Tuesday, January 29, 2013


Backstories are evil, and so are their cousins, prequels. And the worst of the lot are the "The Droids of Star Wars" type of volumes that pair ill-suited art with "backstory" info and masquerade as books.

I'll admit exceptions to the backstory claim: I enjoyed the appendices to Lord of the Rings just fine. But Tolkien was a good enough story-teller to make decent stories out most of them, and still leave plenty of mystery for flavor. 99.999% of the rest of us aren't and don't--the result is at best mediocre, and typically just bad.

There is no discipline in backstories. Got an idea? Chuck it in. No need to worry about pacing. And if there's a minor inconsistency in the real story, don't worry about it; a little creativity here and there in the backstory will make the inconsistency go away and leave the story utterly logical with all puzzles solved.

Suppose the secretary at the agency is a blonde when the PI arrives and a redhead when he leaves. This glitch is no mystery to the backstory writer: it is because she made a quick dash to the hairdresser in the meantime, which she could do because the company pioneered ultra-flex time, which the young heir pushed for, because he could not abide the regimentation of his childhood, which had been a family tradition since the Norman Conquest, which ... has nothing to do with the missing wife the PI was there to learn about. In the real story.

Niven's Ringworld series suffered badly from this. They aren't really backstories, but that's what drives them. Niven typically writes science fiction mysteries, where there's a puzzle that needs to be solved. Fine. But the puzzles get pretty cramped when you have to stack them inside fixes for mistakes in earlier stories, and feel you have to tie loose ends together everywhere. It turned out that a bare ringworld is unstable. That has implications for the design, and the tragedy of the commons means that that design feature will be misappropriated--all quite logical, but it feels forced.

Remember Dune and its (often iffy) sequels? OK, now do you remember the dreadful prequels? Prequels typically read as though the author is coloring in the lines rather than adventuring. Granted, there are sometimes irresistible possibilities: a minor character fit for a different set of adventures, but in those that come to mind the story was the better the farther away it was from the original. Zelazny didn't do too badly with Dilvish, for example. But Haggard's Ancient Allen (and apparently a lot of his similar works) was cookie-cutter.

Is it fair to say that a backstory is to a story like a blog is to a book? A story usually takes a lot more work...


Assistant Village Idiot said...

I hope the topic takes off. Tolkien's "back" stories worked because they were the real story.* It was the hobbit adventure that was cramped and squeezed to fit into its structure. Granted, there was re-influence back to the larger, thousands of years of history as Tolkien wrote LOTR. It wasn't a clean migration of facts from one to the other. But the appendices were more like drafts for a history textbook.

You get some of this in Narnia, but nowhere near as much - and I think those are the strongest parts of Lewis's narrative. My sons read many of the Star Wars auxiliary volumes, but I don't know how those fared.

My wife is likely to have useful things to say about this, and I will encourage here to think about it.

Dubbahdee said...

I would say that an author who can pull this off is Anne Rice. You may not be aware, but the original vampire trilogy spawned a whole nest of prequels and side stories. I haven't counted but I would guess at 10 or so. That's not counting her Mayfair Witches series which is only loosely connected but does occur in the same universe. I would have to say that these side stories often seemed to me even more fully realized and textured that the core novels. I loved them all. She is a dazzling and compelling story teller -- occasionally dipping a bit too far over the edge of the gothic equivalent of sentimentality. And she does have tendency to include details which turn out to be jarring anachronisms -- but I blame that on the editors.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

That uncompleted asterisk is that the languages were actually the real story, and the history an attempt to examine what would create changes. I still can't get my mind around that, and call the history the main point.

james said...

I don't know how Tolkien thought, but he could write very good verse and very good stories without the framework of the languages or the history. Leaf by Niggle, anyone?

Some authors claim that sometimes their characters seemed to step off on their own and the story develop in ways they didn't expect. Twain went into a lot of detail about the evolution of the Puddinhead Wilson story; eventually he split the story in two.

Someone who knew Tolkien better might be able to tell us whether he had the same experience. Perhaps he couldn't write a history outline without having a story grow out of it?

I haven't gotten around to reading Anne Rice; I gather she is a good writer, but her thesis didn't spark my interest. I should give her a chance.

I read somewhere that Tolkien complained that Narnia didn't seem to have any history outside the books--didn't have a sense of things offstage.

But you have a good point about The Magician's Nephew. I'd forgotten that one; a prequel that is as good as the rest.

Dubbahdee said...

I will allow as how Rice is not everyone's cup of tea. Yet I found her vampires to be in the tradition of the best kind of sci fi and other imaginative/speculative fiction in the sense that with the pictures she creates of "another race" she holds up a mirror to our own. He insight is both gorgeous, penetrating and frightening.

Strangely enough, I got started with Memnoch the Devil, which may be the most philosophical and least narrative of the bunch. It would have been like starting Dune by reading Children of Dune. But it hooked me nevertheless. Too much discourse, not enough plot. I like plot.

james said...

Do you have a recommendation for one to start with?

FWIW, I'm reading Three Men in a Boat right now. Project Gutenberg is wonderful.

Dubbahdee said...

@James, each book is complete and stands on it's own so that I would suggest starting with whatever you can get your hands on. I actually started by listening to audio recordings. I can't recall enough to recommend specific readers but the ones I heard were quite good.

After "Memnoch" I pretty much went to "Interview with a Vampire," "Vampire LeStat" and "Queen of the Damned." These are the core. All the others spin off from characters which appear in these three. I found the characters so compelling and Rice's writing (forgiving the occasional purple tone to which she is prone) so much fun that I consumed just about her entire canon within a year's time. Almost.

Only this year did I pick up the Mayfair Witches and found them to be the most hair raising of the lot. Save them til later.

Hope that helps.

james said...

Now that I think of it, The Magician's Nephew isn't very tightly coupled to the preceding books. There are 6 main links to what went before/came after: creation, human rulers, the lamppost, the witch, the professor, and the wardrobe.The wardrobe was intermittently magical, and didn't need to be explained. He described it, although he didn't quite explain it. The creation story was likewise unconstrained: he could write what he pleased. Jadis and the professor are actually slightly inconsistent with their "earlier" characteristics. The professor seems not to recognize the name Narnia, and Jadis isn't "giantish" but alien, and with qualities that seem not to match the "you can always get them back" type of witch (Prince Caspian). Also there's no explanation for her predilection for winter.

Or to put it another way, Lewis wrote a prequel without worrying a great deal about continuity or consistency, and focusing on telling a story. The only things that did seem to require a link were why humans should be rulers, and all Lewis did was establish it as a rule from the start, without explanation, and where the lamppost came from.

So it is a sort-of decoupled story, free to be developed almost entirely on its own, subject to the character of Aslan.