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Article - 'Revealing the Past' by Xanqui

An item about Plots/Characters posted on Dec 5, 2004

Blurb

Could be called the sequel to Xanqui's Backgrounds article, but it doesn't matter. This article gives some simple methods of revealing the history of your story's setting to the audience.

Body

Before I begin, I hope you have at least a general idea of the history of your story. This article won't go into how to creating the background of your story, but telling it to the audience. This is actually a very easy thing to do, so long as you make it interesting and keep the main plot moving at the same time. But there may be methods of doing this that you haven't yet considered.

So to get right on with the article, using the basic format of listing a category and then explaining it below, here are the many methods of explaining the history of your story:



The Prologue
Where to use: Movies and games.
Where not to use: Literature
The prologue is the most basic method of telling the history. Before any of the actual story begins, a brief history is told showing the events that led up to the starting point of the story. This informs the readers as to where everything takes place and which characters are the most important.

It can also set the tone of the story. If the scenes are very dark, then the rest of the story may be dark as well. Or it could be dark to contrast the near-Utopian present. Perhaps a great war lead to a seemingly eternal peace.

The reason these are not good for literature is because text prologues are impossible to be exciting. It's also very, very rare that a good story contains a prologue. Prologues are not always necessary because everything that is told in them is usually restated throughout the rest of the story.

At the same time, it can be very effective, like in the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. The book series did not contain a prologue and began right away with Frodo in the Shire. The reason the movies did the prologue was because the director didn't want to load the movies with flashbacks whenever Frodo was informed of something about the past.



The Narration
Where to use: Anywhere
Where not to use: Narrations are good.
The narration is similar to a prologue, but spoken from the perspective of one of the characters. Rather than the author telling the story, it is a character who is remembering the events of the past. This can go in two directions:

The narrator tells the whole story, meaning that the story is told in the first-person perspective. The story has already ended to this character and he is telling it from his point-of-view.

The story starts when the narrator finishes the prologue, which means that the character is informing the audience of what has happened up to the point of the beginning of the story.

Narrations can be very useful because they give the perspective of a certain character that the audience will come to understand.



Learning the Events Throughout the Story
Where to use: Literature, games.
Where not to use: Movies
This is probably the most difficult to manage unless you keep track of when each event is learned. The lead character of the story starts out not knowing much about what's going on, but when he is pulled into the adventure, he is informed throughout the plot of what has happened in the past.

At the same time, the audience learns about the history and always knows the same things the main character knows.

The story in this case usually begins with the main character living a normal, oblivious life, and is suddenly pulled into an epic quest. While they learn about the history, they learn what purpose they serve in the adventure and come to an understanding with it.

This is the most effective way of telling the background because it keeps the audience on the same level as the character with which they spend the most time. It also allows for the most twists and turns in plots, since the creator of the story can change what he wishes as the story progresses.

An excellent example of this is the greatest game ever made (in my opinion), Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. You begin as a character with no personality (but you develop him and control all of his emotions) who knows nothing about what's going on. Upon landing on Taris, you talk to people and start to learn a bit about why you're where you are. But when you reach Dantooine, the Jedi council offers to tell you everything, which you can decline if you wish. The fact that everything you know is what your character knows is simply fascinating, and it is what allows the story of this game to be very rich with background.



Poetry
It doesn't matter what form of story poetry is used in.

Poetry is a neat and creative way of telling the history. In the beginning of each chapter or section of the story, there is a little poem that hints as to what events led up to that point. Poems can also be told or sung by other characters and can create a very upbeat atmosphere for the setting.

I'll give an example of a poem from the story I'm currently working on, Crystal Skies:

Power and fear brought nothing but death
'Till came the first hero named Seth.
He gave us hope and ended the lives
Of those who shed our blood with their knives.
Today he's among the beasts as he flies
To protect all of us beneath the crystal skies.


I wrote that during AP Literature and felt that it summarized the entire mythical character Seth, who single-handedly stopped an army from destroying three nations. This poem has existed for more than 30,000 years in the world I've created, and it is commonly told to children and referred to by characters in the story who see Seth as the greatest man who ever lived.

The poetry doesn't even need to be good. I'm certainly no poet, but all I did was rhyme each line and use as much alliteration as possible without losing the meaning. It doesn't even need to rhyme, but that's a good way of making a crappy poem look good.

This makes a story seem very rich with culture, which in turn creates a rich setting. But if your story takes place on a completely different world, you can toy with the rules of poetry and create your own style if you think you're up to it.



The Villain Tells All
This is more of a joke concept than a good way to tell the background, but it has been done. The hero, who has been chasing this guy who has been doing a lot of evil things, is suddenly captured, and while he is in captivity, the villain reveals the secrets of the world and his plan to destroy the balance or whatever.

However, while I think this is a poor method of revealing the past, it can be effective for the emotions of the hero. They can learn some awful things about their past, which will emotionally destroy them.



The Pre-Story Prologue
I've not seen this used very often, but this is when the audience learns about the story before they sit down to play it, watch it, etc. The storyteller here creates a website or something that tells about everything that's going on, which the audience can read if they wish to learn about the state of the world.

This should be used for reference more than plot education. It should contain information that doesn't need to be known for the audience to understand the plot, but to further increase their knowledge of the world to gain a better appreciation for it.



Whatever method you use, make sure it fits the setting of the story. A prologue is bad for a romantic teen story that takes place in a school. No one cares about a guy's past relationships that lead him to falling in love with a brand new kind of girl. Something like this should be told through dialog.