Sunday, November 16, 2014

What's Past is Prologue? Building Series from Backstory

"What's past is prologue" is a standard phrase used to remind writers not to get too bogged down in backstory. To keep the action immediate and avoid long passages of infodump about what came before. It’s common advice bandied about by writers, but I do think it tends to trivialize a very important building block of the story. The history of the place and the characters are the building blocks of storytelling.

True, it’s preferable to open the story in the midst of the action, the middle of a scene already underway, and with enough tension and intrigue to immediately pull the reader in. You wouldn’t want to begin your story with a fifteen page diatribe on all that has come before. (Though it has been done!) Better to hook them with the meat of a juicy scene to pull them into your world.

But once the characters are introduced and their hopes, dreams and fears exposed, it’s time to start hinting at where they came from and what has caused them or their societies to function the way they do.

The past isn’t just prologue, it’s an essential thread in a tapestry of effective and believable world building. Let's look at a couple of popular examples.

The Fantasy books series turned TV phenomenon Game of Thrones introduces a fully realized world of kingdoms, ancestral groups, rivalries, traditions and that simple but dark foreshadowing: Winter is coming.

But winter always comes. Why is that such a weighty statement?

Because in this world, winter lasts for years or sometimes even decades. And with the cold and the dark come the creatures that wreck havoc on this world. The past isn’t prologue, it’s the whispered tales around the hearth fires of what happened during that last long winter and what it could mean for many of the characters who have never experienced it.

But it’s not just the winter that conquered and destroyed. There was another terror that once blighted this land, melting stone, ravaging empires and vaporizing armories.

Once, there were dragons.

These two contrasting dangers are what give this series its title and resonating theme: A Song of Ice and Fire. It’s a world about to be caught up in a new chapter of history—an army born of ice from the North, a foe bearing fire from the south. Men in the middle.

And while we’re on the subject of Dragons…

Let’s look at Dragonriders of Pern, Anne McCaffrey's classic.

This epic series opens with the story of a scullery maid and her unique talents, which leads her to a life in a Dragonweyr—a society of people who ride fire-breathing dragons. Lessa’s fate is to become telepathically bonded to the greatest of all dragons, a huge gold queen named Ramoth.

But it’s later in the series the reader discovers the rich history of the planet Pern (a name that originated from "Parallel Earth, Resources Negligible") and how and why this society evolved to begin with. The enemy on this planet is Thread—a horrible scourge that falls from a red star to burn fields and homes and people. And only the dragons and their riders can fight it. Because that’s what they were bred to do centuries before by the human settlers.

Their past isn’t prologue. This civilization exists now because their ancestors effected genetic engineering of a native species.

Days of Future Past

I recently finished Forgotten Civilization, a book written by Dr. Robert M. Schoch, Ph. D. You may not be familiar with Dr. Schoch, but you’ve probably heard rumblings about one of his most famous theories. He claims to have scientific proof that The Sphinx in Egypt is far older than the circa 3500 BC date generally accepted as the monument’s age.

In fact, he claims The Sphinx might be up to 12,000 years old.

This theory flies in the face of convention and threatens to upset our basic understanding of the rise of civilization as we know it. Or thought we knew it.

And on what evidence does Dr. Schoch base his theory? There seem to be two primary pieces of data.

1) The Sphinx shows weathering that could only be due to decades of heavy rainfalls. Significant amounts rain that would result in this sort of weathering haven’t fallen on Egypt since major climate changes over 9,000 years ago. Thus, The Sphinx has to date to that age or older to show such weathering.

2) The head of the Sphinx has apparently been re-carved and reconstructed. In looking at pictures of the Sphinx, I have to agree with Dr. Schoch. The human-featured head is completely out of proportion with the rest of the body. He theorizes the Sphinx may have first been carved out of rock to resemble a great lion, and it does in fact face due East, looking toward the vernal equinox and the constellation of Leo.

Okay, so what if he’s right? What if the Sphinx is 12,000 years old?

Well, that’s the question isn’t it? Because we know the ancient Egyptians date back about 5,000 years. So if they didn’t originally build the Sphinx, who did?

When coupled with a more modern find in Turkey of a site called Gobekli Tepe—also dated to approximately 12,000 years old by some scientists—now we’ve got a real mystery! Gobekli Tepe is a complex site with great carved stone monoliths and enclosures. It appears the entire site was completely buried at some point in the distant past—perhaps 8,000 years ago—but if that was done to preserve it or to destroy it, no one is sure.

Could it be that advanced civilizations existed far longer ago than we realized? And if they did exist, why is there so little evidence of them now?

