In defense of fantasy

As writers go, fantasy writers don’t get a lot of respect in this world. Genre fiction in general doesn’t get a lot of respect outside the circles of those who read it or write it—unless of course someone manages to write a bestseller and make a lot of money. That always seems to be okay with people.

I think fantasy in particular just seems frivolous to many people. There’s also the sense that it’s a form of escapism, which some people see as a weakness. I could defend the escapist aspect of fantasy on the grounds that it exercises the imagination. You may or may not think imagination is an important thing to exercise, but that’s not actually where I want to go with this post. (I already explained in a previous post that I believe storytelling developed in humans because it’s useful, and that exercising the imagination is part of that.)

I have a more fundamental point to make here: There’s an element of fantasy in all fiction. Otherwise, it would be nonfiction. In order to create a work of fiction, a writer has to reach beyond what exists or has existed in terms of characters and events. What fantasy writers—and also science fiction writers—do that sets them apart most from other fiction writers is they also venture beyond the known in terms of setting. Characters and events can also be fantastic, of course, but for writers in the fantasy and sci-fi genres setting is fair game and often a large part of the fun. (Fantasy and science fiction tend to grade into each other and are often lumped together, so I don’t particularly try to separate them here.)

Now, I’m sure a lot of the fantasy and sci-fi fans out there are saying, wait a minute! Just because our writers make up a lot of stuff doesn’t mean they don’t have to worry about making things be true to life. Characters still have to be believable in their reactions to those fantastic events. Outside the boundaries of any magic involved, the laws of physics still have to apply. And of course this is the other half of my point. There has to be something in the story that is congruent with the reader’s experience. Otherwise, there will be nothing for him or her to relate to and no reason to be interested in the story.

So, my point is: All types of fiction must contain both elements that are novel (that’s why it’s called a “novel”) and elements that are familiar. Fantasy is just one end of a continuum, one that allows the mind a particularly free rein—at least potentially. Fantasy, like any genre or class of fiction, has its own conventions and tropes. There are in fact sub-genres within fantasy, and within science fiction, each with its own conventions which may be unfamiliar or even distracting or annoying to other readers. But the best of fantasy, like the best of any type of fiction, is not blandly conventional. Rather, it stretches that envelope. It gives us visions either strange or wonderful, because it is fantasy, but it also provides us a glimpse of uncompromising truth.

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Lessons in the Past Perfect 5: Backstory

If you write fiction, sooner or later you,re going to have to deal with backstory. Backstory is all the past history of the characters, setting, and situation that happened before the story begins. While writers may imagine more backstory details they actually use, they’re going to have to convey enough of the details to allow the reader to understand the story, the character’s motivations, etc. Since backstory is in the past, by definition, relative to the story action, it’s pretty hard to deal with—correctly, at least—without using the past perfect tense. On the other hand, long explanatory paragraphs in past perfect are just the kind of thing that gives this verb tense a bad name, because of all those had’s.

Long paragraphs of backstory are often called “info-dumps,” and widely considered to be no-no’s. The truth, however, is that long paragraphs of any kind can be a problem, and an info-dump—to my way of thinking—is any delivery of backstory that is intrusive or awkward or badly-done. “Work it into the story” is a common suggestion for avoiding info-dumps, but I’ve seen that done badly, too, with bits of backstory inserted seemingly at random with too little continuity and very little relation to the specific context in the story where they are placed. Backstory delivery should be on a need-to-know basis.

If you’re setting up a fantasy world, an alien planet, a future setting, etc, your readers need to know a lot up front. You may need some fairly concentrated chunks of backstory and you shouldn’t shrink from the use of a few had’s. Don’t overload your readers with too much information, of course, but don’t starve them either.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to keep your need for “had” to a minimum. You should just try to do it legally. And if you bend the rules, never sacrifice clarity.

Here are some things to remember:

Habitual actions don’t require the past perfect tense, as long as they are continuing habits. The same applies to statements of the status quo. They cover the past and the present.

John always took a walk in the park on Sunday afternoons. (He did then, and still does.)

The anti-blasphemy laws infiltrated every aspect of people’s lives and were rigorously enforced. (This is the current state of affairs and has presumably been going on for some time.)

In a sentence with a compound past perfect verb, you only need to use “had” once:

The effects of the potion had confused her. She had lost her way and wandered into the magician’s trap. (Only two had’s, not three.)

Also, use of phrases in the progressive tense or the infinitive can dilute the past perfect:

The effects of the potion had confused her, causing her to lose her way and wander into the magician’s trap. (Only one had.)

Past events referred to in dialog use the simple past tense:

“Remember, I went all the way to the other end of the earth to get that thing.” “Yes, and you nearly got killed half a dozen times along the way. First there were the hostile natives who ambushed you. Then a leopard pounced out of a tree…” (etc.)

But beware of the “dialog info-dump.” You’ve all seen or heard these, where a character starts spewing details that would be common knowledge to all the other characters present and that no one would actually say. This feels completely unnatural and is very distracting.

If you really want to ditch the past perfect, do make liberal use of time tags to ensure clarity:

A century ago, that just wasn’t how things were done. Divorce carried a significant stigma at that time, which explained why Joshua remained in his loveless marriage to Anna and why the daughter Suzette bore to him grew up without knowing who her father was. (I would probably go to past perfect in the next sentence, unless I could work in another time tag.)

Breaking up a stretch of backstory by intercutting it with current action can work very well—if carefully done. Typically, a character is reminiscing about the past while passively watching some event or engaging in some simple, straightforward activity. The main pitfall comes from failing to be scrupulously clear about which bits are present and which bits are past. This is not the place to scrimp on past perfect or on time tags. Place and season and other diagnostic details can also help clue the reader as to what is ongoing action and what is backstory.

Rigo watched the muster of the troops from the balcony of the Winter Palace in Orman. There were too few of them and they moved stiffly, their uniforms inadequate against the cold. Many of them were also feeling the stiffness of old wounds. As he watched, Rigo couldn’t help remembering a different muster, in a different place and time. It had been spring then in Astergard, a hopeful season, and there had been many more men marching to the drums with a spring in their step. They had thought they were going out to put down a little rebellion—they’d be back in a week. That had been two years ago, before the death of the king, the fall of the capital city, and the overrunning of half the kingdom by “rebels” who had turned out to be the magically-conjured minions of the mysterious Mage-Lord. On the balcony, Rigo shivered as snow began to fall. Below him, the young prince—far too young, too green—rode out to review his troops. (You get the idea. I could go on, making up more details of the present situation and more details of its history, and alternating them.)

One thing not to do, is to put the first couple of sentences in past perfect and then lapse back into simple past without using clarifying time tags. You may know what you mean, but readers can easily be confused, especially early in the story when they don’t know enough to make accurate guesses. Ideally, readers should never have to guess at things you intend them to understand.

But, enough.

Has this been useful? Do you have tips of your own to offer? I’d be glad to hear them.