Using Timelines in Background Writing

Many fantasy authors pay more attention to developing cultures than geography, and while the geography of a fictional world is often more important than we give credit, this is not entirely a bad thing. After all, relatively few people are going to notice if your rivers are going in the wrong directions, or if the land to water ratio of your world wouldn’t actually support life. On the other hand, shotguns in a culture that has barely mastered the making of glass are going to be fairly noticeable. When working on your world remember that creating the illusion of reality is more important than mirroring reality itself. There are a lot of things that you could do wrong (for instance putting a jungle plant in the desert) that won’t break most people out of the story. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t pay attention, do your research, or trust people’s ignorance to cover your egregious errors, but it does mean that a rich, believable culture is going to be more important to most readers than accurate geography.

What can I say? Korean is fun.
What can I say? Korean is fun.

That being said, timelines can be a useful tool for the development of your world. However, this doesn’t mean that a detailed timeline is necessary. Tolkien’s timeline, The Silmarillion, is massively extensive (it’s a book after-all). On the other hand, some authors (Glen Cook for example), seem to have only a general idea of the history of their world that develops as they write. Let me say here that Tolkien and Cook are two of my favorite authors, and (while I’m not privy to Cook’s writing notes) appear to have two completely different approaches to background writing.

Whenever you’re writing a new world a basic timeline is a must. However, a basic timeline only requires a general idea of what’s happened. For instance, a basic timeline might be as simple as:

1-2500: Origins of the World

2501-4300: The Age of Fire

4301-5250: The Martian Rule

5251-9000: The Age of Chaos

9001-14000: The Rise of Man

14001-14653: The Rule of Empires

I have no idea who this picture belongs to. If it's yours please let me know. I'd love to give you credit.
I have no idea who this picture belongs to. If it’s yours please let me know. I’d love to give you credit.

This basic timeline gives you a basic record of what has happened and how the history of the world has progressed. Each broad span of time is tagged with a title that will remind you of the general idea you had for that era. These eras can be filled in as necessary. For instance, if the first 60,000,000 years of your world is the collapse of gasses into a planetoid and the development of an atmosphere… well, you probably don’t need to fill in that era. Similarly, if for the next 30,000 years the world was ruled by jello people who built everything out of gelatin and left no discernible trace of their existence, you probably don’t need to fill in that era either. However, remember that worlds develop over time. The foundations of one culture can often affect the development of the next, and all those strange ruins you’re heroes love to explore had to come from somewhere.

How detailed your timeline is depends on a few of factors. 1) How much affect the era has on the history of your world: if your looking at an era that happened in the ancient history, you probably don’t need a year by year timeline, perhaps not even a century by century timeline. 2) How long the history of your world is: if your world is six billion years old your probably going to be looking at a lot of empty space in your time-line. On the other hand, if you world is only forty-five days old, you probably don’t want any blank spaced. 3) How serious your world is: the style of writing you do can have a large effect on the need for a detailed timeline. Stories that are intended to be comedic or tongue in cheek in nature generally have a lot more leeway for mistakes than stories that are very serious. This doesn’t mean that a detailed timeline won’t help your story (it always will), but you can get away with a lot more in comedy than in tragedy.

This certainly isn’t the last thing I’ll write about background writing, and probably not the last thing I’ll write about timelines, but I’ve learned better than to make promises about what’s coming next week. For now, work on your basic timeline, and then fill things in as needed.


Philosophy in Writing: Explicit vs. Implicit?

John-Ronald-Reuel-Tolkien-10-500x337There are two underlying approaches to writing anything with a philosophical basis or concept behind it. Regardless of everything else you do, you must choose to be either explicit or implicit in your writing. However, regardless of which you choose to adopt in your own writing, it is important to recognize and understand the importance of both styles and their respective advantages and disadvantages. I am not going to tell you which one is better for your personal writing; they can both be effective or ineffective equally, but personally, I find myself drawn more towards those writers whose philosophy takes on an implicit form, but that is just me.

Tolkien’s writings (particularly the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit) are prime examples of the subtle and intricate nature in which Tolkien conveys his philosophy. The connections between his stories and the ‘real world’ are obvious to the reader on a conceptual level, yet difficult to pinpoint in detail. This is precisely what it means to write the implicitly true; Tolkien believed that an implied truth was far more readily accepted by the common reader than an explicit one. He wanted to create a story which was true in its meaning, even if it is untrue in regards to the actual existence of the world and characters that he created. In this way it can be accurately said that all stories are true, even though some of them never happened, for all stories carry truths, both implicitly and explicitly. As to the question of which one is better or which one ought to be chosen for a particular story I am afraid that I cannot begin to answer that for you; yet to speak out of personal preference, I find writings with implicit morals to be much more fascinating because of their heavier reliance on the active engagement of the reader. Anyone who has any inkling of knowledge about Christianity can read the Chronicles of Narnia and make the connections, but without any clear knowledge of Tolkien or the Silmarillion it is easy to conceive of (in part because it happened prior to the publishing of the Silmarillion) someone reading the stories of the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit without picking up on the subtle Christian truths woven throughout the story which I do not have the time to mention here. Tolkien’s ability to create a world so relatable to our own despite its vast differences is just one attestation to the power and importance of implicit philosophy.

