Sunday, March 3, 2013

Worldbuilding part 2

Last time, I talked about worldbuilding techniques. Those are the ways authors build a world in the readers' minds--the world the characters live in. Every story requires worldbuilding, even if your story is set in an environment your readers know well.

The mistake a lot of unpublished authors make in worldbuilding is the "information dump." I don't know who invented that term, but it's the mistake of providing much more information than the story needs, especially to an audience who doesn't yet have reason to care about any of it.

My theory is, you can get away with any amount of exposition if the reader wants to read it. The trick is to make them want to read it. So whenever you're building your story's world, and you, through exposition, start telling readers all about the last five hundred years of chaos your world has gone through, please hesitate and ask yourself one question:

Why would my readers care about any of this?

This question is not rhetorical; it's essential. If you can provide a good, solid answer, keep writing that exposition! But if you can't...

Oh. Here's a bad answer to that question: "Because if they don't have this information, they'll never understand the implied threat of murder Vanessa's making in Chapter Six when she looks behind the mirror and talks about ghosts." The only time this answer is good, is if you're writing Chapter Six, and Vanessa just now looked behind the mirror and talked about ghosts.

What many beginning fiction writers don't get is, you don't want your reader to understand everything right away. Questions, remember? You want to raise questions in your readers' minds because questions make readers keep reading. If Vanessa's combination mirror move/ghost talk seems really out of place, readers are going to suspect they can't take her action at face value. That's when you tell the readers what her actions mean--right when they want to know the most. Or maybe in the very next scene, if stopping the action for an explanation would wreck the story's rhythm. But soon. Do it soon, or the reader will put stop reading and say "Nothing in this story makes any sense."

One other worldbuilding hint. I promised you a preview of one of the stories we're publishing in Issue #19. The story is our third place winner, The Gear Master's Wife, and we think it contains some of the best worldbuilding our magazine has ever received. The author, John Burridge, manages to mix questions with suggested answers in such a way that, even though we don't fully understand the world the story takes place in, we feel we understand enough. I want to draw special attention to one sentence in that story. The main character makes ice sculptures, and is making sculptures with religious meaning for his city's big holiday. Here's the sentence:

The next morning, the Guild of Bakers came to collect his ice statues for the Longnight Folly.

What kind of world names their biggest holiday "Longnight Folly"? The answer is, this story's world, which is cold, austere, and formal. So does everyone act stupid and foolish for a night on this holiday? No, it's a serious religious holiday. Yet in the context of the story, it works... even though you never really understand what the holiday's about or why it matters so.

So why would a guild of bakers come by to pick up the ice sculptures? I have no idea, but I bet the author does, and his confidence shines through in every description.

See, the story isn't really about the holiday or the guild of bakers. That's all background. The story is about a man who just suffered a terrible loss. The important thing is, he suffered it in this story's world, which is so stark and formal that readers can intuit the sculptor isn't going to get much help for his pain. This story's world doesn't have a lot of use for clumsy, awkward feelings. So, people in this world have a real problem when they're overcome with emotions too strong to contain. Since an act like crying or getting roaring drunk would be unthinkable here, the man's feelings escape him in a rather unorthodox way that causes a lot of trouble, and that is what the story is really about.

Every description and every action characters take hammer home the world's formality. Who cares why bakers collect the ice statues? It's interesting--it makes the world seem more real, because somebody (the author) put a lot of thought into that choice--but it's not important. What's important is what's shown in every line, and demonstrated in every description: this is not a place where you'll get comforted when you're sad.

So when you're building your characters' world, figure out what its most important element is, and focus on that. In The Zen Thing, the story I discussed last time, it was the bizarre relationships among deeply flawed people. In The Gear Master's Wife it's the world's coldness. What is it in your story's world?  


  1. I do that "information dump" a lot. I guess it is one of my many weaknesses.

  2. Great point. I really tire of descriptions of every flower in a field. That's not a page-turner, but it might cause me to put the book down, never to be fully read.