Monday, December 12, 2011

Writing Beginnings Part 3: World Building

Okay! Sorry for the little time gap in posting the rest of the series, but here we are! I think this might be the last one, unless I decide I have more to say. Who knows?

I think one of the hardest things to do in the beginning is get a reader settled in a world. Even writing contemporary, you still have to lay down a setting and world that makes sense and feels real, not like we're watching people on stage. The faster you can make a reader feel comfortable with your world, the easier it will be for them to get sucked into a story.

No matter what type of book you are writing, there's probably a setting. Maybe it doesn't play a huge role, or maybe the setting is almost a character itself. Either way, you need to make sure the setting is understood. Readers don't like to float in the nether too long—grounding a reader in your novel is essential.

So how do you do that? Well, there are lots of ways. There are also lots of way to confuse a reader, too. As with most things in writing, there needs to be a balance (which is why we spend so much time editing).

Focus on setting details that are "important." As a writer, we tend to know most everything about our novels, right down to what things look like. But that can also mean we might go over board in description. Now, don't get me wrong, having a lot of description isn't necessarily bad, but you have to think about what matters most. When you choose to describe something, you're saying that it has significance in some way. Be mindful of that. Describe what matters most to your characters, what stands out in the scene, what might foreshadow future events in the book.

Let's try a random example. Say you're describing a street lamp. This description can be either important or superfluous depending on your story. If it's just your ordinary street lamp, maybe it doesn't merit extra description, but what if it's your character's first time in a new city? What if she notices how bright the lights are in comparison to the country? Or how strange the craftsmanship is compared to where she is from? Then it might be something to signify to the reader that this place is foreign, a setting detail worth talking about.

Another major thing to always consider is what I call "immediate relevancy." (I will likely be repeating this in the other sections because it is that important.) When building a world, the information you give must always be needed at that moment, otherwise it has great potential to confuse or bore a reader. Like say you're talking about these weird street lamps when the MC has not seen one yet—instead of being interesting, it'll be, "Uh, what's with the street lamp conversation? Weird." You don't need to "prep" your reader for these uber weird street lamps, just mention them when they get there. In fact, you'd be surprised how littler prep a reader needs—trust that they will follow you just fine.

World Rules
Writers of fantasy/sci-fi/paranormal, etc. have a special task in building a world that is different from our own, and that world comes with rules the reader must understand, and hopefully understand quickly. If there is magic, the guidelines must be explained. If there are flying ships, there must be a feasible reason. If there's time travel, it has to be believable in that world. It can be a challenge to have a reader buy your world, to believe in it.

Again, here it's important to give information as it becomes immediately relevant. Listing off all the rules to the magic system in the first chapter just isn't going to cut it. First, it'll be boring, and second those rules will be forgotten because they'll have no significance to the reader yet. Not to say you can't have rules in the first chapter, but just like introducing characters, it should be a gradual thing.

If possible, showing the rules and world should be the go to. Don't just say "These are the penalties for using this type of magic." Show your MC losing her eyesight for a day because she cast a certain curse. That makes the world memorable and the rules clear.

But in this showing, you have to be careful to avoid the "As you know, Bob" pitfall. This is when characters explain things they should already know, and it's pretty obvious that it's being explained for the reader's sake only. It can be tricky to avoid these moments (and you'll notice a lot of characters are novices at something because it makes things easier to explain since you learn along with them), but doing so makes for a stronger beginning and a more authentic world/character set.

Lots of people are afraid of backstory (Thanks to the criticism of the flashback, I think.), but no story is complete without at least a little. Stories don't happen in a vacuum, and no matter what your world is like, something happened before your story and something will happen after. Sometimes the things that happened before are a surprisingly vital part of the characters' current struggles, and you need back story to get across the full impact of your novel.

