Friday, August 20, 2010

World Building and a Cure for the b-l-o-c-k

The good thing about social media, is that you are allowed to surround yourself with like-minded individuals. In my situation, I’ve found scribechat on twitter. It’s a wonderful way to round-table certain writing topics. The folks participating never fail to keep the topics open, the humor constant and the insight compelling. Over the past few months I’ve yet to be disappointed in our discussions and, last night was no different.

The topic was world-building. How important is world-building in fiction? Is it a necessity in all genres? How does one go about describing said world while avoiding info dumping?

Of course, my fellow scribes had the answers we all need and I’d love to share their wealth of knowledge on the topic at hand. (For a more detailed view of our discussion, check out last night’s transcripts which should be up soon).

World-building is important, in my humble opinion, because it grants realism to your story— it puts your reader ‘in’ your story. It gives your characters authority which makes your story believable. Realism, despite the genre, picks your readers up and places them dead center of the universe you’ve created. Description of your world, or place or setting, helps the reader to understand why she should care about your protagonist and the misadventures that happen along in your plot. In short, it makes your reader identify with your characters, which makes them more interested, which garners a base. Quite simple, right?

So, if world building is so important, how can it be done effectively? Last night there were loads and loads of suggestions. All interesting, all valid, I thought, but the one technique, (for lack of better term), that I really found especially helpful, is sensory explanation.

Explaining what a characters feels, sees, tastes, hears, etc, is an open door to relating to your readers about the external influences of your character. It also furthers the inclusion of your reader into the story. I’ll give you an example of what I mean.

I’m going to dork out and use Rowling because, yes, I’m a fan girl, but also because she’s a master at world building:

The last shop was narrow and shabby. Peeling gold letters over the door read Ollivanders: Makers of Fine Wands since 382 B.C. A single wand lay on a faded purple cushion in the dusty window.

A tinkling bell rang somewhere in the depths of the shop as they stepped inside. It was a tiny place, empty except for a single, spindly chair that Hagrid sat on to wait. Harry felt strangely as though he had entered a very strict library; he swallowed a lot of new questions that had just occurred to him and looked instead at the thousands of narrow boxes piled neatly right up to the ceiling. For some reason, the back of his neck prickled. The very dust and silence in here seemed to tingle with some secret magic.

Now, what if Rowling would have given us the bare facts without all of Harry’s sensory interpretations?

Something like…

The last shop was a wand shop. The letters over the door read Ollivanders: Makers of Fine Wands since 382 B.C. A wand lay on a cushion in the window.

A bell rang in the shop as they stepped inside. Hagrid sat on a chair to wait. Harry swallowed a lot of new questions that had just occurred to him and looked instead at the boxes piled up to the ceiling.

Clearly, the edited version is extreme, but the gist is accurate. With the second paragraph, which excludes any sensory details, we know only where Harry is and what he sees. But we have no real indication of what to make of Ollivander’s. With the exception of the word “wand” this shop could have been any shop in just about any place. But it is Rowling’s descriptors that give us a real sense of place. We know, from Harry’s point of view, that the shop is a tiny little place, very old and very cluttered. We know that Harry is a smidgen freaked out by the shop and that he feels some odd sense of reverence and déjà vu. Why do we know this? Because we are ‘in’ Harry’s mind and we are seeing, hearing and feeling what he feels.

That, folks, is what world building is all about.

Our readers have to know what our characters know (or don’t know as the case may be). And in turn, we have to know the world we’re building. After all, asking a reader to join you in a world you’ve created and have not fully imagined is like asking someone who has never driven to take the wheel on a road trip. It’s inauthentic and trust me, your readers will know.

And world-building isn’t necessitated only in genre fiction. Literary fiction also requires a unique world. Thinking about ‘Streetcar Named Desire’ anywhere else than in New Orleans. How did the city influence Blanche? Did the sights and sounds of the city lend itself to the overall feel of the story?

There are others of course: Anything Faulkner gave us set outside of the south would have felt awkward, I think. Hemingway’s vivid retelling of the thrill of the safari or McCarthy’s desolate landscape of the world post-apocalypse. World building/setting/place, if done correctly, can and, I think, should be just as important as your antagonist’s motivation or the conflict your main character overcomes. (A more thorough explanation of the importance of place can be found here).

There are other ways to explain your world, ways that take another avenue without sensory overload, but I don’t want to overwhelm you with a bunch of techniques that I’m sure you’re already well aware of. Again, see the transcripts for more.

