Tag Archives: Alleged Real World

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 2: The What

As I hope I established in Part 1, world-building is both a tremendous challenge and an unavoidable necessity for fiction writers. If you’ve been convinced, or just thought it worth chuckling about, here’s the next step.

WHAT is this world I have to build?

Two parts to this, and one of them I bet you’re already doing quite well.

Define Its Edges

It doesn’t matter which genre you write to or if you think you are busting them all. There’s something about your world, and most likely a great deal, that is not in accordance with what I call the Alleged Real one (where we all live and breathe and read my blog posts). The reader comes into your tale with the Default Setting of ‘Alleged Real World’:

  • Death and Taxes
  • Mammals and Reptiles and Fish, and stuff
  • Laws of Physics, Gravity, and the one that puts loose change into your couch (I forget the name)
  • Couches, while we’re at it- people live in nuclear families and homes and stuff

The list goes endlessly on. Face it, the Alleged Real World is just huge. Your world, the one you’re building is a) likely a lot smaller, and b) has overlap. There are some, perhaps many things about your tale that folks will find familiar:

The Venn section on the right is the overlap. You don’t need to spend a lot of time over there, most likely.

Here’s the part which I think most authors, honestly, do very well. You study your world. Maybe you take notes, or just daydream about it. Maybe it hassles you, or perhaps your muse is yammering at you all the time. This place, you know.

In fact, you are the world’s leading expert on your world!

I made the yellow-bordered area fairly large to represent this. But notice several things at once.

  • You ARE the world’s leading authority on your world- don’t let anyone boss you around about that
  • Your readers start out knowing nothing about your world. Not even the stuff that could be the same. Not a single thing.
  • However, there probably are things about your world that even you don’t know ( the question-mark to the left of the yellow ring). That includes whether a given thing in your world is just like it is here or not (the far right beyond the yellow ring). Heavy!

If you’re still with me, I want you to take a moment and bask in the notion that you have achieved leading-expert status. Based on my own experience and conversations with 100% of all colleagues in the writing biz, it is justly a source of great pride. Sit back and reflect on how cool it is that no one can tell you more about the place your tale happens than you. That may also help you to define its borders, which is the point today.

Also- I need you pumped up and feeling powerful, because now you have to do a tough thing.

Cut (some of) It Out

The most crucial step in world-building is probably the hardest. You must recognize that there are facts about your world that are true, and real, and coherent and all the rest of it… that your readers do not, in truth, need to know.

You have to draw that line. And then– perhaps with tears in your eyes– you must start to respect it.

The focus of your tale has to stay above the red line here. You know these things, and if you’re like me you’re fully in love with them. Pride, affection and interest combine to form a habit, for our purposes a lethal one:

I found this stuff out, and by gum, the reader is going to hear about it too.

That’s the “Don’t” of What to World-Build:

DON’T go into encyclopedia mode on the reader.

All of it, or even most of it? Don’t be silly, but some. Review each section with a simple yardstick:

  • Is this advancing the plot for the characters, right now this minute?
  • Is it something those characters don’t already know?
  • Will the reader care more about a character from reading this?

You probably need three Yes answers to be safe. One is a bare minimum. You can also use length as a determinant.

The Two-Sentence Rule

It’s not really a rule (unless I just made it up) but go with me. One sentence, maybe at the end of a chapter, or when the action turns from one place or character to another– one sentence of world-building stuff in the same place you can probably get away with.

“He couldn’t know, when he issued the challenge, how those same  seven words uttered five centuries ago had brought down doom on his family.”

Something like that- and note, as stuffy and distant-historical as the sentence was, it was a Yes for the second question above. It’s a hook, it’s dramatic, you can get away with it.

But at two sentences? The reader is going to think, “Wait, what does this have to do with the fight that’s coming up?” “Is the hero still thinking this?” “Five centuries! Am I supposed to see a time machine now?”

I suggest that at two sentences, the Patience Horizon starts setting again. That candle I talked about last chapter burns down, your time begins to run out.