Again, I will repeat the importance of immediate relevancy. With backstory it is most important, otherwise readers will ask, "Why are you telling me this?" It has to be clear why, and usually then the reader won't even notice that you've stopped the forward motion to tell them about the past. I've seen very long passages of backstory that work just fine in novels because that information was essential to understanding either the plot or the characters' motivations.

But like most anything in a story, backstory can go awry as well. It's one of those things that we as writers can get carried away with if we're not careful. I personally try to use it sparingly; usually if you only use it when absolutely necessary, you won't go overboard. It shouldn't be an excuse to add extra detail—it should be used as a tool to move the story forward.

Ultimately, world building in the beginning should make a reader "comfortable" with your world. That's not to say that the story has to start off calm, only that world details should always be clear and concise and helpful to a reader. Confusion can be not only frustrating, but it can cause distrust in you as an author. If something doesn't make sense, or if an obvious question isn't answered, a reader loses faith. I wish it weren't true, but it is. Having a solid world, whether it's on a magical plane or in Clovis, CA, is an essential part to a solid beginning.

Now, that ends the series, but if you have any questions feel free to ask in comments. I'll be checking often.


  1. What a great post, Natalie. Love that term "immediate relvancy." Lack of it can make beginning fiction so boring. Great line: "You'd be surprised how little prep a reader needs" So true.

  2. I wrote a post months ago titled "Stories Don't Happen in a Vaccuum." Guess what it was about. Yep, backstory.

  3. Awesome post! With the series I am working on the first book is very character driven, but the second book the world itself plays a very important role!! =) Great advice!

  4. I think sometimes contemporary authors ignore setting and it's drab :(

    But I love a setting that interacts with the story, like Hogwarts or Howl's Moving Castle.

  5. Great post, Natalie! The idea of providing just enough detail and backstory to make the reader comfortable is wonderful. Now if only someone would invent a reader-comfort meter. :)


  6. I've been reading these posts with interest. I am so stuck though. Your post on your inferiority complex really, really resonated with me (and I hope you start giving yourself more credit soon and talk about Transparent with extreme pride versus the "..but"...). But anyway, I'm really late to the game and only came back to writing at 31 years old. I love reading and have interest in both MG and YA. I've only completed one silly 45000 word MG that was ..yipes (not good). And other than that, I got 36000 words into another MG, got lost, lost all interest and left it. Then 12,000 words in another fun one..but again became directionless and dispassionate about it.
    I don't know if I need to seriously sit down with some learning material and really map it out (so I don't get lost in the Middle) or if I need to simply find a more passionate idea, or if I haven't yet found my true voice...or if I'm being lazy and giving up too soon.
    I know writing is not all rainbows and pleasure...and will involve headache, hair-pulling, discipline, and (for me) a bit of wine and a lot of chocolate...but I hope it shouldn't be this hard. I don't want to dread going to something because I have no idea where to go.
    I wonder if there is some kind of "method" that I need to study and figure it out. In the meantime, I keep starting pieces and then halting midway through. So, I don't want to get stuck in that cycle, but then I need to figure out how to get around that.
    Is it more formulaic? Do I need to research the books/blogs to learn more about the nature of the craft...or am I doing fine by just sitting and writing as my only form of effort.

    This probably makes no sense. I'm just a bit frustrated with myself!

  7. How true this post is! The concept of immediate relevancy--whether in writing setting or writing backstory--is extremely key. Magic without guidelines, too, as part of the story world, is an important part to nail. And something that I need to go work on, too :) .

  8. Ah, worldbuilding. We have a love/hate relationship :P

    I've yet to write anything contemporary; instead I've chosen obscure historical settings or completely made up my own world. Both have their good and bad sides. And sometimes it just gets so overwhelming that I have to take a step back.

  9. With me, writing a very real world narrative, I've found that setting almost has become a character in and of its own right.

    Thanks for posting this one!

  10. This is brilliant, Natalie! And very, very helpful. :) I know I'm a bit late in reading, but thank you very much for putting all this info together. :)