Category Archives: Alleged Real World

Sneaky World-Building Part 3: The When

If you’ve accepted the possibility that some of what you are telling the reader about your world is hurting your cause, honestly congratulations. We love what we’ve learned, and love can never lead you wrong. You considered that some of what you know might have to sit the bench. But there’s a lot left to tell, whoops, show them in your tale.


Give a Little Bit

I know what I said! Listen to what I am saying NOW!

You would have to be very old to get this joke. But it’s the phrase by Supertramp that ends with “… of your love to me”. And I say this with full knowledge of what I told you last time. I told you the Patience Horizon is finite. I warned you it’s shrinking. And all that is absolutely true. You cannot wait forever to tell them about your world. The beta-readers who always carp “can’t this bit come later?” are profoundly misled.

But you can’t tell them all at once. Remember the Two-Sentence Rule, that one I just made up. Seek instead to show as close to the minimum you can in any given place. And that means, among other things having to prioritize what bit of info goes in first.

Another thing, a piece of advice which will come back in several closely related forms in this series. World-building is an activity where it is DEFINITELY better to show than tell. What that means here is, when you are prioritizing on the exact order in which you dribble out the background, the flashbacks, the other-worldly common knowledge, it is always better to “act it out”, to give characters statements and deeds that make sense for them and just so happen to impart the crucial information the reader needs.

Two Great Tastes that Taste Great Together

Yes, I’m a Reese’s guy. So sue me. But unless you’re allergic to the nuts, this could be a revelation for you too. Holding back, dribbling out hints and tantalizing clues a bit at a time, fits perfectly with showing what makes sense for your characters and the plot. It creates in the latter case a better flow, which is more engaging and interesting to the reader. And the former, to give a little bit, also creates a sense that there is a strong hand on the tiller here. This author knows what she’s doing, I can trust her.

Interest and trust are the primary ingredients of the Suspension of Disbelief. THAT is what will make the reader turn to her logical side– the part squawking about how dragons could never fly and light-sabers break all the rules of science we haven’t even discovered yet– and say to that logical side:

“Hush. Just stand down. I’m reading a story here.”

In Exemplum Gratia: The Mirror of Her Dreams

This two-book set (diology? bigraphia?) by Stephen R. Donaldson ranks as the very best heroic fantasy tale ever written in my view. Terisa’s wealthy father gives her every financial, physical need but completely ignores her. She wallpapers her apartment with mirrors in a desperate effort to counter the haunting suggestion that she does not, in fact exist. Suddenly one day she looks in a mirror and sees instead a handsome fellow, who abruptly comes partway through the glass and holds his hand out to her, saying “Please, you must come back with me. Only you can save the world.”

{Spoilers Ensue}

Terisa takes his hand and finds herself in Mordant, a world where all magic is done with mirrors. So obviously readers are going to need to know much more about this. But Donaldson’s mastery of the subject is ironclad. There are immediately several obstacles, embedded in the plot and characters, that make it impossible for him to “tell you about it” in any kind of lecture-format:

  • The nature of this magic, called Imagery, is an intensely guarded secret. Terisa has actually been brought into the world’s only school of magic, yet no one wants to tell her (or anyone) how it works.
  • Geraden, her guide, turns out to be the only person in Mordant who sincerely believes that Terisa is, in fact, a savior. He is the school dunce and has never done anything right. Most people in Mordant believe that things seen in mirrors are just that, images, without soul or rights.
  • Both these things feed into Terisa’s poor self-image: she doesn’t believe she’s special either. Donaldson even slips in the fact that literally everyone admits she’s stunningly beautiful, something which despite seeing herself all the time Terisa never considered.

All this while mysterious enemies are attacking the kingdom, and the king himself is clearly a box of Froot Loops, no good to anyone.

{Spoilers Conclude}

As a reader I was practically shouting with eagerness to know more, and paid extra attention to every development, every new character partly in hopes of picking up a clue. SRD put SO MUCH into this tale- it’s romance, it’s adventure, heroic fantasy at its finest. Read it or fight me.

