Someone told me last week that J. K. Rowling said that her secret to success in writing the Harry Potter series was to make up a bunch of details in the early books and then try and figure out what they were about when incorporating them into the later ones. I can’t verify that quote, but sometimes I think that was also what J. Michael Staczyynski did when writing for Babylon 5 as well. I’m relatively certain that when Obi Wan tossed around comments about Luke’s father and the clone wars in the original Star Wars, George Lucas did not have anything but the vaguest concept of what would eventually become the second trilogy. I’m actually relatively certain that Darth Vader was not even Luke’s dad at that point in his mind.
Nevertheless, these extended stories worked really, really well. Why? Because even if the details might have been a little vague and fuzzy and even subject to a little creative retconning, the creators had a very solid understanding of their fictional worlds. They knew ‘em, knew how they worked, knew the major players well enough that on a subconscious level the worlds and people took on a life of their own. This gives the stories a powerful authenticity – in part, I think, because this artificial reality (ooh, I’m co-opting an overused 90′s term and giving it new meaning!) that transfers to the mind of the audience, allowing them to build their own expectations and “fill in the gaps” in the narrative or setting with their own imagination.
This is extremely powerful.