Posted January 11, 2011on:
I don’t know about you but I feel kind of funny about saying everything in a story. In part this is because the story logic gets in the way. If the story assumes that a given culture exists and has existed for a great long time, then it makes no sense to have the characters say things that explain that history and culture for the reader. This is the great problem of backstory and exposition in general, getting out all the history and structure of your world so the reader understands the context of their actions. Clearly this is work that has to be done, explicitly but not clumsily. As you already know.
In a slightly different vein, there are numerous cases in which details that lend a certain depth or flavor to the story need to be put in. These, being details, are small, often casual comments that have a basis in the story logic but are not contributory to the story itself. Depending on how different the world is from our own, there are either more or less of these little details, but never none. The funny thing is that this is more of a problem the closer this world is to our own. I noticed a while back, while reading a philosophical paper on abortion, strangely enough, that the further away you get with your hypothetical cases, i.e., the fictional world of the story, the more of these details there are. Which is not a good thing for philosophical papers (especially that one). For fantasy novels this actually simplifies things, since you can’t take any of these details as implied. You have to state them. Only when the world is very similar do we have the problem of having to tell our readers the things that normal people in this world would take for granted.
As an example, in my current WIP, Ghostkiller, the entire group of Ghostkillers all go by the last name of Smith (don’t ask me why, I haven’t figured out the reason for it yet, but I’m sure there’s a good one). So it follows (see the story logic element here?) that they would all refer to each other by first name. It further follows that not referring to someone by first name is a bit of a snub, while referring to someone who isn’t a Ghostkiller by first name is inclusive, i.e., a friendly act.
I have a lot more of these, as Ghostkiller is supposed to be set in a world very similar to ours, except for the ghosts and the killing of them. The problem is, how obvious are these things supposed to be to the reader? My preference is to let implication do its subtle work, and just use these elements without hitting the reader over the head to make him notice how clever I was. On the other hand, in several of my stories I’ve had it impressed upon me that I left too much to be implied, and had to add a lot of text to make it clearer what was going on.
Where do you draw the line?