Before a story (a novel, a movie, a play, a comic book) begins, your main character has lived at least a little, experienced the world, seen and done and felt things that shape who he* is when the action begins. (Unless you want to go the Tristram Shandy route, I suppose, in which case more power to you.) Further, he lives in a world that did not come into being the moment he did (or at least, you have to make the reader believe he does, and that you’re not making it all up as you go along, if making it up as you go is your style), and that world works in a certain way. And you are going to have to convey all of this information to your readers without boring them to tears.
Two much-maligned techniques in fantastic fiction are the prologue and the info-dump, and they’re maligned for good reason: if done badly, they are boring as hell (if hell is boring? But nobody says “boring as Limbo” or “boring as the Greek Underworld”) and make impatient readers** put down your book and move on to something more entertaining. Now, how to make a prologue or an info-dump entertaining might be a good topic for another day (especially as I am not sure how, myself!), but today I’d like to look at a third way, one I don’t see used too often anymore, alas.
The other day I was moved to pick up and reread Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Sarantine Mosaic (an excellent fantasy based on the Byzantine Empire, and one I think everybody should read). Now, this book has a lot of backstory and worldbuilding information that the reader needs quickly, to follow the action of the plot: there’s Imperial politics, chariot racing, religion, a cast of just-about thousands; it truly is epic. Then there’s the main character, Caius Crispus, weighted down with grief and rage springing from recent experiences.
Yet Kay never assaults the reader with the long historical document-style prologue (I think this can work, but you have to be an amazing craftsman to catch both the style of a historical document and the reader’s attention), but cunningly works the needed information into the action of the story. You need to be up to speed on the politics of the Empire? Here, let’s watch a political assassination in progress, and establish the relationship of two main characters while we’re at it. Chariot racing is important, so here’s a young chariot racer observing the fallout of said assassination when all he wants is to be racing. Why is Crispin so angry and sad? How about a conversation with his mentor to establish the facts?
That old saw, “Show, don’t tell,” is key here. Readers’ mileage varies, of course, on how much work they’re willing to put into a story in order to get out needed information; I suppose readers probably exist who would rather just be told, “Crispin is angry and sad because–” But an excellent rule of writing (espoused by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, screenwriters of Pirates of the Caribbean fame) is, “Give your audience 2+2 and make them work out 4 on their own.”
If you are not quite sure how to do that, then you must study! Read books by past masters of their craft and try to puzzle out how they achieved that effect. (Plus reading more books is always good.) It isn’t even necessary, I think, to consciously bend one’s thoughts to the effort; simply absorbing lots and lots of good books may be enough. (I suppose it depends on how analytical a turn of mind you have, or how much you write by instinct and grace.)
What books are good? The books you love, of course. Find them and learn from them.
*Or she, yes, obviously; it’s not misogyny, it’s grammar.
**Like me. Sorry, guys. Life is too short, and time is too limited, to read boring books.