Friday, September 16, 2011

And on the Seventh Day—Wait, I Mean Page!

by R.C. Lewis

Ah, the perks of being a novelist. Eyestrain. Carpal tunnel. Form rejections.

But it's the best, really! Those of us who know will suffer all that and more for the joy of bringing characters to life, torturing them because we can ... in worlds we create.

Talk about power.

Sometimes, though, we get carried away with that power. We name and define enough flora and fauna to fill the planet twice over. We develop a 700-year history of the monarchy. We formulate scientific theories to support complex technology that all runs on algae.

That's great. Fill reams of paper or gigabytes on your hard drive with every nuanced detail. Go for it.

The problem comes if we throw it at the reader ... all of it.

Don't get me wrong. I love a fully realized world. And I hate one that doesn't have enough detail, lacks internal consistency, and just doesn't feel real. But having that fleshed-out world as a foundation doesn't mean we have to spell it all out within the manuscript. If we do all the hard labor of working it out behind the scenes, it can seep naturally into the story.

Some details do deserve to make the page and add to the narrative. Personally, there are a couple of situations where I feel it's worth the word count to detail things in.

It's News to Me. This is pretty typical in speculative fiction genres. The protagonist enters a new country/society/galaxy/dimension. Everything will be new, so some detailing is only natural. In these situations, I always ask myself what my MC would notice first, and what would get glossed over until they're in deeper.

It's a Matter of Life or Death. Okay, maybe not that extreme. But I'm talking about aspects of world-building that are pertinent—even critical—in that particular moment. Make sure the diversion into explanation or description is properly motivated.

I'm Right and You're Wrong. This can be a fun one. Character #1 says, "Let's do ____ to accomplish this goal." Character #2 says, "You're a moron, that'll never work!" #1: "Yes it will. If we ____, ____, and ____, then ____ will happen." #2: "No way. Nuh-uh. The ______ of the ____ will never ____ _____ _____ ...." And so on. Hopefully done more artfully than that, but you get the idea. When there are legitimate differing views on how something in the world operates, that can be a decent time to work in some specifics.

I'm sure there are other situations and a variety of factors that can play into how much is too much and what approach is best. Some genres expect world-building to be handled a particular way. Some readers can drink in pages of geography and political history, while others will skim (if they don't just give up on the book altogether).

And who says it's just the sci-fi/fantasy spectrum that world-builds? Historical fiction may call on a setting we have some passing familiarity with, but it has to make it real just the same. Just about any novel has to establish at least a microcosm of a fictional world.

For myself, the sign of great world-building is when I don't notice it happening. Whether through description, dialogue, or more subtle means, I experience it and live in the world.

Do you have pet-peeves when it comes to world-building? Tips for pulling it off smoothly? I'd love to hear them.


Matt Sinclair said...

I've always loved being godlike. And you're absolutely right that world building is not confined to science fiction. If appropriate, I interview people who've been in places I want to write about. They might offer insight that other research glosses over -- the way the sun reflects off house windows in the spring or the way the canyon effect is noticeable between buildings in a part of town, or the way the Antarctic sun rolls across the sky during its endless summer days.

Matt Sinclair said...

Of course, whether those things are germane to my story is something else. If not: don't include in the final draft.

R.C. Lewis said...

Very true, Matt. And worldbuilding covers so many aspects: language, culture, religion, education, social norms, technology, ... There's no way we can (or should) include all those details in the text.

carol brill said...

The key I think is what Matt said about being germane to the story. Does the detail you're adding reveal character, creat a sense of time or place that moves the plot forward. Detail for details sake can be beautiful and poetic at times, but as a writing mentor told me long ago, if that is all it is, save it for your poetry .

Jemi Fraser said...

I love new worlds, new time frames, new dimensions. I love to discover them whether I'm reading or writing. But in either case, too much description at any one time puts me right off.

R.C. Lewis said...

Absolutely, Carol. There has to be a motivation for taking the time to spell it out. Other things can be implied, or hinted at, or otherwise allowed to seep in from under the surface without being stated explicitly.

I agree, Jemi. It all needs to be done in just the right doses.

Leslie Rose said...

It's such fun to flesh out worlds, backstories, and cool technology. Most of it does get cut since it feels "info-dumpy," but I always save it in a folder I call the treasure chest. Hey look at Pottermore! You never know when you are going to need it.