Is ‘lore’ something which excites you or provokes a roll of the eyes? If you’re not a regular reader or viewer of genre fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy, you may not even have heard the term in this context.

a body of traditions and knowledge on a subject or held by a particular group, typically passed from person to person by word of mouth.

The ‘particular group’ relevant to this conversation is, of course, geeks. I’ve spent countless hours, especially when I was younger, poring over the fine details of Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Babylon 5. In this context, lore is the background detail of the world, the large and small details which help make a fictional setting feel real.

While literary fiction attracts obsessive analysis from readers, critics and academics, the focus tends to be on character, theme and language appreciation. Those of us who enjoy ‘lore’ are focused less on the literary merits of a text (be it movie, comic, novel, game etc) and more on the fictional gaps in-between the core text. Luke Skywalker’s motivations are less important than what Dr Evazan did before arriving at the Mos Eisley cantina. There’s a good chance a lot of people reading this article have no idea who Dr Evazan is — the before and after of the bit-part character has almost no bearing on the main Star Wars story, but archaeologically digging into minor characters’ pasts and futures is what lore is all about.

Lore as research

What interests me is how lore can be useful — and also potenetially distracting — to writers of genre fiction. What is the difference between world building and lore? Are they the same thing? Does lore have a place within a novel, or is it primarily the imaginative playground of the reader, the fan?

When working on my books I don’t really distinguish between lore, research and world building. My novel The Mechanical Crown is set in a fantasy setting and I did a lot of work to develop the setting, examining its politics, society, cultural implications and history. The story I was telling required me to understand those details, to avoid the world being unconvincing or seeming arbitrary. For example, how does public transport work in my fictional world? That could significantly affect how events are able to play out.

As with any form of research, especially prior to working on the manuscript itself, the trick is in knowing how much to do. My focus is on lore which affects or is required for the plot to function. Some of it I work out in advance and the rest is explored as it is required. It’d be very easy to get lost in the woods and write far more detail than necessary, and never get round to writing the actual book.

The risk, as with any kind of research for any kind of book, is that you’re then compelled to include it all. After all, you put all that time into researching and you really want people to know that. This is the trap to resist — whether it’s real world research or fictional background lore, it should exist to enrich the overall storytelling, which then filters through your mind onto the page. The purpose isn’t to show off your maximum effort but to provide a foundation to everything that happens in your story. Research and lore are the invisible part of the iceberg below the waterline.

I talked to the brilliant Nicola Upson about this stuff on the Writing Life podcast a while back. Have a listen:#18 Writing historical crime fiction with Nicola Upson
Crime writer Nicola Upson discusses the history of crime fiction and writing a historical detective series without it…

There’s also a great pod that Vicki Maitland did with Stu Turton:Research, editing & planning novels with Stuart Turton
Stuart Turton discusses the research, editing and planning process behind The Devil and the Dark Water, as well as his…

Revealing details without exposition

Figuring out how to make use of all those background details without simply stating it up front is part of the fun of writing a novel. I often find that writing is about finding the path that isn’t obvious, whether it’s to do with scene setting, character motivations, lines of dialogue or cliched and over-used phrases.

A page of description establishing a location is rarely engaging: it effectively pauses the story while the author indulges their inner lore-master. It also can have an effect counter to that intended, whereby the reader feels less connected to the scenario because they can’t quite envision what is being described. This is the same for character descriptions: get too precise with description and you place a lot of pressure on the reader to fully undertand your intent. If they’re not in step with you it can be a real disconnect.

Keeping details light leaves room for the reader’s own imagination to fill in the gaps, perhaps unintuitively making the story feel more real. After all, it’s the lightness of touch in the background details of the Mos Eisley cantina that made it so intriguing to viewers. Lengthy expository dialogue wouldn’t have added anything of value.

In your own writing, find ways to reveal details through action, or character reaction. A character noting a world detail with joy or dissatisfaction is immediately more compelling than an omniscient narrator delivering it on a plate; not only does it tell the reader something about the world, it also provides insight into the character’s motivations.

While I’m pimping podcast episodes, here’s one with Kieron Gillen which is essential listening when it comes to world building and lore:Kieron Gillen on world building in Eternals, Wicked+Divine, Star Wars
Multi-award-winning comics writer Kieron Gillen joins us on the pod today to discuss his methods for world building…

A good rule of thumb — which can, of course, be broken — is that any world building detail you include should be serving the story, themes or characters in some way, rather than existing simply as extra flavour.

Photo by Cederic Vandenberghe on Unsplash

I’m a writer based in Norwich, England. I write science fiction and fantasy, much of it released in serialised form online. You might have heard me on The Writing Life podcast which I produce at the National Centre for Writing.

My debut novel A Day of Faces was serialised in 2015 and 2016, winning a Watty Award in 2016 and hitting over 179,000 reads online. It’s about youth, revolution and shape-shifting animal people. I completed a 3-year, serialised, weekly run on my follow-up book The Mechanical Crown in 2019 and was selected by Wattpad for their Star programme. In 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic I serialised the YA novel No Adults Allowed, a post-apocalyptic alternative to Lord of the Flies which turned out to be more timely than expected.

My How to Write Serialised Fiction short guide continues to be read by emerging online writers around the world.

Find me on Patreon.


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