Category Archives: wordbuilding series

Sneaky World-Building Part 4: The How

I’m outlining a process on how to furtively put a whole new world over on your reader. Don’t tell them we’re doing this, or else they’ll only pay more attention…

The next few steps are so similar in tone I’ve gone back and forth about which order to place them. We’re way past the beginning-middle-end here, and what I’m calling the How might seem to you to be more of the When or Who. Don’t get bogged down in that, just take a look at this and see if it rings a bell in your mind. Use it if it helps you to write and keeps you on the story.

That’s the How.

I think this part can be very hard for the author; it certainly was for me. And if I may say so, the drive to write a lot, the NaNoWriMo on Steroids mentality probably contributes to the issue. Think about volleyball.

World-Building is NOT a Set-Up

So you’re ripping along through a terrific new tale and trying to just get the plot out, that first draft done. At that speed, you tend to see the “spike”, you know? (Athletes call it a “kill” but I didn’t want anyone to take that literally) That fantastic twist, the battle breaking out, the moment of betrayal. You’ve probably got a specific description or line in mind for it- often on first draft I find that the prose at these plot-peaks comes fairly easily. Like the favorite moment in a movie.

But back it up.

In volleyball, the serve comes over from the other side and the pattern is generally Dig, Set, Spike. Think about the newspaper or a sports magazine. Do they often show you the moment of the Dig? Maybe, if she’s laying out to keep the ball off the ground. But not that likely. The Spike, baby, THAT’s what they pay to see. But nobody Digs it up to a Spike on a regular basis.

Where’s the Set?

When you’re writing, I think you often see the Dig (impact of a major development in the plot) and of course the Spike

(the outcome or reaction that drives the plot forward). But trying to get from A to C without passing through B seldom works out well. And you’re drafting in a hurry, you’re on deadline.

But hey look, here’s this bit of world-building! And it’s SORT of related, and you know about it already and you love it, so you drop it in right there and keep going.

WHICH IS FINE. For NaNoWriMo, for a first draft. But do you come back to it and truly study what needs to be there, of that bloc of text you dropped in at light speed to reach your target? World building should be a little bit like the three times players touch the volleyball. Readers are interested enough to hear tugh-pep-SPEZH with lots of movement and running in between. But pure world-building is like a volleyball game where one player catches the ball and holds on. Bad form. Viewers change the channel.

The Fabric of Your World

Some of this advice may seem familiar. I told you not all at once, I urged you to think in terms of a couple of sentences at a time. Don’t feel you have to cover everything, certainly not simultaneously. Don’t lecture the readers, entice them. Here I’m focusing on the manner in which you show them what you’re going to show them. Like the Dig, Set and Spike, the reader feels fine with the world-building of your story when you reveal how clearly it relates to the plot, how it informs the heroes’ character, and perhaps just “touches” on the theme of your tale. When you give them background and detail knitted into what the characters are doing at that moment, or with an obvious connection to what they (or anyone) would be thinking during that time… then, an incredible thing happens.

Patience returns.

Not only will well-structured, relatable world-building not burn the candle or push the sun down as fast, it can even make more wax, and a longer day appear. The reader sees the Dig, Set, Spike and becomes MORE excited about what you’re showing them. It all makes sense, the threads of your story-tapestry begin to emerge as an image like the ones Penelope and Arachne wove into their looms. The reader gets hooked, not just interested but even proud of what they know– a co-owner of the world experience. They can begin to see what it all means now, how it works.

Learn from the ancients. Ulysses’ wife had to delay the ardent suitors by weaving her dower-tapestry by day, then unraveling it each night. The moral of the story is that men who see a hot woman become really stupid. But the suitors are also impatient and ungrateful, like somebody else we know. Weave your draft too fast, keep everything you did the first time, finish too soon, and you could wind up unhappily married to it.

In Exemplum Gratia: A Simple Thing

Kathleen McCleary’s literary fiction novel is an excellent example of the Where as well as the How of world-building. Full disclosure, she is a college classmate of mine and there’s probably no other reason I would ever have read something with no swords, few men, not so much as a punch thrown in anger and worse yet, not a true villain in sight. You won’t see me back in this aisle of the virtual bookstore very often– but I know great world-building when it clubs me over the head.

Remember I said that fiction set in the Alleged Real World actually has a tougher job in some ways. The default setting is not a big problem; so how is the reader going to be shown this escape destination? As the tale opens, the main character is on a ferry boat in Puget Sound with her two children. You gradually and smoothly come to understand:

  • The daughter, about 16, is seething with fury (and Mom is in anguish because she loves the girl so much)
  • The son, around 12 and on the spectrum, is nervous but excited (and Mom needs to manage him through this new adventure, often not a fun time either)
  • Dad, you realize with dawning concern, is not here, but back on the east coast– no divorce, not infidelity or anything like that. But a guy’s gotta’ keep working when his wife decides…
  • That because of her daughter’s one mistake, a party she wasn’t supposed to attend and things could have gone horribly wrong (but didn’t); because of that, their Mom has decided they’re going to spend the foreseeable future on a remote island as far from home as she can flee, away from all potential influences that could ruin her precious children.

And so in the first chapter, as they sail on the ferry and people chat about who is waiting for them, the house they’re renting, and the daughter doesn’t chat about anything because she’s fuming– through all that completely ARW plot development, you see the clear outlines of the world McCleary is building.

In the mother’s mind.

We are so going to have to go in there, and learn about the past through not only her life but those of several people she meets. And it is a laundry-list of all the perils I’ve been warning about: it’s flashback, and info-dumping, and absolutely reams of stuff you have to know about what’s already happened in the distant past (for a ARW plot, I mean- a few decades, but still!). Yet the red flags don’t matter, McCleary sails past them like that ferry boat, because she weaves it into the plot, she reveals it in the words and deeds of her characters, each bit in its proper time, each paragraph focused clearly on what someone is doing and feeling appropriate to the moment.

Kathleen McCleary doesn’t need my recommendation, she’s nationally published and you can see her articles in Parade Magazine and elsewhere. I think it’s important to pull at least one example from the current day and the ranks of our colleagues: as encouragement but also to illustrate the idea of “no option to world-building” I mentioned for fiction authors of any genre. I’m actually not sure if even memoir or autobiography gets a pass from this. The reader will of course find out more about themselves from experiencing your tale: but it must be through the vehicle of escape. Maybe we all find the familiar only through the strange, or something deep like that.

What I want to emphasize here though is how difficult, in many ways, it must be to bring that voyage from strangeness to intimacy without leaving our world behind.

“Easy reading is damn hard writing.”
  — Nathaniel Hawthorne

Easy to say. But remember, Hawthorne lived two hundred years ago. And it’s only “historical romance” to us, now. In his day, Nat was writing essentially literary fiction!

Find the Dig and Set in the way the plot unrolls, and divvy up the world-building to use those threads where they make sense, adding to the tapestry of your tale. You may find the reader forgets all about losing their patience like they originally intended. Do it well and you could even draw readers from outside your tribe.

Of course we still need to clarify this important theme and I’ve got two kissing-cousins of the How to talk about. Check back next time for the Where and Who. And let us know how your world-building journey is going, whether these ideas are helping you build sneaky.



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.