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Should you skip the ancient history of a invented world?

Peregrine

Troubadour
Can you skip the "ancient past" of a world in epic fantasy or low fantasy?

I read Silmarilion and noticed that it reads like a history book and has almost no story. I don't want to write anything that reads like a history book, because lets be honest, not much people care about your invented millennium long history if there is no story.

I would like to write a story, rather than a "history book".

How do I explain why are things the way they are after the "ancient past"? I find the ancient past thing necessary only for one reason, it allows the stories and characters to naturally progress. You see, the present has a connection with the past, the things in present can be a result of past decision. Dynasties, states, characters, conquests (border changes), all of these have root in the past.

Is there any other way to explain "ancient past" that doesn't involve infodumping in a separate "history book"? Through the story that focuses on characters and actual events instead of history.
 
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I've just written a snippet of history in my current project. Basically, when something from the far-distant past has significant bearing on the present, a character who is in a position to know history may reflect upon it and react to this knowledge while in the midst of doing something else.

Basically, an ancient relic that was supposed to be invulnerable to any sort of damage has been destroyed, and my character is reacting to that unexpected occurrence while on his way to put up wards in the chamber of another similar relic. So I have two expository sentences in this character's own voice, in the middle of the paragraph, that are his thoughts on the history of the relic. How long it has existed, how it came to be where it has been (involving a goddess in the ancient past), and how in all those years not even the smallest bit of damage had occurred. He reacts to the situation with incredulity and dread. Then, I move on.
 
Hmmm.

Well, you could have characters drop references to past events that would be familiar to most people in their world. Like in this world, everyone knows about the Great Pyramids and ancient Egypt, Bible stories, etc. You could have a character explain to another character the origin of a term with a historical origin (such as "Pyrrhic victory" in our world.) If you have a character that's from a different culture from the others and is confused by such expressions, this is a good opportunity.

You could have characters travel through ruins and describe them. The character's thought process could fill in details about the civilizations that built them, or make observations/guesses. Like "The fallen stones were weathered, their corners softened with moss. No doubt these temples were built long before the Gyn'hr people conquered this region--maybe in the time of the Myrm'odok. He ran his fingers over an unfamiliar glyph marking a pillar. Definitely Myrm'odok. So strange that the Gyn'hr had borrowed so much of the ancient people's customs and inventions and claimed them as their own, when now they themselves had been forgotten and their language lost. Suddenly he wondered what had happened to those who once lived here, and the peaceful clearing's quiet was rendered eerie. Had they departed peacefully--or been driven out and slaughtered?"

I think having characters who are unfamiliar with one another's histories and customs clash could be useful. It offers an opportunity to explain differences and their origins. For example, your main character is from a nation where slavery is the norm, but a supporting character might be unfamiliar with and disgusted by the practice. This puts your MC in a position where he might have to explain the origins/justification/perceived necessity of the trade. If it's something based on racism or conquering/subjugating, the supporting character might ask, "What wrong did their people commit, to deserve slavery?" Enter explanation of tumultuous past. Other character might interject with "no, that's NOT what happened!" and produce an alternate viewpoint. And so on.

Of course, this could easily move into infodumping territory, but I think it can just as easily be made to sound natural.

I agree that some kind of history is important to your world. Empires, customs, people groups and conflicts between them don't just pop out of nowhere. Also I'm a history buff, so I would love to include things like that.
 

Gurkhal

Auror
Unless your ancient history is going to matter to your story you may well skip it or restrict it to a few paragraphs. Create what will support the story but don't get afflicted with "world builder-mania". I've been there and it ain't pretty. For example if you write a story in 19th Century London then the Roman invasion of Britain isn't going to matter much so you wouldn't need to know alot about it to write your story.

In regards to the Simarillion you may however notice that within the Silmarillion are several stories, the House of Fëanor, Beren and Luthien, Turin Turumbar and so on and on. Many of these seeds and appearing characters could easily be turned into a novel or series by themselves. But yeah, Tolkien had a very special approach to writing his stories.
 

