Being a Better Writer: Don’t Neglect Your Backdrop

Apologies for the delay. My other job scheduled me for several Mondays in a row, and I wasn’t able to get this post done well enough in advance to make the release date. Next week’s post should be done more in advance, however.

There was a post I made here, once, where I brought up the “painted on backdrop.”

If you’ve not seen a lot of old movies, this may take a small bit of explaining, but not much. But in the days before computers, if you wanted to shoot a scene someplace and make it look like somewhere very different (say, your desert lot was perfect for the shoot, but didn’t have the canyon-filled background you needed), you didn’t need to travel somewhere expensive. Instead you would just use a cleverly design backdrop, a piece of canvas with the background you wanted painted over it. Carefully, mind you, so that shadows and whatnot lined up.

Now, sometimes, especially for a film that had either lower production values or was designed to mimic a stage production (such as a musical, where backdrops are a part of the charm), you could clearly see that the characters were interacting in front of the backdrop. But for a lot of other productions, sometimes you would be hard-pressed to tell that what you were seeing wasn’t real.

None of this is news to anyone who’s seen an old movie, or has any familiarity with practical effects. Oftentimes it’s very impressive to see the “how it was done” for an old film and discover what was a special effect, or a model, etc, etc. It’s impressive how often we were all fooled by something!

Okay, okay, so what does this have to do with writing? Good question! Obviously we don’t have painted backdrops.

Or do we?

Maybe our backdrops aren’t bits of canvas and paint. In the world of writers, our backdrops are words and ink on a paper page (or a digital one). Whether our character is a stereotypical hero or whatever,, they won’t exist in a blank space. We’re going to “paint” a background. A setting. Our backdrop.

Now, many of you, at this point, are probably nodding. “Yes, yes, we’ve been over this before.” you’re saying. “Worldbuilding.”

Well, yes. I am talking about worldbuilding. But today, I want to talk about a particular part of worldbuilding.

Let’s go back to the painted backdrop. Backdrops, as I’m sure any movie-set artist could attest, are tricky things. They must take a piece of flat canvas and modify it via paint to replicate the backing of a scene.

This is harder than it sounds. Harder, even, than most who acknowledge how tricky art is. See, when the camera looks at that backdrop, it needs to not appear to be flat, when it actually is. How does the set artist get around this? By adding shadow where there is none, angles of perspective where none truly “exist,” and so on and so forth.

The result of all this careful hard work is evident in the final scene. If the creator of the backdrop has worked everything out properly, shadows, lines, and everything else in the scene with “line up” properly from the perspective of the character, creating a seamless illusion that the background and the foreground are connected—even when they aren’t.

But, if the image isn’t done just so … If the shadows aren’t in the proper places, the lighting just every so slightly off, or even the camera in the wrong position by an inch, none of it lines up, and the illusion is broken. Foreground and background aren’t together.

So, once again, what does this have to do with worldbuilding?

This: If you want your world to seem seamlessly real to your readers, then you need to make sure that the foreground and background details match up. They need to be one.

Okay, that probably wasn’t the answer many of you were looking for. After all, I’ve been talking about the details for a long time and how important they are. How is what I’ve just said any different?

Two things. First, the backdrops we talked about? They often don’t reproduce everything. There’s little point. Especially in the old days, before computers and, more importantly, HD television, backgrounds didn’t need to regale the audience with every little detail. However, a trained artist had to be aware what “blanks” the audience would fill in.

In other words, when we’re giving background detail to our story, to our world, we need to make sure that our background detail is what is relevant.

Take, for example, a classic adventuring inn. Your heroes wander in, and take a seat. What sort of details about the inn do we need to give our audience so that they can “complete” their vision of the inn.

Again, I’m not referring to primary details here. Not things that are immediately important to the story, but little bits of, well, window-dressing. Background that will serve to make the setting more real.

Anyway, so you have this inn, and you want to drop a bit of background for it. Well, as I said, what details do we want to make relevant, or in other words, bring to the reader’s attention? For example, would it flesh out the world if you had a character think about the scent of the place? Or maybe kick sawdust off of their boots?

Sands, you could go further. Maybe your universe has small but distinct differences over ours. Small, tiny background details could flesh this out. For example, say the character goes to use the bathroom, and before leaving the outhouse (or maybe it’s an indoor plumbing scenario) washes their hands with soap?

Small detail, but very telling.

Now, the second thing. Earlier I talked about how the background has to be in a very particular place relevant to the camera so that everything lines up, and if those lines are broken, the background’s farce is revealed.

It’s the same with our own stories. We need to make sure that the background details we lay out are in line with the foreground details.

This is easier than it sounds, as long as you’re paying attention. It boils down to, in essence, not accidentally contradicting yourself. Make sure that those little details you put in the background aren’t derailing anything major. Also, keep them aligned with the direction you want your reader looking, IE, in alignment with your story. world, etc. Don’t let them become a distraction.

Now, two other things worth mentioning before I summarize things (short one today, I know). Remember how I said some details are vital, some are not? You need to make a call on which background details you want to “focus” on, but also how “in depth” those write-ups will be.

See, it’s cool that we’ve worked out some neat background details for our world. But if we go into too much detail on those background elements … we distract from the real story at hand.

For example, a book I was reading recently went far overboard with background that the author wanted to show off. The main character wandered into a bar in space—at which point the book switched to a 6 page summary of how a bar came to be there.

Now, it was neat and all … but it was too much. It was a set designer being so proud of the background that it overshadowed the story entirely. Too much attention was given to it.

The other thing I want to say is, really, an echo of what I’ve said before on many occasions: When in doubt, do your research. Don’t just make stuff up. If it’s something real, do some digging so that you’re getting your facts right (like, for example, looking up what a real medieval village would be like). If it’s for something artificial that you’ve created for your world, then dig into your notes, or make certain that all the pieces line up properly.

Right, so, summation time.

Don’t neglect your backdrop, the little bits and details that make up the world behind the characters, the action, etc. Think about what little details tidbits you want to present, and what kind of picture they’ll make. Think about how you’re going to weave those details in so that nothing appears out of alignment or pulls attention away. With that, also consider the level of detail you’re going to go into. Just as a superbly rendered building in the background can draw a viewer’s attention away, so can a detail that’s, well, too detailed. At the same time, be certain that the details you’re dropping are correct, either in your universe, or in the real world.

Like I said, short one today. So, mind your backdrop.

Good luck. Now get writing.

 

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