47

Gosh, I really think I'm quite clever sometimes. But what about those situations where the readers (audience) can be told, and they feel completely satiated and entertained by not going into the nuts and bolts. There are tons of examples: How about all the James Bond gadgets? Especially the fireball-shooting pen (Never Say Never Again, I think). And then there's the opposite, like the information dump from Morpheus to Neo in The Matrix. I ate them both up.

Why? What made me want to know everything in one situation but tune out the rational part of my brain in others? More importantly, how do I know when to keep world-building explanations short versus totally geeking-out?

I believe this is a writers question rather than a world builders since I'm not asking HOW to build a world.

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    BTW there are rocket pens (I think you mean Never Say Never Again) e.g. wideopenspaces.com/… (skip to about 2:20 in the video)... though the "gallon of gasoline" level of explosion from a one-inch pen rocket seems highly unlikely. – Dronz Feb 5 '17 at 18:38
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    Television series like Warehouse 13 are filled with handwavery. It just works, we don't exactly know how and everyone can follow the show just fine. – Mast Feb 7 '17 at 7:39
  • I believe you are perfectly correct; this is about the writing part, not the building a world part. Now, if you had been asking how to explain that a flux capacitor allows time travel... that's where Worldbuilding SE comes in. – a CVn Feb 7 '17 at 14:50
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    When you the author don't know how it works and don't want to say something dumb. – Joshua Feb 4 at 23:46
55

I think there are two basic reasons for describing anything in fiction.

One is to give sensual pleasure in its own right. There are all sorts of sensual pleasures that prose might convey, from the erotic to the gastronomic to the social. Tom Clancy's loving descriptions of really big machines with really big guns are designed to titillate those of certain tastes. The depiction of suffering and injustice in the works of more liberal minded authors is designed to give a frisson of self-righteousness to the reader. Harry Potter depends heavily on the child's pleasure in the fantasy of being special and powerful, of being rewarded for extraordinary gifts where others would be scolded and sent to bed.

The sensual appeal can be very strong, but it is also very individual. What entrances one reader will repulse another.

The other reason for description in literature is to support story. This is about what we need to know to follow the story and to feel fully immersed in the story.

The reason backstory dumps are so often a problem for writers is that they often come before the reader cares about them. Unless they are well enough written to give sensual pleasure, and the reader is receptive to that particular brand of sensual pleasure, then the description is tedious if it is not relevant to the story as the reader is currently experiencing it.

Back to the Future is a fish out of water story. How the flux capacitor works is not story relevant, and would not give sensual pleasure to most of the intended audience, so it is not detailed in the movie.

The Matrix is a much more philosophical movie. It deals with the ancient philosophical question of how we can know if anything is real. Contemplating this question gives us the pleasure of feeling clever and feeling superior to the lesser minds who go around blissfully believing everything they see. It is also relevant to the story at the point it is given (as best I remember) because Neo needs to know the nature of the thing he is fighting.

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    "Tom Clancy's loving descriptions of really big machines with really big guns" I misread that as "Tom Clancy's loving descriptions of really big machine guns", but it's pretty much as correct either way. – Nic Hartley Feb 6 '17 at 4:26
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    "The reason backstory dumps are so often a problem for writers is that they often come before the reader cares about them" - This should be bolded, underlined and flashing red. Timing is absolutely critical to the success of heavy exposition. The Matrix runs for a good while before we get the info dump, and the exposition in that movie is cool when we get it. – Rapscallion Feb 7 '17 at 10:54
  • @Rapscallion: on the other hand, what immediately sprung to my mind was "Concerning Hobbits" and the rest. Of course it is heavy and boring, but the Reader should also work a bit, not just the Writer. – István Zachar Oct 29 '18 at 12:55
  • @Rapscallion - As a counterexample, I present: Every Star Wars movie. They put the exposition dump right at the beginning. Worse yet, it's a text crawl. Who wants to be forced to read at the beginning of a movie? But yet these are some of the most popular and successful films of all time despite that. – Darrel Hoffman Mar 15 at 19:13
  • @DarrelHoffman They have some pretty good music they're set to, though. And they don't take long. And it literally doesn't matter if you just rest your eyes until the movie actually starts. Try that with a book. – sgf Mar 18 at 22:55
21

