Can’t Tell Them Everything… Can We?

Most of the tips on writing are very clear about the best way to handle background information for a story: feel free to have it, but file most of it. People don’t need to know every little detail, and are probably better off not knowing most of what we come up with. And if people want to know, they’ll ask, right?

It’s easy to remember that and put it into practice when the details aren’t particularly plot-important, or are easy to slip in in a way that seems completely natural (a character routinely wearing clothing of her favorite color, another character’s dialogue strongly implying that she’s followed a certain field of study, you get the idea). But when a detail has an effect on the plot but there’s no way to get it on stage, particularly if you’re one of those people who likes to show their work, it can be a lot harder to just sit and keep it quiet.

Of course, people find ways to try to get them across anyway. Someone else’s prologue. Cutscenes. Large numbers of viewpoint characters, such that nothing important can happen but that one of them is there. Mind-reading powers, such that people see places it wouldn’t otherwise make sense for them to have anything to do with. Further materials detailing the events of the world from a different storyline, or actually writing those legends they hinted at. Or just putting themselves in a situation where those who are curious can ask about that missing detail, and pouncing on and answering the question as soon as it’s asked.

On the one hand, it’s a good thing to do in that, if a scene is important enough to have that level of creation on, it’s probably something its creator is going to be enthusiastic enough about writing up to be able to get that spark across to those experiencing it. Audiences can tell which parts matter, after all, most of the time. On the other hand, it leads to things being shoehorned in that really don’t seem to fit because they were just too valuable to their creator to leave out.

Is there a solution? Not really. There are ways of working around it, though. In a role-playing game, these detaily bits often depend on the consent of the players (who may or may not absolutely love the idea of a side conversation that explains this stuff, an extra campaign for explaining the backstory, whatever sorts of materials come to mind). Web-serials in just about any format leave themselves open to people speculating wildly in the comments or even directly asking questions or making suggestions. Bits like this in a story can be monitored by outsiders for apparent relevance/flow before publication.

There’s no right way, but there are a lot of ways to try. Have you ever had something that begged to be explained but would be hard to fit in? What did you do?


  1. In general I try to stick to the idea that if it hasn’t happened in the table (i.e. in a shared space fueled by the knowledge and consensus of the players, though not necessarily the characters), then it hasn’t happened at all.

    If the exposition will enhance play, they it is of course a great thing to go for it. The methods are several and you mentioned a lot of them. If the exposition will not enhance play then you have a few options:

    1- Ditch it.
    2- Engineer it so it can be presented in a manner that can enhance play.
    3- Inform players outside the development of play (in the manner of your choosing.)

    In general my thoughts on the matter are these:

    a) If the players want to (do they want to?) know, tell/show them.
    b) If the characters want to know, apply the system.

  2. Ravyn says:

    Makes sense, though I’m not sure I could work with the idea that unobserved events didn’t happen at all.

    I’ve been playing a bit with means of informing outside play, particularly now that the player who has the most trouble with IC/OOC separation (I think he has trouble remembering which information he learned where) has departed. Sure, the characters have no idea what just happened, but it’s good to just confirm and move on, and who knows, maybe that will spark some questions of its own. The fourth wall mail slot didn’t work, but the flash-fiction approach might.

    One of the more interesting games I was in was a whole long arc that was supposed to explain the backstory of the setting for the game the group was already playing in; enthusiasm was mixed when it started out, in part because it was in the middle of an interesting plot, but overall it was a success.

  3. “Makes sense, though I’m not sure I could work with the idea that unobserved events didn’t happen at all.”

    The idea behind the phrase is that if it didn’t happen at the table, then it’s subject to re-interpretation or modification. Of course, events whose consequences have already been seen start acquiring a degree of solidity of their own since, in a way, some part of them has happened at the table.

  4. Ravyn says:

    Ah, gotcha there. I’ve certainly done that–had to, a lot of the time, since I have a terrible time figuring out what my antagonists did and/or why until they’re good and ready for me to know. But at the same time, I find myself wanting to solidify events as soon as possible, because then I can start trying to figure out what sorts of consequences they have and extrapolate from there.

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