Friday, December 23, 2011

The Perils of Mythology

I was reading an older blog post by John Scalzi about why Star Wars isn’t entertainment -

I don’t really agree with Scalzi (I do think that even in the prequels that Lucas was attempting to entertain) but it did get me thinking about the perils of mythology and backstory.

For the last two weeks, I’ve been knee deep in a project called, for now at least, The Last Tomorrow (or if you follow me on the tweets, Project Fred) which is a project with a very complex and large backstory. It’s fundamentally about the way the past can’t be denied, no matter how hard you try, and that the future isn’t set, so this is kind of par for the course.

The backstory is revealed slowly over the course of the series and is, I think, a pleasantly twisty and knotty affair. But backstory and the mythology of your own personal universe can be a dangerous thing for writers, because they are fun and they are easy.

The key part of the backstory is the back bit – you’re talking about stuff that by definition happens before the story you’re actually telling. Because it happened in the past, you tend to give the big picture view of the whole thing, stripped of the beats and pulses that make a story real.

Backstory can be, and very, very often is, interesting. But at the same time, it almost always lacks the narrative thrust of actual story, and not having to sweat that makes it easy to write.

Writing backstory in that sense is very much like creating nations or drawing maps. It’s fun, it’s relatively simple and it’s easy. So there is a temptation to just do that instead of doing the actual work of telling the story.

I know in The Last Tomorrow, because it’s in part a mystery story, I have to keep a real eye on balancing out the revelation of the mythology of this world with telling the fucking story. The backstory might be clever and all, and I hope that it is, but if it becomes the focus of the work rather than a way to highlight the story being told, then I’ve done something every wrong.

Backstory, ultimately, tends to be hollow. It’s a broad strokes version of what happened that lead to the actual story, and that’s fine, but it’s not enough on its own. And it is very easy to fall in love with it and forget what you’re there to do.

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