Dangling references and filling in the blanks

It was the film Solo that really brought home to me a thing I’d been vaguely mulling for a long time: if something is a passing reference, like the Clone Wars or the Kessel Run or indeed the Butlerian Jihad, that makes the setting feel bigger. Here’s this thing that they know about and I don’t, because the bit I’m seeing is only a small part of the greater world, and I can imagine what it might have been like.

And when every last one of those things is turned onto an actual film that I can watch, the world feels smaller. The Kessel Run is a thing I can watch so there’s no room for my imagination; but also, every passing reference has become another hotlink to a film or TV series, every time we need a random person chances are it’s someone we’ve met before, and it becomes very obvious that what’s on the screen is all there is. It’s gone from a huge galaxy with room for lots of stories to a tiny galaxy with only these few people in it.


Filling in the blanks is a terrible thing to do in fiction. We need blank spaces, throwaway references, imagined histories, to let us engage with the story beyond the bullet points of the plot.

With Star Wars I still think that the best thing they did was to change the title to make it episode four, while the worst thing was to actually make episodes one to three.


Unfortunately a lot of the sources on Lucas’s thought process are Lucas himself, who is not consistent in the stories he tells; but the version I choose to believe is that he wanted to emulate the feeling of coming into a Saturday serial part-way through the story, to jump straight into the action and let you pick up as much backstory as you needed from the opening crawl.


Recent Doctor Who has been terrible for this (I was going to say Moffat-era, but Chibnall’s guilty of it too).

Rewatching stuff like the '90s X-Men and Spider-Man cartoons, they happily throw you into a story and then just mention pertinent backstory when it comes up.

It’s a blessing and a curese of the current era where so much is available that you can expect people to have seen stuff that came before, but doing so suggests all the gaps should be filled in with “content”.

Maybe now companies are randomly deleting stuff, things will change :upside_down_face:


Linking slightly to gaming, I think this is one reason I like the Sentinels of the Multiverse setting over Marvel or DC – when Sentinels has a pithy quote and an issue reference, I know that issue doesn’t exist, and I get the feeling I had reading comics casually as a kid that there was all this stuff out there that I’d probably never get to see. In a game based on real comics it would be a real comics event and there’d be someone with their hand out to sell me that comic or film or whatever.

(This is why, on @lordof1’s advice, I don’t listen to the designers’ podcast in which they do talk about the backstory in more depth.)


I agree, as a nerd I am always tempted to imbibe everything about something that I like; it’s taken my older Wisdom+1 years to realise this doesn’t actually improve my enjoyment of something. Here’s to throwaway references - remember everyone, when we discussed this in the aftermath of the Scrotal Corpsucular Invasion? Ahh, good times.


You know, this is interesting to me… as a writer of science fiction, my editor is constantly trying to get me to justify the “throwaway” comments I put in.

If I make reference to something and it doesn’t tie directly into the story, she’s always saying I should cut it… kind of a reverse Chekov’s Gun (Gun’s Chekov?). If I mention a laser rifle and then I don’t shoot it, she wants me to remove the rifle.

I see her point. A lot of modern fiction (written fiction specifically, visual fiction is a different beast) is all about efficiency. What is the fewest words you can use to describe a scene. How can you get the most emotional punch out of six words (“For sale, baby forcefield. Never used.”). I get it.

But it does seem to rob the in-story universe of… something. It’s nice to know that I’m not alone in this.


[Shifted this to its own thread to as not to increase the neutron cross-section. Also this is going to get quite long.]

I think it’s a different sort of target.

Do you want to tell a spare economical story, or do you want to create a world that people will engage with? Chekov was writing about plays set in the real world, in an era when drama favoured minimalism: one interpretation is simply that you shouldn’t call for any props on the stage that distract attention from the ones you’re going to use.

(Note also The Cherry Orchard in which there are two un-fired rifles, supporting the overall theme of futility and incomplete action.)

To many science fiction readers, part of the fun of the story is working out the puzzle of what’s going on in the world without having explicitly explained. (Non-SF-readers meeting a narrative of this type will often be confused - if you don’t do the puzzle-solving thing the story can seem arbitrary and random.) I see this as analogous to reading mysteries, in which I’m both enjoying the story on its own merits and playing the game of whodunnit.

