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As writers we're supposed to know more about our stories than the words that make it onto the page. Can a character refer to something that happened, but happened off-page? As the writer, I know that it in fact happened, and there's nothing to negate the occurrence in the story (it did happen, but was not written into the draft.)

Example off the top of my head:

Betty thought, 'Mom used to talk about the mailman.' Betty says to the mailman, "My mom really likes you."


If Betty's mom talking about the mailman is not anywhere in the written story, on any page, is Betty's thought acceptable within the story? Or, do readers expect to have seen Mom talking about the mailman before Betty declares that it happened? Is it a shortcut to not have the event, simply a thought from Betty? Shoehorning the event into the story feels unnecessarily bulky.

(I feel like there must be a line here. Obviously, characters refer to all sorts of things all the time. I can't put my finger on what it is about this thought of Betty's that I'm unsure of.)

  • 4
    "This is just like Budapest," "You and I remember Budapest very differently!" – Thomo May 1 '18 at 23:12
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Great question. I've been using this technique in my new book (after recommending it frequently here), and it can be a real temptation to try to stuff worldbuilding details into the text. The whole utility of it, however, is to allow connections to happen naturally, and thus imply a whole, coherent, expansive universe offstage.

So, for your example, you know from your worldbuilding that Betty's mom liked the mailman. So it would be a natural thing for Betty to mention to the mailman when she sees him. You don't need to shoehorn in a scene of Betty's mom talking about the mailman --that defeats the whole point. But you also don't want to make Betty say it just so you can use it. That also defeats the point. (And you definitely don't want to have her first think it and then immediately say it!) What you want is to just have that available to draw on if Betty should have the need to make smalltalk with the mailman. Otherwise, you might get to that point in the story, and flail around, or come up with something more clunky.

In my current writing, I've learned that unexpected dialog, details, and entire subplots have opened up when I've needed them, all because of that prior worldbuilding (did Betty's mom have an affair with the mailman, perhaps?). But there still remain plenty of worldbuilding "facts" that won't be in the final book at all. So, to summarize, not only can a character refer to something offstage, that capacity is really the whole point of offstage worldbuilding.

  • Thank you and +1 ... I think there still need to be hints up front, so the reader doesn't say, "Wait. I never saw tension between the mom and the mailman." Maybe not a scene ... but something. A look, or something. i can imagine them saying, 'Wait, what?' to Betty's declaration. I think this is the crux of my confusion, how to avoid the reader thinking 'Wait, what?' But it's tricky, because readers don't want to be confused by an odd gesture. I'm wrestling with it. – DPT May 2 '18 at 14:30
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    @DPT Here's an example from my current project: One character makes a quip about another being a spoiled rich boy. From my worldbuilding, I know that the other boy was born rich, but his parents got divorced and he is now on a scholarship. So he reacts angrily. I didn't feel any need to hint about it, or explain it in other ways, it just let me know that he would have a different reaction than the one I would have probably written without the worldbuilding work. Same with Betty --it's just an offhand comment, it doesn't need to be explained. But you wouldn't have thought of it otherwise – Chris Sunami May 2 '18 at 14:52
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In ancient Greek drama, characters looked from walls and told the other characters (and the audience) what they saw from there. This technique – called teichoscopy, literally "observe from the city wall" – was used to narrate events that could not be brought onto the stage, such as battling armies or natural phenomena. A similar and often employed technique is the report of a messenger or scout.

Today, the term teichoscopy or its translation are used in literary theory to describe any kind of report of events through a character in the story. It is a common literary technique today, and whole novels have been written from that perspective. For example, in Martin Walser's Ein sterbender Mann [A Dying Man], the narrator reconstructs the story of the protagonist from his letters, emails, and blog posts.

It is absolutely common that characters tell other characters (and, indirectly, the reader) of events they have witnessed. It is perfectly fine for you to make use of this age-old and time-proven technique as well.

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