Penpilot

Staff
Article Team
You don't have to explain why your world is the way it is. You just have to state the way it is. And if you do it well enough the reader will suspend disbelief. Sometimes that means giving a bit of history. But most of the time you don't have to delve into the the history of the world at all unless it's relevant to the plot.

I mean, in a contemporary story, do you have to explain the history of say France for the reader to enjoy and understand a story taking place within that country? No. You just introduce what's relevant to the story and what you're trying to achieve with its telling.
 

Scribble

Archmage
The Silmarillion is a dreadful read as fiction, but interesting as Tolkien artifacts. It moves along like notes written while searching for the story that became the Lord of the Rings.

Don't hit the reader with a history lesson! Trust your reader to be smart enough to piece it together through hints. Sometimes you have to deliver an obvious dump, but I believe you should first earn the indulgence of a reader to accept clues dropped in return for getting them hooked on characters who are struggling against their obstacles. I enjoy when a writer is sneaky about it.

I don't want to read in chronological order the long and sordid history of the Dukes of Wuffington. Yawn. That drives me batty and I will close the book. However, I would happily get my curiosity about those Dukes tweaked through the mention of a certain character having in profile the same hooked nose as those Dukes, who all came to inglorious ends for their deeds, and whose house had fallen into disrepute and so on. That will earn my curiosity that can be repaid with a bit of exposition- later, even as blatant as "as you know Bob, the Dukes were rumored to be necromancers, and legend has it they animated a giant wombat who is rumored to roam this graveyard on Tuesdays... "

History lurks in the ruins (and rebuilding) of buildings, bridges, and roads. It sticks in place names. These can be used to deliver some of that historical payload to the reader without drowning them in it.
 
I could not read the Silmarillion. Got maybe 25% of the way through, put it down, and didn't pick it back up. Had other more interesting things to read.

My WIP plays a lot with the ancient history of the story world. My approach to revealing that history relies heavily on the nature of the world and the narrator. I have tried to weave backstory into the main story in a seamless way. I don't know how successful I've been. Readers will decide that.

I've tried not to force feed readers with explicit info. Impressions can be as effective, maybe more so. I want to leave something for readers to question and discuss.
 

Devor

Fiery Keeper of the Hat
Moderator
So, it should go without saying, but just in case: If it's in your story, it should be somehow relevant... whatever that means.

I like ancient histories. I like near histories a little more. Sometimes it feels like important things happened ten thousand years ago and nothing important has happened since then. But a timeline where the last big events really begin only a few hundred years ago is more fun.

Think Westeros, in A Song of Ice and Fire: A few hundred years ago the kingdom was united by the Targaeryns using dragons. That's a good starting point because it's easy to think, "Since then, let's see, after a while the dragons died, so sooner or later there was going to be some kind of rebellion.... maybe the kingdom is starting to divide back again?"

That's, like, the broad premise in thirty seconds of thought, with all the potential therein.

A thousand years ago the continent was conquered by dragons, you start to lose things. The rebellions happened centuries ago. The pre-dragon stage is now a lost relic of the past, as people have shifted and migrated since then. Again, Westeros fell into war and factionalism, but not just back into seven kingdoms because already the politics have changed since then - take that political change over a thousand years, and the thousands of years ago history barely matters anymore. The ancient history may still be important, but it's much farther removed from your story.

In my most developed storyline, history-wise, I have three phases. The "early phase," which ended when the gods formed a pact. The next phase, which ended when one of the gods broke that pact a few hundred years ago. And the modern phase, which happens after the world has finally settled into the aftermath of those events. The "history" only really begins with the events that lead the pact to be broken. Before that, most of it is just not important.

But all of that is on the plotting, planning and development side. When it comes to your writing, the real question is this:

How much history are you good enough to make interesting?