If the story is set in the real world with normal people, you don’t need to build their fascinating complicated world because all of that’s been done for you. But if it’s not, whether that’s a technothriller with manly special forces types or SF or fantasy (though I’ll come back to that), you’re introducing people to a setting that’s not the one they live in. And one way to make that setting feel real is to give the impression that there’s more of it than the words you’ve put on the page. People make a passing mention of that thing they did back in the day, without explaining it, because a real person in that situation wouldn’t explain it. And while the diegetic reader may be confused, the puzzle-solving reader will pick it up and look at its context and make it a piece of their jigsaw. It becomes part of the structure of the world that the reader is building.

Coming back to SF and fantasy, though, both have a common setting now. The writers of The Encyclopaedia of Fantasy called it “genre fantasy” because the editor wouldn’t let them call it “rotefant”. The familiar fantasy world, farms, villages, towns, probably elves and dwarves, wizards, dragons - it’s lots of pre-1970s fantasy funnelled down through D&D then spread out again through authors who hadn’t read the originals but did like D&D. Each book may have its own twist on the recipe, but the core recipe is there, and familiarity is important – part of what the reader is there for is an escape into a world that won’t be too surprising. (This sounds dismissive, but it really isn’t meant to be.) Romance and mystery can work similarly, though there the familiarity is more in the shape of the plot: hero and heroine will get together in the end, the killer will be caught.

These days there’s also a generic SF, a blend of Star Trek (a little bit) and Star Wars and Firefly. Jessie Mihalik’s Consortium Rebellion trilogy is an example of this: we have interstellar society and spaceports and one-terrain planets, and one person can steal a spaceship and fly it somewhere. Again there’s stuff that’s specific to the setting, but there’s a very familar base which eases the burden of getting into the story.


This is exactly the reason I love SF (and F) so much. I want to be in the dark and figure out what is going on. And I get irritated when people complain about not getting everything explained. I want to be dropped into the middle of a new setting and let my imagination fill in those blanks.

Of course it is possible to overdo it and really confuse even practiced SF readers.

I agree about Star Wars starting to fill out all the blanks making the universe somehow smaller.

In the beginning each setting is fluid and can be explored and broadened easily with offhand remarks of characters that they find self-evident and the reader can puzzle about. But the more the writer reveals the more they run the danger of creating inconsistencies and those lead to bad puzzling and reinstatement of disbelief (as opposed to suspension). I have yet to see a large-scale epic SF/F series that doesn’t eventually fill in the blanks. But the best ones know when to end.

But the writers aren’t deciding when to end making new Star Wars content. Or Marvel content. Or Star Trek or …


I wonder whether that may be one reason why people now still love Babylon 5 and Firefly: in one case the spinoffs weren’t successful, in the other they barely happened, so there’s still lots of unexplored idea-space out there.

(It’s a thing I say about boardgame design too: because people’s level of satiation varies, you can’t end at the exact right moment, but you can shoot for either too early or too late. Too early leaves people feeling disappointed in their experience because they want more, so they’re likely to play again; too late leaves them bored with it.)


It’s certainly an interesting thought experiment… In my case I try to not over-explain my universe as I’m writing it.

Strictly speaking, that’s not true. I over-explain to the nth degree… for the first draft. I then go through and cut almost all the references and information that I had to write for my knowledge. Like, I will write about “the thing” that happened at Wolf-358 (Wolf-359 was an inside job, and Wolf-358 was the Federation’s first attempt, as we all know), and then cut it because I only wrote it so I would have it in my head.

My first drafts are usually 80-95K words. My second drafts are usually 70-75K, and my final drafts are normally 65-70K. A lot (not all) of those cuts are world-building that’s not necessary to be told after I have it clear in my own head.

The rest of it tends to be removing ellipses and variations of “said.” He spoke, she agreed, they confirmed, he asked, she responded, they quietly nodded, he happily ejaculated (hey, it’s proper English, don’t come at me), she sadly demurred, they confusedly expressed…


There’s a saying I’ve heard from writers at Eastercons: “You did lots of research and world-building. Put all the explanations in an appendix. Then delete the appendix.”

I think it’s easy to overcompensate for said-said-said - sometimes it’s more distracting to have the different words.


