Last Wednesday I integrated world-building into my latest story in a subtle way. It began with the boy, Cace, being angry at the girl, Aylme. Cace is trying to have a heated argument with her and she calmly refuses to answer his queries until he “tips his lamp.” This is an unfamiliar expression to my readers, but it becomes clear when Cace takes a literal lamp and pours some glowing essence out of it. As he does so his emotions calm to a more rational state.
And I don’t try to explain that. I leave it to the audience to work out that the children’s passions are somehow tied to these lamps, and by physically pouring them out they can calm their own moods.
Why? Frankly I don’t think it matters. What does this imply about the world? Definitely something, but I won’t waste my time trying to answer that.
Knowing that these lamps exist and are tied to the emotions of the children is important for evoking the sort of mystical world I want. But anything beyond that won’t actually help with appreciating the drama between those children.
A little bit later I made a statement in passing that was also meant to give color to the children and their situation:
It was a perpetual dusk in this place, and the children refugees had absolutely no notion of how many days had actually passed since they arrived.
There’s that one standout word: refugees. So these children are on the run from somewhere? But why? Was there a war? A famine? What happened to their families?
All fair questions, and some of this will be explored in later chapters, but only enough to raise more questions and very few answers. Because I want for this world to feel mysterious. I want the reader to not understand everything. I want them to understand that these children are in trouble, that they are fighting to survive, and that their emotions are heavily strained…but once they understand those facts then I am ready to tell my story, and I won’t go backwards to explain things that aren’t directly part of that.
Killing the Magic)
This is a topic that I have touched on before. When I was writing Raise the Black Sun I addressed the fact that some story elements were being implied and not fully spelled out. At the time I made the argument that this approach allowed for the world to seem far more complex, as if it was composed of a thousand folds, of which we only saw the occasional ruffle. It created a sense that the world went too deep for me to have words to describe it all, so I just had to limit myself to the surface elements and leave the rest to the imagination.
All my life I have loved stories that do exactly this, and I have been frustrated at the current trend of franchises that explore backstories that never needed to be elaborated on.
Take the character of Han Solo in Star Wars, for instance. When audiences first met the man in 1977 he was a cynical drifter, making his way through life with little regard for destination or greater purpose. He got involved with the heroes just to make a quick buck and rolled his eyes at their belief in something bigger than themselves.
This cynicism of his is established right away in his opening scene, and to help convey that personality the scene is also peppered with references that we never get the full explanation of. He did the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs? What’s that? He lost a shipment and has a price on his head? What happened there? And what’s with his furry companion? How did they end up together?
Frankly none of that matters and the film wisely avoids delving into it. It is only used to establish a character with an implied past, and from there it moves forward, not backward. This isn’t supposed to be a movie about everything that makes Han Solo tick, its supposed to be about the Force awakening in a young man and a Rebel Alliance challenging a mighty Empire.
But then, of course, Star Wars became a multi-billion-dollar franchise. Fans fell in love with the universe and along with it the character of Han Solo. And, unfortunately, these days it seems that any beloved character has to have their entire backstory filled out. Thus, three years ago we received Solo, a film dedicated to answering all of those unimportant questions about the character. We found out what the Kessel run is and how Han Solo was involved in it. We learned the origins of his relationship with Chewbacca and Lando. We saw how he came to possess his famous ship the Millennium Falcon. We even discovered answers to questions we had never had, such as the origin of his surname “solo.”
And you know what? It wasn’t a very satisfying experience. Because these elements were never meant to be the foundation of a feature-length film. A story of how a person meets people and gets his name and ship just isn’t as compelling as a story about rebels defying an empire and the unveiling of a mystical power. Backstory really isn’t story, it’s just information. It’s great for a “did you know?” fact book, but not for a film or novel.
What is a Story?)
At the end of the day, a story is supposed to be more than just facts or information. It will undoubtedly divulge facts and information along its way, but they do not define what the story itself is.
At its core a story is about an interesting situation and how that situation is resolved. That’s what makes a story a story, and that is true for Covalent. The situation is that there are three refugee children struggling to survive in a mystical forest, and I employed some interesting facts to help establish that situation. But now those facts have served their purpose and will not be dwelled on further. Instead I will dwell on the actual story, which is about how the children either reach their liberation or their demise. Come back on Wednesday as we pursue that question further.