When I was a kid, my brother and I went to a home day-care. Our babysitter had two sons, so her house was filled with video games and action figures for us to play with. It was pretty much a young nerd's paradise. Lots of Batman, Ninja Turtles, and X-men stuff (this was the early 90's), and of course the ubiquitous Star Wars.
I remember sitting on the floor, watching one of the boys play Street Fighter or something, and strewn in the mess around us was the ripped off back of a Boba Fett action figure box. On this scrap of cardboard was this vague and mysterious description of Boba Fett, which said something about his Madalorian armor and his ties to the Clone Wars. I distinctly remember reading that description, re-reading it again, looking for some kind of clue that I had missed to make sense of his backstory.
Who was this Boba Fett guy? Of course, I recognized him from the movies, but honestly I hadn't given him much thought up to that point. Why was his armor special? What did he do in the Clone Wars? And what were the Clone Wars anyway? I sort of recalled Leia mentioning them in her hologram speech to Obi-wan in the movie, but it struck me then, sitting on the floor of my baby-sitter's basement, that there was this whole previous story to Star Wars, an exposition that was unknown to us except in little pieces and fragments. It blew my mind. Star Wars was more than just a few movies. It was an epic and we'd only (at that point) seen a few chapters.
I was reminded of this thought while listening to The Weekly Planet podcast. In celebration of their hundredth episode, the hosts caved to fan requests to discuss the Star Wars prequels and all the reasons why they don't work (one of my favorite topics). The biggest failure, they cited again and again was the prequels' bizarre need to explain events that take place in the original trilogy; right down to the smallest, stupidest details.
For example, in A New Hope, Luke wears a helmet with the blast shield down to practice his light saber moves and use of the force. It's a fun scene and it stands on its own. But in Attack of the Clones, the youngling Jedi are wearing helmets with blast shields down to practice their own force skills...Why would these Jedi in training be wearing fighter pilot helmets, or something that essentially looks like a pilot's helmet? Why do they have to be doing the exactly same thing as Luke did some thirty years later? Because, for whatever reason, Lucas thought that was an important detail to explain? Even then, it doesn't really make any sense.
This pattern repeats over and over again in the prequels - this tendency to over explain everything at the detriment of the mystery and mythology of the original Star Wars trilogy. What's the force? "It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together." What a beautiful, simple explanation, one of my favorite speeches for how much information it conveys with so few words. I didn't need to have that ruined by midichlorian pseudoscience. Why couldn't the force just be a mystical thing that we don't entirely understand? Why is it bad to admit a little ignorance?
My ten-year-old self could more than make up her own backstory for Boba Fett. I didn't really need it over-complicated with his father, Jango Fett, who meant nothing to me. The copywriter who wrote that paragraph long description on the back of the action figure box had it right: here's some limited information about Boba Fett, do with it as you will and go wild kids.
This is a lesson that I need to apply to my own fiction. I think there's this common fear among writers that we won't be understood unless we explain everything, every detail. Sometimes, I find myself wondering how the world I'm building manufactures goods...but that's really boring and frankly, it just doesn't matter. Goods are made somehow. I have to stop worrying whether my fictional global economy makes sense. Or sometimes, I'll feel compelled to explain the exact tilt of a character's head; the way they lean against a wall, one knee over the other. Really, it doesn't matter. The reader has an imagination. Trust that they'll use it.
The same holds true for bigger issues like exposition and character backgrounds. I don't need to establish a multi-generational genealogy. I don't need to explain what wars happened fifty years ago. I can mention maybe some basic information and move on without further explanation, because the reader will either use their imagination, or have the intelligence to select what information is important to the story and what can be glossed over without any great loss.
I thought that was one of the biggest problems with The Hunger Games. I only read the first book, but that was more than enough. It just annoyed me the way Katniss kept explaining all this exposition, to herself, in her own head. I mean, who was she talking to? Me? Then where am I in this story? The Hunger Games would have been so much better if she described what she was actually witnessing, which would have been enough to suggest the brutal oppression and poverty without having to tell me everything that led up to it. Then I'd have more fun figuring out what events happened to create this world. Then I'm engaged in the world building and the mystery. Then I'm invested.
So kids, moral of the story, write like the back of the Boba Fett box. Leave your reader a little surprise, something a little strange, something that doesn't entirely make sense. Resist, resist, resist the urge to fill the first fifteen pages with detailed exposition (I'm looking at you Ready Player One). Strunk and White said, "Omit needless words." Let's add to that, "Omit needless story."
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