As others have said, history is boring. It takes a higher level of skill to make a textbook snippet into something many people will read for fun. But it can be done. It's just a question of whether you can.

If so, do it. Flaunt it. If you can't keep it interesting, then don't, keep it to a minimum.
 
I actually like the Silmarillion, partially because it makes Middle-earth feel more like a real place.

In my latest book, I don't bother too much about history except about a single myth about an enigmatic entity that is central to the story.
 

Vvashjr

Minstrel
IMO history is integral to making the story feels connective. Allows the reader to see into the world fully, kinda like immersing totally. I myself tend to put in bits and pieces of history slowly though, than bombarding a huge chunk or half to an entire chapter, and usually told in the form of a character explaining it.
 

TheKillerBs

Inkling
I see history as part of the framework of the story. It’s necessary or at least helpful to the structural integrity of the story but unless you can pretty it up you don’t want people seeing it
 

Mythopoet

Auror
I actually prefer The Silmarillion to either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. And I know other people who do as well. To each their own. Of course LOTR has a fair amount of ancient history to tell as well. The difference is that in LOTR the history is not the story currently being told, but it is directly related to it. Some might say that LOTR does too much info-dumping, but I remember that when I first read it, it was the two info-dump chapters (The Shadow of the Past and The Council of Elrond) that gripped me the most and made me feel like I was being transported into a real other world.

I think you should include ancient history if 1) it is relevant to the main story 2) you are trying to construct a world with depth in time or 3) you just really love to write about it and want to. I think the main thing to watch out for is that you do not write it in a boring way (of course everyone has a different idea of what is "boring" but the important thing is that you, the writer, find it interesting) and to make sure it doesn't overshadow the main storyline by being more interesting than what is going on now (also a matter of opinion, but what isn't).
 

CupofJoe

Myth Weaver
I usually have an idea of what sort of history has preceded my story. I try not to get trapped in world/myth-building unless the story requires it. I like doing that too much.
So if I'm piloting a story about an ancient artefact that can prove who is the rightful heir to the throne, there will be a little more history building than if I'm plotting out a paranormal-noire who-dun-it.
 
One technique for including past history in your story without info-dumping is to employ bits of past history in analogies and similes when describing something in the story's present. I find it easy to get heavy-handed with this technique, so have to be careful not to overdo it. But this technique can help reduce the amount of info-dumping needed.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
Yes, only include what is relevant. Easy to say. But how does one decide what is relevant? The author, unless very experienced in this, is often the worst person to judge. I know two ways to learn: one, have a really outstanding editor who thoroughly understands your world, and let them advise you; two, gain the experience yourself, which usually means writing far more historical information than you really ought, doing this over multiple books, until you finally gain an ear for it.

The beginning writer is unlikely to have such an editor, which typically means learning the hard way. But the hard way can be really tough. As this thread demonstrates, different readers like different things, so you might very well have a beta reader or critique partner who complains about infodumps while another asks for more, more, more.

The fulcrum of all this is that one word: relevant. The first judge of relevance has to be the author. How much of my world's history goes into any one story? I don't know. As much as winds up there. As much as *I* feel is necessary. I tend to prune more than plant, but honestly I just put in what I think is needed. Then I have to let the reader decide for themselves if I have pleased them.

I do have one indulgence, which the OP could consider. I have a whole set of world building files that include stuff like economics, culture, and so on. The indulgence is that from time to time I publish background articles on my website, for the eight people who are actually interested. I enjoy writing that background. It helps ground me in my world, so when I go to write the fiction, I inhabit the place more thoroughly than I would otherwise.
 

Penpilot

Staff
Article Team
But how does one decide what is relevant?

For me, it's a straightforward process. There are two things I do to test this. The first is to do a simple thought test. If I removed X from the story, would it really affect the understanding of the story? If the reader's understanding isn't affected, then it's most likely irrelevant.