Writing Exercise: the When

In the previous lesson you wrote out a list of several things you know readers must find out about your world. Pull out that list again; take a few seconds and ask yourself- is this list, the way I wrote it, in chronological order? Can you rate the urgency, in other words, with which the reader must be informed? See if you can number your list.

It would be interesting to know that the way the thoughts occurred to your mind last week either were, or were not, in this urgency order. And if you’ve drafted part of your tale already, you can of course check to see if your list matches what you wrote. Finding a difference won’t tell you whether the draft or the list is in error. Just something to think about.

Keep this list, we are not done!

Be a Tour-Guide, not a Teacher

Patience Horizon setting at lightning speed…

You can’t know how much it hurt me to write that header. But I meant what I said earlier- the reader is here to experience your world. Not to learn about it.

Stay out of the classroom-image: knowledgeable, respected teacher (go with me here, it’s my fantasy) holding forth in brilliant prose with the occasional pause to advance a slide or mark the board. Students in neat rows, taking notes and gasping with revelation.

Yeah, no.

Hold as your image the loud, funny American tourist. Remember, they paid their money to take this trip. Picture them, going “wow” at all the sights, completely ignoring the tour guide after a short phrase or two- say, two sentences?- and blundering off the course to look at what really interests them this instant.

American Alpha-Tourist Sheriff Pepper of James Bond fame

“I want some coffee. No listen, pal- Eyyye Waaannt suummm KAWww-feee.”

“What’s that? Sacred ground? Ooops, I had no idea.”

“Will you look at that Ethel! Let’s follow them- oh, tour, schmoor, over there is where the action is!”

You know these people: they believe their money entitles them to a great experience, and if they get bored or confused they blame the guide who brought them.

Ungrateful and illogical. Like Readers!

But you can handle them.

“Here we have the famous Haunted Goddess, rumored to exact a horrible revenge on anyone who touches her without permission. There’s a gruesome tale to tell about this, perhaps at lunch after you’ve seen the rest– DON’T have the sausage!– but right now I must show you the fountain garden. And we’re walking, we’re walking…”

You so got this. Put the world-building data in an order, release a little at a time. Sizzle before the steak, and they’ll be screaming for more.

Sure, sure, but exactly HOW you ask? And I’m so glad you did. You will be too– Next week!

Love to hear your comments, let me know how it’s going.

Sneaky World-Building Part 1: The Why

This is the first in a short series of posts about one of the most frustrating subjects for authors. I hope to share some solid tips on the best ways to build the world of your story for readers, and I would be eager to get your feedback about what I put out here. I’ll answer the other classic questions in the following five posts. But first, the big one:

WHY do we have to world-build, and why does it have to be sneaky?

Two reasons.

Because There’s No Point Otherwise

This is one of those it-gets-worse-before-it-gets-hard things. Because let me guarantee you, if someone picks up your fiction book and puts down hard cash real money in its place, they are NOT seeking to find out more about their own lives, or what happened yesterday down in the living room or anything else they already know.

They are seeking escape.

And it doesn’t have to be another planet, or a dragon’s island, or some office where people turn their shoes into guns and hide supercomputers in chips under their skin. It doesn’t have to be a city where every guy and gal is drop-dead gawhjuss, and violins play whenever two people talk. Those people don’t need to have purple skin, or high arching eyebrows, or be six hundred years old. It doesn’t have to take place in a palace with a murder to solve or a deep cave with a quest to achieve or a twisting, enormous library with a code to crack.

But it can’t be in the reader’s “here” and it can’t be about “them”. Nobody pays money for that.

They paid the hard cash money for your book to be taken to another world.

But not to learn about it!

Because Readers are Ungrateful Wretches

I hate hyperbole so let me be clear. When I say “ungrateful wretches” I’m probably being a little too kind. Also unreasonable and illogical.

In short, they demand to be taken away from their “here and now” and plopped into the middle of an extraordinary, fascinating place. BUT- the very instant you start to tell them about this place, they scream. Maybe I’m biased because epic fantasy writing involves probably the most world building of any genre in terms of the default setting (more later), but it sure doesn’t take them long to fidget in the presence of the facts they need to know about the place you’ve created.

