Thursday, March 17, 2011

Tip: Showing...History?

Well, history is a tricky thing.  Why?  Except by means of fiction, history is always told.

Now, for the likes of me, history's not all that bad.  I own Tolkien's the Silmarillion as well as other collections of Tolkien's histories.  I love reading them.  However, even for people like me, there is a limit of how much history you can read before passing out.  O_o  Mainly, this is due to the lack of 1) Showing 2) Actual POV 3) and the general factual nature of the plot.

In fantasy and sci-fi (and to a lesser extent, regular fiction) history is usually coupled with prose, making it more interesting.  We eliminate the lack of a POV in history writing, and we tone down the factual stuff.  However, it's still more dense and hard-to-get-through than, say, a battle scene, or a normal dialogue.  And some writers make the mistake of an information dump, one of the writing fallacies I hold to be very, very deadly.

An information dump is where you introduce characters, places, things, ideas, religions, names, etc. in large amounts, clumped together.  It causes confusion in the reader and annoyance, jolting them out of the story.  This is the telling side of history in fiction.

Not good.

So how in the world do we show history?  It's an oxymoron by itself.  And flashbacks aren't always the way to go.  History, specifically in fantasy, needs to be explained.  Who is this guy?  What's this place?  Where is it located?  What happened to exile this person?

And explaining it tends to be telling.  So we need to find a way to do show and explain history at the same way.

One of the popular ways is to have a person in a novel on whom we can dump information. It's a clueless person who has no idea what's going on, and so things need to be explained to them.  In this way, events and places are explained to the reader in a believable way, without 'telling'.  It is very, very useful.

There are other ways, too.  A very simple (and limited) way to 'tell' where someone is without telling is to just spit it out. My readers have no idea where my characters are, so I write this: "The man, staring out over the dry, desolate landscape of the Sunlands, didn't answer for a few moments."  I just told them that they were in the Sunlands, without telling.  If that makes any sense. ;)

Alluding to things in conversation works well too.  I 'told' my readers that three brothers were attempting to regain their father's throne in the first chapter....through their dialogue.  That, in itself, is almost a whole 'nother post, but revealing history through dialogue--or even the telling of a story from one of the characters--is very good for 'showing' history.

Memory is another way to show history (as well as backstory).  One of my characters was from a certain location, and the other character (whom he was speaking with) recalled some memories he had of that place.

What kinds of showing do you find helpful when revealing history?  Or are you not much of a history person?

Until next time.

6 comments:

Marian said...

I love historical fiction. That being said, I dislike lengthy info dumps, unless they're particularly witty and personable. What I dislike even more are "keyword" conversations, where the characters are proclaiming facts and history, just for the sake of informing the audience. This works well when done subtly, but a lot of movies (for example) aren't subtle about it.

I do like the "memory" method that you mentioned. It's interesting to hear an eye-witness narrative, and that way there is a personal connection between the history and the person.

Jake said...

Indeed. It's only worthwhile if it is done subtly.

I mentioned the memory method because I found it just today, while writing. It's an interesting way of doing it.

Eldra said...

I happened to use the memory method just two days ago withtout realizing that I'd done it until I read this post. Information can sometimes be a tricky thing to share with the reader, especially when you're writing in a completely made-up world.

Barie said...

I personally dislike the informing the clueless person route. It's annoyingly cliche. Just my opinion though. I'm sure if done right it could work.

Hannah said...

I think I agree with you, Barie. :) It's annoying for any kind of information dump. Although I myself hadn't had any practice in relating this (I'm just restarting my novel) I'm going to have to seeing as I have delved into the souls of my characters and come up bearing history. :)

Jake said...

@Eldra
Indeed, that is the way it often happens. The thing you have to do is to find out what you are doing, how it helps, and why you are doing it. :)

@Barie
Greetings! Haven't seen you 'round for a while. :) Indeed, the clueless person route is cliche unless done right. The trick is spreading out the information to make it sound natural. :)

@Hannah
Hope it goes well! History gives a story depth. Tolkien's world felt real because he had a positively MASSIVE history. o_O Each character had a complex history and even a genealogy!