Background Theory

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. —Ernest Hemingway

In that one short opening sentence Hemingway gives you the background for his magnificent story, The Old Man and the Sea. Read that one sentence and you know who the story is about, where it is set, and what the old man's basic problem is.

In Victorian novels, such as Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, it was not unusual for the author to take a whole chapter or more to lovingly draw in the background scenery for the story.

Modern readers will not sit still for such slowpaced treatment, even in a lengthy novel. In a short story the writer simply does not have the space or time to go into such detail. Yet the background can be very important to a story, especially to a science fiction story. This chapter will deal rather heavily with the particular problems that science fiction raises, although the material is applicable to all kinds of fiction.

Background is much more than mere scenery or a description of the furniture in a character's house. To a large extent, the background of a story determines the mood and color of the tale. Try to imagine Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher" set in a brightly lit supermarket, with Muzak playing constantly and infants riding around in shopping carts. Or picture 0. Henry's laugh-filled "The Ransom of Red Chief" taking place in Dracula's cobwebbed castle and the surrounding Transylvanian forest!

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