fuzzy is vaguely humanoid and makes yeeking noises. He's got long silky hair and wide eyes.

Little Fuzzy gets over his shyness fast as they compare features. Jack's never seen anything like him on the planet before

Being a biped put it in a class by itself for this planet. It was just a Little Fuzzy, and that was the best he could do.

That sort of nomenclature was the best anybody could do on a Class-III planet. On a Class-IV planet, say Loki, or Shesha, or Thor, naming animals was a cinch. You pointed to something and asked a native and he'd gargle a mouthful of syllables at you, which might only mean, "Whaddaya wanna know for?" and you took it down in phonetic alphabet and the whatzit had a name. But on Zarathustra, there were no natives to ask. So this was a Little Fuzzy.

So we're getting some reinforcement of the whole Class III uninhabited vs. Class IV inhabited definition, giving us a little reminder of the all-important #3.

Turns out Little Fuzzy is also a chisel-thief. He uses it to kill, break open, and eat land prawns. Jack watches him hunt one and films the kill. He films Little Fuzzy doing a lot of things, including playing with sunstones, arranging them into shapes and admiring them from different angles, apparently just for the esthetic enjoyment of it.

While Little Fuzzy is playing, he gets attacked by a big aerial predator and Holloway shoots it. Little Fuzzy is impressed. Later while Jack is working, Little Fuzzy comes in, yeeking and dancing. Little Fuzzy puts three fingers to his forehead and snorts, then goes and runs to the gunrack. Holloway runs for his biggest gun. Turns out there's a three-horned "Damnthing" prowling around Jack's settlement. Jack brings it down -- just in time, it's like a mean-tempered rhino with the speed of a horse, and Little Fuzzy has possibly saved both their lives.

It occurs to Jack that during a crisis, Little Fuzzy didn't act like an animal at all. He communicated to Jack the danger, describing it as best as he could, and anticipated that Jack would head for his gun cabinet. The groundwork for 5 is laid by page 31.

Eventually he meets Little Fuzzy's family. He examines the various tools they've made out of bone and wood and flint. They only yeek, and they eat all their food raw. But they learn to use Jack's telescreen, have favorite shows, and use Jack's tools to make more hunting and gathering implements. A couple of company cops, sort of roving forest rangers, stop by and meet the Fuzzies and we get a discussion of the talk and build a fire rule. They're good friends with Jack. They mention that they've glimpsed creatures like the Fuzzies from their hovercar, but they always disappear when they descend to take a look. Jack shows them his growing collection of Fuzzy impelments and some of the videos he's made. They're acknowledge that Fuzzies are smart, but are they human smart or just crafty? From page 36:

"Do they make tools? Or tools to make tools with, like that saw?" There was no argument on that. "No. Nobody does that except people like us or the Fuzzies."

It was the first time he'd come right out and said that; the first time he had even consciously thought it. He realized that he'd he had been convinced of it all along, though. It started the constabulary lieutenant and trooper.

"You mean you think--" Lunt began.

"They dont' talk, and they don't build fires," Ahmed Khandra said, as though that settled it.

"Ahmed, you know better than that. That talk-and-build-a-fire rule isn't any scientific test at all."

"It's a legal test." Lunt supported his subordinate.

"It's a rule-of-thumb that was set up so that settlers on new plantes couldn't get away with murdering and enslaving the natives by claiming they thought they were only hunting and domesticating wild animals," he said. "Anything that talks and builds a fire is a sapient being, yes. That's the law. But that doesn't mean that anything that doesn't isn't."

That pretty much takes care of #4

So by page 36 in a 197 page novel the readers have everything they need to know about the conflicts, legal and scientific and moral, that are set up. Jack Holloway realizes that he's got a responsibility to protect these little people he's found. Or who found him.

He's on a planet, a valuable planet, owned and operated as a very profitable franchise by a company that controls just about everything. He's living with little furry neolithic evidence that could take a planet's worth of wealth away.

And he just told the company cops all about the Fuzzies.

Well, hope you got something out of this. Backstory and worldbuilding are some my favorite tasks in writing. Do it well, and your audience will love visiting your worlds, because they'll be so interested and excited by the action that they don't even know they're learning.
Tags: writing

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