It's a Your Mileage May Vary situation, but I think there are two good rules of thumb:

1) Explain only as much as you need for the story to make sense. This will vary depending on your audience, but roughly, anything specialized to your world or your story will need a minimum of explanation. Your readers are, at a baseline, familiar with 2017 (today's) technology. Anything set after that (or before it) will need to be accounted for. Today, if Person A wants to contact Person B, s/he pulls a cell phone out of his/her pocket. In 1942, you had to find a physical phone. In 1895, you had to send a telegram or a letter. In 2060, we might have data transmission chips in our heads, so you only have to think the message.

You need to explain what the chip is, and that a message sent from one chip to another is called a shunt, or shunting. What you don't need to do is explain is how the chip actually works. You have to establish that your character has a chip which can send and receive, you need to run through the procedure of Activate Chip — New Message — Address Book — Compose — Send or however it works the first time, and then that's it. Don't belabor the details. After that, it's "Betty sent a quick shunt to Carl about dinner. He shunted back //sure, sounds fine//, so she made the reservation for eight."

2) Explain only what matters for the story. Your alien city may have a magnificent monorail circling it, and in your worldbuilding backstory you had a whole two-year political fight about getting the permits and securing the space and protests and jobs and pollution and people buying and selling land and so forth, but if the only time the character sees the monorail is on approach... you don't need to tell the reader any of the backstory. It's not relevant. The only details you need to share are the ones which affect plot and character.

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    Loved the shunting. – Sara Costa Feb 5 '17 at 22:45
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    That 2-year political fight could become an interesting bit of trivia, or part of someone's rant, though -- imagine some disgruntled good guy politician, fighting against the elite, ranting about how "it took us two g------ed years to get the monorail up. You know, that thing that cut cross-city transit time in half, and boosted the GDP by a good four percent? They fought it because one of their houses would have had to go down, and people suffered until I finally beat it into their thick skulls that it was going up." It's small, but it makes the world feel a little bit bigger. – Nic Hartley Feb 6 '17 at 4:30
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    @QPaysTaxes oh, absolutely! I never said the backstory shouldn't be written, or that it couldn't be used. My point was that if the ONLY time the monorail is referenced is in a beginning flyby, then artificially jamming in the backstory just because it's cool doesn't add anything. If you can work it in — if the character is walking around a neighborhood which was improved (or destroyed) by the construction, if the political infighting is important to what the character is doing, it's part of a larger scheme, etc. — then that's relevant to the plot. – Lauren Ipsum Feb 6 '17 at 13:30
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    @QPaysTaxes That's why my last line is "affect plot and character." Your suggested rant would absolutely flesh out the good-guy politician's character, so that's completely relevant. – Lauren Ipsum Feb 6 '17 at 13:31
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    @LaurenIpsum Ooh, I missed that. To be totally honest, I just wanted to write a rant about monorails. – Nic Hartley Feb 6 '17 at 13:33
12

Do you build on it?

Sometimes the device is something your story needs, but doesn't need to dwell on; sometimes the story revolves around it as a central conceit.

For example, let's take the power requirements of the flux capacitor in Back To The Future. The plot arc of the first film revolves around its staggering requirements -- the uranium leads to Doc getting shot in 1985, strands Marty in 1955 with only one shot at returning to his own timeline via a lightning strike. So much information, which is directly driving the plot.

In the sequel, it's completely resolved -- Mr. Fusion provides all the power the flux capacitor needs; briefly displayed occasionally but otherwise entirely irrelevant and no longer requiring the audience's attention.

We need to know about the power requirements to comprehend the plot and the issues are front and centre, brought up early, foreshadowed; but when it is no longer plot relevant we place a fig-leaf over it and no longer draw attention to it.

Explaining the limitations and requirements of your time-travel solution are critical, especially if you want to play with them later; 88 mph is established early on, and only really becomes relevant in episode 3.