jack13On the other side we have the explicit; perhaps the greatest examples of explicit truths are Aesop’s Fables. These short stories are famous for their practical applications and stated morals. Really any story with an obvious or stated moral to it can be considered explicit; it is the obvious connections to daily life that make it explicit. Similarly, C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia are also explicit in their connections to general church theology. Aslan is obviously representative of God and his actions are clearly reminiscent of God’s actions in Christian theology. He dies to save a boy who betrayed Aslan and the boy’s family and was resurrected. Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth does not have any clear correlation to Christian theology on the level that Narnia does and this is one of the reasons for which Tolkien, who as we mentioned before believed that implied truth was more powerful than its explicit counterparts, critiqued Lewis’ writings. He found the truths to be too obvious and too blatant compared to his much more subtle way of expressing similar underlying beliefs. Despite Tolkien’s harsh opinion, I do believe that the explicit is important as well, especially for younger audiences. A child is not going to pick up on the subtleties of Tolkien’s writings whereas they might find the lion Aslan to be a comforting reminder of what they learned in church, or what their parents taught them about right and wrong.

Philosophy in Writing: Recognizing the Author’s Intent


The latest from Neal Gibson:

In sticking with my earlier post I will be putting a lot of emphasis on Tolkien’s works during this series on the importance of philosophy in writing. The reason for this is two-fold: 1) I’m taking an entire course on the Philosophy of Tolkien this semester, and 2) Tolkien’s works provide a great source for examining the diverse nature of philosophy within writing and how we, the readers, interact with it.

I have titled this installment in my series ‘Recognizing the Author’s Intent’ because in my school career I have found this to be a particularly lost art. So much of what I learned in my Literature classes during high school focused almost exclusively on how I interpreted the author’s work as opposed to what the author intended to convey with his work, and while this is an important thing to consider, It seems that the author’s intent ought to reveal more about the philosophy of writing in a work than my interpretation would. The author’s intent reveals the author himself, in story format, to the reader, and to apply our own interpretation to their writing is like looking through a pair of polarized sunglasses with another pair of polarized sunglasses. If you turn the glasses just right you can still see roughly what the author saw, but if you aren’t careful you’ll miss the image completely.

So just how can we go about discovering the author’s intent? Well, in some cases it just is not possible because we do not know enough about the author. To follow the previous metaphor, we do not have access to their pair of sunglasses and so we are left entirely with our own interpretation. However, in the case of Tolkien, we have such vast amounts of his works in the writing that have been published by his son that we really can understand much of the intention behind his writings. We can see that behind everything he wrote about Middle Earth lies the central belief that implicit truth is more easily received and believed than explicit truth. To quote my professor, “Middle Earth is Christian in content, but not in chronology.”* That is, there is not a one to one correlation to anything within Christian doctrine in the world of Middle Earth; there is however, an overtly Christian message in its implied truths of the Fall and of Redemption, to name only two that come to mind.

custom silmarillion coverOf course, in everything we read we are going to bring some level of interpretation with us; this is simply inevitable. In most cases our interpretations will match closely with what the author intended; or at least that should be the goal of writing. There is a fine line between implicitly including an idea and masking it beyond recognition. Tolkien was a master of staying close to the line, but even he sometimes crossed it. Before the posthumous publication of the Silmarillion much of what the scholarly world thought of his philosophy was seen to be at least partially wrong and in need of revision in light of the vast amounts of information released within the pages of the Silmarillion. We can see from this example that the key to finding an author’s intent lies in knowing about the author. If you are reading a book by a Hindu you are probably not going to find any implicit Christian or Muslim themes within it. That does not mean that there is nothing that a Christian or a Muslim or a Jew can take from it, but if you stumbled across something that sounds like it could be Christian you should understand that you are interpreting what you are reading to match what you believe. You are twisting your sunglasses until you can see something that you are used to, even if it means also recognizing the differences between yourself and the author.

Interpretation is not a bad thing; do not misunderstand me on this. It is good to critically think and find applications of diverse ideas into your own ideology. I apologize for the nerdiness of the following statement, but to quote Uncle Iroh from Avatar: The Last Airbender, “It is important to draw wisdom from different places. If you take it from only one place it becomes rigid and stale.”** However it must be done respectfully. To ignore the author’s intent is to place an unrealistic amount of important on our own interpretive powers. As best as possible I would strive to find the line between author’s intent and our own interpretation and to walk that line with intellectual humility.

*Thomas Provenzola, PhD.
**Avatar: The Last Airbender Season 2, Episode 9: “Bitter Work”