Now, go back and look at that three and a half page history lesson you’ve got jammed into the middle of the conversation in your murder mystery, or romance novel. Still think that’s worth it?

You have to feel out the boundaries of your world, and make tough choices about which gems, of all the treasure you’ve unearthed, the reader truly needs to see. You can’t hold off on the job- the default setting of ARW kicks in. But your job is not to tell them everything you know- the Patience Horizon is shrinking.

Most authors do a great job at figuring out what’s in their world, where it is. The good tales understand that “southern border”, and can distinguish between the body of facts and differences the reader truly must have to enjoy the tale and root for the characters.

In Exemplum Gratia: Phantom of the Opera

If you haven’t turned the pages on Gaston Leroux’s incredible genre-bending tale, don’t delay. For my purposes, I recommend it today because the author here obtained (through very hard research) a metric ton of detail about “his” world, which happened to be 90+% identical to the Alleged Real one. Leroux researched the Paris Opera House of his day, and discovered hundreds of things that even Parisians didn’t know about the place. His tale is set almost completely within the confines of a single building, and yet in there is a murder mystery, paranormal romance, police procedural, comic mishaps, adventure and more. The characters range from an Olympian heaven to a Styx-like hell before it’s done, and if you just read the chapter with the rat-catcher I assure you, you WILL believe in spooks.

This is an example of an enormous overlap between author-world and real world: Leroux’s additional material and characters were hardly even a stretch in his day. But there’s a ton of information the reader DOESN’T know that is ABOVE the red line. This put him in a fantastic position to bring the reader along to a detailed world where little things like having five basements, or an opera owning horses turn out to be important.

Another cool thing to consider is that because of what I said just now, Phantom is almost literary fiction. He’s using “real” people and places with hardly any alteration, and yet there’s a “world” of stuff the reader has to understand. This is what today’s “high” fiction does right in this world: they write tales that take us into the inner lives of just a few people. I’ll say more about this in another installment but for now take my word, a human mind is also a world.

Draw the Line

You can do this. Review what’s in the draft and decide if it absolutely, positively must be presented to the reader. What you learned is never wasted. As an epic fantasy author, I have an online compendium where I store lots of encyclopedic stuff that I needed to find out (and loved finding out) but doesn’t fit well into any particular tale.

Writing Exercise: The What

Think about your current draft, whatever state it’s in between “once upon a time” and “the end”.

Make a list of FIVE things in the “northwest” quadrant of the world-building figure, meaning:

  • It’s part of your world that’s different from the ARW
  • Therefore it’s something the reader does NOT know (west) but also
  • It’s still something they will NEED to know (north)

It could be “the magic system” for a fantasy tale where wizards fight. Or “alien police procedure” for a sci-fi Sam Spade type detective story. Maybe “the best friend has a secret”– whatever word or phrase reminds you of it, that’s important. Try to put your hand on a half-dozen things that you can name, the bigger and more important the better. Write them down, and leave some room between each entry. We’ll come back to them in later installments of the world-building series.

For Extra Courage Credit: list THREE things in the “southwest” quadrant, that you know, that the reader doesn’t know, and does NOT NEED to know. We will also discuss those things later on.

Bonus point if you put something on the second list that’s already in your draft. Brava.

It’s NOT a Line of Death

There are blog posts, there are flash contest submissions, there’s a fan fiction seed. There’s the next tale in the series, you bet your life on that! But right now, right here, in this draft. quite possibly it’s below the red line. Some authors love to cruise around at cocktail parties and quip that you must “kill your darlings”. And if you hear that, I’d love it if you could kindly pour your drink down their pants and tell them I said hi. It’s almost never the fault of the characters, in my experience. But are they telling the same story that you were? Is this the story they should be telling? Or do you have them talking right now about something not germane to the current tale, something that maybe someone else should be thinking about instead?

Easy to point out the problems! But this is the first step toward getting the world-building right and next we’ll dive into more detail about the when-how-where-who.

You can do this. Better than anyone else, in fact because you’re the authority. Draw the line, start to respect it. There are no genre fiction encyclopedias!