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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.

When?

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 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!