Backstory is a problem. I like to say the story is a world, carried on the back of a turtle, called backstory.
The story — of course — gets the bulk of the explanation. The turtle, however, doesn’t (or perhaps shouldn’t) need any explanation. It provides motivation and genesis for events. If we spend too much time on backstory, we’re meta-writing (writing about the story) instead of telling the interesting story.
In some cases, stories don't require an elaborate backstory. The turtle can be safely assumed because it matches the “real” world; or the turtle is defined by the conventions of a genre. In other cases, the backstory is created via a practice called "world-building" to create the root causes for the visible story.
The backstory can, of course, have yet more backstory. When the turtle is standing on the back of another turtle, we may have gone too far. This can elaborate into a Tolkienic world with multiple ages where events from the first age still echo into the end of the third age (It seems to me Elrond and Arwen are still sorting out problems caused by the actions of their ancestors, Beren and Luthien. Which begs the question of why the elves are in Middle Earth in the first place.)
I’m not sure how beneficial a stack of turtles is. Without the top-most turtle, the story fails to be gritty, detailed, and immersive fantasy. But does the turtle really need to stand on another turtle?
More importantly, how much world-building is enough? How complete does the world description need to be?
See Gritty, Detailed, Immersive for more thoughts on world-building. I’m well past the problems I noted in that particular blog post; those details have been elaborated and it feels really good. Indeed, during read-aloud, my partner had a good “oh!” when the fruits of the rewrite eventually surfaced in Book II, The Sword and The Crystal.
But, now, there’s this:
Two of the Red Knight’s squires are of the Red Knight’s father’s generation. They were in some war or other when they were younger. Because of the Red Knight’s need for secrecy, the war stories become cool reveals to the Mage.
But. War stories lead to further questions: What war? Against whom? Since the outcome of that war is the Kingdom of the East we see in the story, that means the kingdom was — somehow — different before. This means I’ve got a longer history to fill in. How was the kingdom then? While history is written by the winners, we still need to know the loser’s story in order to find the truth.
In Book II, The Sword and the Crystal, I mention the forty-second Great Mage of the Temple to emphasize a point using the Mage’s (misplaced) trust of historical precedent. I think of the Great Mages like Catholic Popes; leading to at least five hundred years of history behind the anecdote. I worry about expanding the back story into hundreds of dead mages just to get to a millennium of temple history.
Wars. Borders. Temples. Kings. Gritty. Immersive. Details. I need to get this right. And then expose as little as necessary to tell a story of sword-fights, monsters, justice, and love.