They need to know it.

They will fight kicking and screaming against having to learn it.

So you have to be sneaky.

The Patience Horizon is Shrinking

As writers, we tend to imagine our readers investing some fraction of the same time and effort to learn about the place we’ve come to know, that we ourselves did. And we KNOW how cool that place is, we are already in love with it. Why WOULDN’T a reader be willing to plop down and dig in a bit? That’s common sense. You’ll need to get rid of that if you want to understand the reader.

Like I said, ungrateful and illogical. What really happens is the reader opens your book and a candle starts to burn down. The sun is already past noon and headed toward setting. In other words, their store of patience begins to wane. And your book is burning that candle, pushing the sun out of the sky. Your tale is read only with a kind of clock ticking behind every page. And the reader has to “get it”: they have to arrive at the point where you’ve demonstrated the coolness and gotten them hooked before their sun sets.

I call that the Patience Horizon.

And it varies by genre, in terms of number of pages. I write for the epic fantasy tribe, and we are few but fierce. My readers see the dragon or the sword on the cover and they know, there’s not much they can safely assume about that “default setting” of my world. No modern technology, maybe mythical creatures, magic spells and effects; there’s a lot on the table for me to explain, but my readers tend to know they have to have a long Patience Horizon to give me that chance.

And here’s the killer thing–

the Patience Horizon is shrinking.

All the time, and dramatically.

Because there’s so much else a reader could be doing. Mostly with video and audio. Things that just pour entertainment into their heads, and are more passive by far than reading is. Hell, they don’t even have to flip the page! And everyone knows the ratio of pictures to words. Nobody could ever read fast enough to catch up. In a movie, even a fantasy movie, the viewer can be clued into the races, the monsters, the magic, all of it in a single scene, not in fifty pages but in fifteen seconds.

The Times They Are a Changin’

Many of the great writers we admire did not have to deal with this. Tolkien, the Moses of my genre, could craft his tablets in peace and present them to people who had no TV, for whom seeing a movie meant a road trip. He could take his time to build the world. And boy, did he…

When I got to the Council of Elrond, I was totally hooked– I became so engrossed in the tale I didn’t even notice that I had finished book 1 and picked up book 2! But that was the early 70s. Nothing on the tube. Four feet of snow blocking the driveway.

My readers have choices.

And if you write in other genres? Well God bless you!

Sure, sometimes you have less to explain to the reader about gravity, taxes, nuclear families. But they are not going to wait. You’re stuck.

  • If you don’t explain what’s different or special about your world, the reader will complain when they realize their default setting was wrong, and blame it on your poor writing.
  • If you do explain it right away, the reader’s Patience Horizon will set and there will come a day when they put your book down and never pick it back up again. And blame it on your poor writing.

Are you noticing a common theme there? Like I said, ungrateful.

But No Escape from the World You Built

Nevertheless, you are writing about a place, or a time, or a state of mind that the reader doesn’t know. Even literary fiction (or “high” fiction, stuff set in the Alleged Real World, with “real” people and “normal” situations) takes the reader away. In some ways, the worlds built in literary fiction are more crucial–and probably harder– to portray than wild far-out sci-fi or dystopian paranormal cross-undead romances, because they require such a fine precision of description, or interior voice or allegory or any one of a dozen other things that are completely unrelated to finding the artefact of ancient days that will destroy the demon ravaging the kingdom. There are readers who want to go to every world we can imagine. You must remember that.

They want to be “there”, they bought the book.

Hopefully I’ve convinced you why you must build the world for your readers.

Coming up, five paths you can take to sneak it past them!

Come back on Two-World Tuesdays for each installment, where I’ll add a little color to five aspects of world-building. All are related and the general theme of sneakiness applies. I hope you enjoy them and will share your thoughts about world-building for everyone’s benefit.

The times have changed. The Patience Horizon is shrinking. You know the only place you can still find a reader curled up for hours with a book? IN A BOOK!