10

You really should only explain something if it helps define the purpose of your story. Remember that the story is a piece of art, and as such it is to convey a feeling (or set of feelings) to the audience.

Things can change based on perspective. For example, in first person, Mark may go on and on about the "legs on that girl", because your trying to get the audience to understand that Mark is a "legs man" and a bit of "dog". In third person, you may only mention that Mark was staring at "that girls legs" for what seemed like hours. There's no reason to go into detail. In both cases, you got the point across. The "girl" and her legs may not even be a plot point beyond setting up "Mark" and his state of mind and attitudes.

There is often a desire to "geek out" on explanations. But it generally doesn't help the story too much. A famous example would be Star Wars and "midichlorians". We watched and loved the first three movies, with out knowing anything about midichlorians. "The force" was just a thing that did stuff. In episode 1, when it was explained into the story, it kinda sucked, it was a disappointment. It wasn't needed, and the story would have been better off (though some may disagree) if Qui Gon Jinn just said "The force is unusually strong with this one" and moved on.

Even the "dump" from The Matrix, helped set up the plot. It explained that the world was not what it seems, and that humans are D-Cell batteries. That "the machines" are the enemies. All important parts. By contrast the "Architect Speech" is often thought of as one of the worst parts of the trilogy. We were much happier when Neo just did awesome action things, without having to get into the mechanics of why. Agent Smith was Neo's enemy, that was good enough, we didn't need more.

In The Wheel of Time Series, there is "The one power", we don't know how it works. It comes from the "good guys" part of the "source". We know there is a Male part, and a Female part. We know about differences between both parts. But we never really get the full picture. The glimpses we do get either further the plot (Men go crazy, Women don't. Rand has to teach him-self, kinda.) or serve to highlight one of the main themes of the story (Men and women are different). By that same token, I don't remember there being a sex scene with Matt in the entire series (maybe with the queen, but I don't think so), but you certainly know he likes the ladies, and likes getting into trouble with them.

So, the point is, unless your are making a point, or furthering a plot. Let the magic be magic. No one know how Harry Potter magic works other then is has something to do with wands some times, or words other times, and either you got it or you don't.

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    The force is unusually strong with this answer. – user5645 Feb 6 '17 at 12:27
4

I feel like the conciseness of the explanation of the Flux Capacitor was to point out both characters' personalities and the mysterious nature of the device.

Here we have Marty, who really doesn't have much of a head for science, despite hanging out with the town's resident mad scientist. Then we have Doc, who is established as an unstable, but more importantly, misunderstood scientific genius.

And lastly we have the Flux Capacitor, a device which did not emerge from carefully-developed theory but from head trauma. While Doc presumably spent a lot of time developing the device in the thirty years between his rather appropriate clock-hanging accident and the completion of the Time Machine, it would seem the basic theory came from the head trauma. As with many time travel stories, the time travel mechanic is mysterious in nature and almost feels brought about by destiny itself (which is a theme in the story).

It was important for Doc's explanation of the Flux Capacitor to be unsatisfactorily brief in order to accomplish all of those goals:

  1. Marty doesn't really care how it works, and wouldn't understand if Doc tried. Hence his not asking for further clarification.
  2. Doc remains misunderstood, as we aren't allowed to see any line of reasoning that brought him to the invention of the Flux Capacitor. In fact, there is no line of reasoning, which confirms the suspicions of the principal, Mr. Strickland.
  3. The Flux Capacitor remains a mysterious device resulting from a freak happenstance rather than something rational that the audience can understand.

Compare and contrast with a scene from Batman Begins:

Lucius Fox: [Bruce Wayne is recovering after being poisoned by Scarecrow] I analyzed your blood, isolating the receptor compounds and the protein-based catalyst.
Bruce Wayne: Am I meant to understand any of that?
Lucius Fox: Not at all, I just wanted you to know how hard it was. Bottom line, I synthesized an antidote.

This scene also accomplishes the goal of making Fox's procedure sound beyond comprehension, but establishes Fox as extremely rational and competent instead of unstable.

So it depends on what you're trying to accomplish. Think about what it means for the explanation to exist, what it means for a character to say it, and what it means for other characters to hear/react to it.

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