The second is I ask the question, "What's the purpose/job of X?" X can be a singular detail, a line, or a whole section. If X doesn't have a purpose then most likely it isn't relevant.

Next, if X has a purpose, I make a judgement call. Does X do the job of fulfilling their purpose well? To me, this is the difficult part and tends to be a major focus in my editing. A lot of times I need X, but it's not doing the job well enough, so I have to do a lot of thinking. Sometimes it means removing X and tasking the job to something else. Other times, I realize the job is already being done by something else and X gets removed. Still other times, it means I have to edit down or add to X.
 

Peat

Sage
What Tolkien did with the Silmarillion was extraordinary in every sense of the world. Its not what authors do or need to do as can be seen from the fact that Lord of the Rings stands perfectly well on its own.

The simple answer is you can include as much or as little as you like. The Wheel of Time is littered with references to the past; the tale of Manarethen, Rand seeing the past of the Aiel, Mat's memories, the Forsaken jawing, etc.etc. It works because it supports the story and because its cool. If you want a story with lots of ancient history, make the ancient history relevant to the story. Conversely, GGK says very little about the history of the Palm in Tigana.

I think authors sometimes overthink this. Most fantasy fans are interested in cool backstories as long as they don't actively drag the story down.
 

Miles Lacey

Maester
Your MC is walking through a market square with their very self-opinionated sidekick who sees a statue of a very hot young female that looks disturbingly like Kirsten Dunst in her music video Turning Japanese.
The sidekick exclaims 'Ugh! Another example of this disgusting modern art!'
Your MC remarks 'That was carved two thousand years ago by the famous sculptor McG.'

Now think about the potential conversation they could have. It could be a perfect chance for the MC to educate the sidekick about an aspect of ancient history that is relevant to the here and now without the need to cure our insomnia with a tedious info-dump.

In short, don't bother with ancient history unless it relates to something in the time the story is set in your world. It doesn't have to be about an ancient battle, a sacred enchanted dildo or some long dead guy who wrote prophecies while drinking fermented dragon pee. It could be about something as simple as a bad taste statue, meandering road or why they mount skulls on poles to indicate a dangerous stretch of road.
 

DylanRS

Dreamer
When you move past some fundamental things, there's really nothing you "should" do. The answer here is not concrete at all. It just has to be good. I know that's vague and possibly unsatisfying as a directive, but that's it. Essentially, our job is to be interesting and meaningful.

The word relevant keeps popping up here. It's exactly right. Infodumping ancient history becomes a problem when it's not what the story *is*. Or if it detracts from what makes the story interesting. If you want more concrete advice, the answer is in feedback on your actual content.

To answer your opening line - yes. You can skip the compendium. Countless stories, some rich in history and some containing not even a hint of an invented one, don't have a Silmarillion. You can also consciously produce something that not everyone is going to like. Hell, lots of people can't stand fantasy fiction itself, and I have no issue with that.

Just keep reading and try to find yourself with respect to the question of infodumping. But that's the derogatory term, isn't it? With respect to the question of...lore presentation? I recommend Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea series for an example of a story that showcases its ancient history as one of the main forms of content. Well, it's not actually focused on its history, but there are some scenes where some characters might be travelling somewhere and, to pass the time, one of them will "tell the tale" of, for instance, when Segoy raised the land from the sea. Or the story of how dragons followed the call to the west. If the first book isn't quite your cuppa, I recommend at least one "pushing through" to the next book. It's also definitely the type of series that might have something for you in the next installment even if you've read two of them and weren't quite satisfied.

It's also a series where these bits of lore are kind of unnecessary to the narrative to some degree. And yet the ancient stories themselves are crafted well for those who enjoy it. There's a lot to consider, but consider this: Le Guin decided to make those particular bits of lore in those particular stories relatively sparse. If you end up checking this series out, try to figure out why she made that decision - BUT without considering it a "rule" that can be applied to every single work of fantasy.
 
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