Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Laws of the World

World-building is an integral part of any good work of fiction.  It is the author's job to make the world feel real, so that the reader can live in it for the period of time that they're reading the work.

"But realistic settings constructed from memory or research are only part of the challenge, for an intensely created fantasy world makes new boundaries for the mind...Obviously this does not absolve the writer from the necessity of giving outer space its own characteristics, atmosphere, and logic.  If anything, these must be more intensely realized within the fiction, since we have less to borrow from in our own experience." 
Much of world-building is done in the head of the writer through research and planning prior to the actual writing of the story.  The author always knows more about the novel than the words that end up written on the page, especially in science fiction or fantasy.  Meanwhile, the reader needs to feel part of the written world without being overwhelmed with information dumped all at once. 

Benjamin Tate, author of Well of Sorrows (which I'm currently reading), posted not too long ago on Magical Words, saying that,

"The main goal...is to let the reader settle into the world and live in it without the world itself becoming overwhelming. Make the world familiar enough and expose the differences from our world in slow and steady stages, and the reader won’t even notice that they’ve snuggled deeper into their chair and are turning the pages that much faster."

I bring this topic up now because of my summer writing class.  We were required to submit a final piece, either a complete short story or the first chapter to a novel.  During the last two classes, we critiqued each other's work.  My final short story was set in the world of my novel, but occurred approximately sixty years prior.  Ironically, the short story's protagonist is the antagonist of the novel: Sarah, the current werewolf pack leader.  In any case, one of the primary criticisms was that I hadn't provided enough information about the rules of my fictional world. 

My goal had been to follow Benjamin's advice.  I wanted the reader to slowly become aware that the story was about a single battle in a werewolf war.  I tried introduce the rules of the world more or less evenly over the ~5,000 words of the story.  Unfortunately, by the end the readers still didn't have enough information to fully understand what was going on or feel satisfied with the conclusion.  My classmates asked about the identity of the werewolf pack, the reason for the war, and why the protagonist was so brutal.  We ended up talking about my world more than the story itself, which was fine by me since I had so much information to share.

Nearly everyone in the class thought that my short story was part of a longer work.  In a way, I suppose it was.  It was a piece of back-story for my novel.  But it made me realize that world-building is a balancing act.  You need to bring the reader into the world slowly and carefully, but you also have to give them enough to chew on or you'll lose them.  Every word, every sentence, needs to function on multiple levels to keep the reader interested, entertained, and ultimately satisfied.  If you don't give them enough, they feel incomplete, but give them too much and they'll either be overwhelmed or feel patronized.  The sweet spot is hard to find.

Now that I'm beginning the revision process for my novel, I'm reading with an eye for the "reality" of the world.  I've already noticed spots where I've given an information dump, or areas that need more description.  Revision is a wonderful thing.

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