The two most critical aspects about world-building—the ones that I have found necessary while writing—is knowing, (and I mean absolute knowledge here), the world you are creating and expressing that through your characters point of view. The latter is doubly fun when you’ve got multiple points of view.

So, what if you’re stuck? What if you have no idea how to build these worlds? What if you’ve become clustered in that most loathed place that all writers get in (read: the block)? Well, I hope I can help you with that as well.

The lovely writing mentor, who I’ve gushed about frequently on my little blog, gave me some great exercises for the block. These can help if you’re stuck, as I have been, in the middle. Or if you just need a bit of a boost to get the muse in the mood to inspire.

For stuck-in-the-middle issues:

Mary Gordon said this: "I always know my endings, but mid-way through the book, usually I find out it's not the ending at all." Ask yourself if you are too set on keeping the "nifty" ending you envisioned when you thought up the plot of the book. Maybe you can't write to that ending because it's not the right one. If you're locking your mind into "it has to turn out this way," then you're forcing something on your characters that they don't want.

If that doesn’t work, put the book aside, take some time away from it, don't think about it for a while, then go back and re-read it and sometimes that time a part will help the natural flow reemerge so that you, hopefully, can't write fast enough.

Exercises for the dreaded b-l-o-c-k:

1. First make sure you REALLY know your characters, especially your main character. Use an artist's pad and write down everything about your character: political party, the music they listen to, how much money they have in the bank, etc. Then, cut out photos of what you imagine your character may look like and paste them on the pad.

2. For setting, draw your character’s town, the houses, the workplaces, on and on. Any detail that would spark something for future use in the plot.

3. Have your character write you a letter that begins "What you don't know about me that you need to know." Free write until they tell you the secret they're keeping from you that you didn't understand. Not understanding the character's secrets oftentimes keeps us from understanding their real motivation.

4. Have someone else read your book out loud to you. You hear things that you don't hear when you read it yourself.

5. Play the ‘What If’ game. “What if…she did this or what if so and so said this.” Don’t think about it, just scribble anything that pops in your mind. What if she robbed a bank? What would happen? How would she feel? What would she do next? There are always consequences both good and bad for every action we take. If we overeat, we get indigestion. If we said something mean, we may feel guilty OR if we're not a nice person, we may enjoy seeing someone suffer.

6. Finally, you may do something as simple as change from first person to third and realize that gives you what you're looking for.

One last thought: Sometimes the story that has you stuck, isn’t the story you should be writing at the moment. It doesn’t mean the story is dead and should be forgotten—it just means that at this point in your life, you aren’t ready to write that story. Don’t forget about it. Come back when it’s time and if you, as the writer, know your voice, trust me, you’ll know when the time is right.

*Note* The above exercises came from Bev, for the most part, and not me. Thanks, Bev. You are a rock star!


Lisa Gail Green said...

I love the HP example you pulled out! It's been tons of fun with you guys on Scribechat - I'm so glad I met you.

TS Tate said...

Thanks, honey. I've really enjoyed it as well. I always look forward to Thursday nights. :)

SP Sipal said...

Fabulous example. I linked to it on my blog, but I put it under the zoom detail post rather than the wide-angle lens where you commented, because I thought it fit better. You did a great job of analyzing the detail JKR used which helped build her world so effectively!

adrienne said...

I've been burning up my keyboard since Thursday night. The worldbuilding talk really set me in action as far as my WiP is concerned. I have a house, a town (or what I need of it), and am now piecing together areas of the town where I want certain plot points to take place. Mapping is a beautiful thing.

As for the b-l-o-c-k, I've decided to ignore it. I'm just gonna tell that guy to move along. Then I'll probably drink too much coffee and write something insane, but whatever.

Great post, bess fran. You're so thorough and on-point with these posts. Love love love. :)

TS Tate said...

Thanks so much for the repost! I really loved yours as well.

TS Tate said...

@Adrienne I'm so proud and impressed by your motivation. I should totally follow your lead. :P

Thanks for the comment, bess fran!

AJ Larrieu said...

This is all great advice, and your Harry Potter example is gold! Thanks for posting this.

PS I just finished Bev Marshall's Hot Fudge Sunday Blues, and you were right--it's gorgeous.

Laura said...

Great post! And I loved the Ollivander's example — but hey, I'm a fan girl too. ;)

TS Tate said...

Thanks so much AJ & Laura. Sorry I'm just seeing your comnents. And AJ, I'm so happy you liked Bev's novel. The woman is wonderful!