I definitely find ejaculation distracting.


Isn’t there a famous essay saying that only SF phrases things like “She went to the ATM, which was a machine where you type in your code to obtain money from your account, then continued down the street, which is a road with houses on either side…” with full explanations that people living in that world wouldn’t need. Or worse still, characters explaining it aloud to each other when they should know.

But yes, this thread has made me realise that I never wanted to see the Kessel Run.


The analogy that best fits to me is with Spandrals of San Marco.

That is, these details entertain and entrance but they result from decisions about the shape of the story. Getting focused in on them too much is both pleasant (they are fascinating and artistically done) and unpleasant (becomes recursive, doesn’t have structure of its own).

Sticking with Star Wars(1977) briefly, the idea seems to have been a lived in universe and a relatable reason for a teen orphan. So a really quite talented older actor mentions “the clone wars”. It seems to me it hits because of the delivery, the strangeness of the word clone at the time, and the similar format to “the Vietnam war” which I understand would have been colloquial. But it pluralizes it which evokes the world wars.

Compare to Babylon 5’s attempt with:

“We’ve had plenty of experience with sneak attacks. Pearl Harbor, the terrorists’ nuking of San Diego, the destruction of our first Mars colony.”

One real event two hypothetical but neither particularly evocative. The second one is a mouthful and so is the third and it doesn’t even name the Mars colony. It does establish for the narrative that other sneak attacks have happened but the artistry of the spandral doesn’t lead to six novelizations of what happened at the first Mars colony.

I think some is also Star Wars landed first and that it landed at a very particular time but it seems to me that when the filigree is appealing folks stare at it longer and when there’s no other filigree, it’s the first they’ve seen, and there’s enough structure to the narrative that it doesn’t collapse that’s when the hypnosis sets in.

Also folks pay for it. I couldn’t believe friends of mine paid for “Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina” at the time but they did and they dug it and I’ve paid for my fair share of niche items as well.


I would expect the line in retrospect to be something like “Pearl Harbor, San Diego, Zapadov Base” – once something shocking has happened there, that’s what the name means, for a long time. It doesn’t convey as much information to the outside viewer, but the in-universe listener knows what happened because everybody knows. (Or if it’s being said to an alien they might have to explain all three of those things.)


I think it’s a question of “what is this doing for the story?” If it’s revealing something about a character or advancing the plot or providing information vital to understanding something about the narrative, it should be there.

If it’s “to talk about a cool thing I came up with”, it can probably go.

With SFF, you also risk breaking the suspension of disbelief. The more information you provide about how something works, the closer you get to nudging the part of someone’s brain that responds with “wait, that’s bollocks”.

I once read a (very bad for other reasons as well) book about vampires that decided to explain its version of vampirism completely, as well as the political ramifications of such, and it made everything less plausible.


Precisely. I think it’s the difference between something the character knows about and something the author is telling the reader about. When the narrative artifice is that clear it’s not just less artistic, it also shows up the character as artificial.

It feels compelling that Obi-Wan knows about the clone wars and we want him to tell us more in the same way it’s compelling when a great uncle talks about flying The Hump and we want them to tell us more. Maybe it’s connection to the character as well as to the narrative that sparks that reaction.


This here sure is a lesson I wish I could send back in time for a lot of reasons.


OH MY GOSH I was so mad at Solo.

Lucas et al did this huge gaffe at “making the kessel run in less than 12 parsecs” which made no sense since parsecs are a measure of distance. But hey it was the 70’s and we didn’t have the internet so how many people really knew what a parsec was?

Han Solo Adventures, by Brian Daley, which are some of the first and best Star Wars books that pre-date Zahn by 10 years, kindly solved this for them. It’s explained that the kessel run is a path by a black hole used by smugglers to escape patrols. The shorter the route, the closer to the black hole. And the closer to the black hole, the faster you had to go so as not to get pulled in. The whole brag gets cleanly explained that Solo was running a smuggling route, had to veer too close to the black hole (cutting his route to 12 parsecs) and made it, proving how fast the ship could go.

Then we get this movie with a gas cloud and a space monster?

I’m so mad about all this. Still. I can’t explain why. I’m planting my flag on Brian Daley.