Maybe because something terrible happened 12,000 years ago that destroyed civilization except for a few monuments fashioned of rock.

What could have happened that would so completely wipe out an advanced society?

We know that something terrible did happen at just about 10,000 BC—12,000 years ago. It’s referred to as the Younger Dryas Event, a calamity of some magnitude that is dated to between 12,800 to 11,500 years ago. What exactly occurred scientists aren’t sure of and can’t agree on, but there is evidence that a catastrophic event or events forever changed our world.

The Younger Dryas Event involved an extremely abrupt climate change. The Earth had been on a warming trend from the last Ice Age when it suddenly—theories range from hours to decades—was plunged back into a deep freeze. Big things happened. Earth-shaking things. Huge forests in Scandinavia were replaced by glacial tundra (this is where a plant named Dryas octopetala grew, giving the Younger Dryas event its name). Glaciers formed or snowfalls increased in mountain ranges around the world. Unusual layers and deposits formed in Northern Europe. The Atlantic oceanic conveyor shut down, causing immediate climate change. The atmosphere became filled with dust, most originating from deserts in Asia. Extreme drought hit the Levant. The Huelmo/Mascardi Cold Reversal in the Southern Hemisphere ended at the same time. Some areas show evidence of great floods. The Clovis Culture and many of the large animal species in North America went extinct.

What caused it?

Theories range from a comet or asteroid impact to a major plasma discharge from the Sun to the collapse of the North America ice sheets or massive volcanoes. Possibly a one-two punch or combination of these events. But whatever happened, it may have ended these mysterious early advanced civilizations suddenly and permanently.

But wouldn’t we have heard something about these great civilizations if they actually existed?

Maybe we have.

Greek philosopher Plato's Timaeus and Critias, written in 360 BC, contain the earliest references to a great global power called Atlantis or Poseid. The accounts say that Plato heard the story from the Athenian statesman, Solon, who had in turned heard the accounts from an Egyptian priests who claimed this great civilization had been destroyed some 9,000 years earlier.

Other legends refer to a similar society with a parallel history called Mu or Lemuria.

Do I believe in Atlantis? No, not really. What I can believe is that a civilization or civilizations once existed that inspired the legends and the ancient accounts. Maybe a civilization that was connected to Gobleki Tepe or that carved a magnificent lion out of granite in North Africa thousands of years before it became known as The Sphinx.

Yes. That, I can completely buy into.

What’s past is prologue? Well, maybe what’s in our past might just inspire events in our future. Maybe what happened 12,000 years ago might have future repercussions for us as a species. Or may have affected all of history in ways we aren’t even aware of. Our past and our future may be irrevocably intertwined.

And wouldn’t that make a great premise for a Science Fiction Romance series? (wink, wink)

I’ll be revealing a little more on this topic in an upcoming blog, Part II: Legends and Prophecies.

Have a great week.


  1. Wow, Laurie, this is a doozie of a post! And fabulous. I love the examples. The Pern series got better for me as it progressed (I was not a huge fan until "White Dragon") and I'm sure that's because she was developing the worldbuilding. Thanks for this!

  2. Thanks, EJ! I'm always fascinated with series that have rich backstories and histories. It gives so much more depth to the "here and now" and makes for a great read.

  3. This is one of the reasons I'm such a HUGE Dark-Hunter fan. Sherrilyn Kenyon incorporates a vast amount of backstory and worldbuiding, including a cataclysmic event about 12,000 years ago that changed the path of human history.

    In the DH world, that event is the death of Acheron, the son of the Atlantean goddess of destruction. Acheron is the only person she has ever loved, and there's a ton of stuff that explains why she was so angry about the way her beloved son was treated.

    To sum it up, in her rage, she went on a rampage across the world and blew humanity back into the Stone Age. They were so afraid of her return that it took several thousand years for humanity to get back on track technology-wise.

    I love story worlds with history going back that far. I know waaaaaay more history about my A'yen's Legacy universe than is ever likely to make it on the page. I hope it gives readers the sense of immersion I'm going for, since it's something I enjoy so much in what I read.

  4. Very interesting on the DH series, Rachel. I tried to read one of the books once and could never get into it, but I know the fans are legion.

    I love it when a fictional world carries a rich history. Even better if it has a few surprises. :)


Comments set on moderation - all spammers will be exterminated!

About Spacefreighters Lounge

Hosted by 5 Science Fiction Romance authors with 8 RWA Golden Heart finals and a RITA final between them. We aim to entertain with spirited commentary on the past, present, and future of SFR, hot topics, and our take on Science Fiction and SFR books, television, movies and culture.