Worldbuilding Workshop, Part II

Posted: August 15, 2013 in Uncategorized
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It’s a special challenge when creating a new world to which your readers must be introduced (or the changes you’ve made to a familiar one) to do so and maintain a pulse-pounding pace while also developing characters and plot. This can lead to a lot of exposition, which often sounds clunky and inhibits a smooth narrative flow.

One of the best ways to head off info dump is to begin in the right place. If you start the novel too long before the main story so that you can provide set-up and context, you may lose the reader through the lack of immediacy. If you start too in media res, there’s a ton of backstory that you’re going to have to fit in, which will slow down your pacing. This means that you’ve got to choose the moment in time where the key elements that are important to the overarching plot are developing, but early enough in their development that you can provide context before everything goes kablooey. In other words, we have to understand what’s normal before it all goes to hell. Also, we have to care.

That said, there are times where a prologue, which is generally offset in time and sometimes in point of view, from the main storyline might be necessary to provide backstory, but there are right and wrong ways to do this as well. There are almost no hard and fast rules, since if you do anything well enough, you can probably get away with it. However, in general, you don’t want to start with an omniscient narration told from the point of view of some celestial being or star. I would advise you to be careful of starting with a myth, parable or flashback. N.K. Jemisin does this in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, but the snippet is short, relevant and personal:

 I am not as I once was. They have done this to me, broken me open and torn out my heart. I do not know who I am anymore.

I must try to remember.

My people tell stories of the night I was born. They say my mother crossed her legs in the middle of labor and fought with all her strength not to release me into the world. I was born anyhow, of course; nature cannot be denied. Yet it does not surprise me that she tried.

Anyone who’s ever awaited the birth of a child, particularly if you’re the one carrying the child knows that you can’t wait for that baby to be born. The fact that any mother would seek to prevent or delay this…it’s huge. Immediately, the reader wants to know why.

However, in general, you want to begin in the present in the voice of one of your main viewpoint characters. It’s a reader expectation that the first person we “meet” is going to be a major storyteller.

Here are some simple says to avoid info dump:

-Don’t introduce characters before they appear (i.e. “Maia prepped mentally for her meeting with President and his aid, who had been hurt in the “police action” of Kentaga in ’34 and as a result bore horrible scars as constant reminders”). It would be so much more powerful to experience her reaction when the aid comes through the door.

-Once a character appears, do not stop your action to give us his or her history, but reveal it through dialogue or context. Remember that body language and vocal cues can teach us as much about a situation as dialogue tags or exposition. For example, in the above interaction, Maia would certainly notice the scars. She might even stare and get caught, which could be a tense or emotional moment during which the aid could tell her of the origin of his war wounds. In other conversations, one character might be clearly deferential or authoritarian or flippant. Whatever the tone, the interaction itself will enlighten us as to the relationship between these characters with much more relevance and interest than simply telling us.

Likewise, while you’ll have to set a scene and give us description of settings, it’s much more immediate to show how the chill air hit the sweat that still clung to her from the sweat lodge, practically turning it to a thin coating of ice than to simply tell us that it was a cold night.

Also, what do your characters take for granted? What do they swear by? Culturally, a curse is generally something which profanes the sacred, taking God’s name in vain, as it were, so there’s a wealth of information in a curse.

Remember that your characters are the lenses through which we learn about events and the world. They’re the storytellers. Thus, unless something is relevant to them at a given moment, they won’t be thinking about it and the reader won’t be hearing about it. We’ll talk more about characters later.

Magic Systems
There are several key elements in developing magical systems.

Reasoning – is your character a supernatural being out of myth and legend? Are his or her powers genetic? Drawn from a special source? Take it from the superheroes – whether your character is a god like Thor or the last of an alien race drawing power from our red sun like Superman, your character’s powers have to come from somewhere.

Limitations- no matter how broad those powers, they must also be finite. A hero or heroine with no weaknesses makes for a very dull story with no suspense, no fear of failure and nothing that’s a true challenge. Even Superman has his kryptonite.

Balance- the powers arrayed against your protagonist(s) must match or even exceed them so that it’s not mere firepower but creativity and ingenuity that overcome.

Internal logic- once you’ve established the rules, you can’t change them without very good reason, set-up and explanation. For example, in my Vamped series, I have traditional vampires who cannot survive the sunlight. However, in the second book, the Feds, who’ve made my teen vamps an offer they can’t refuse, have developed a concoction that will allow them out in the sun for brief periods of time. The catch is, and there should always be a catch, no one is sure exactly how long that is. It’s never been tested, and my vamps are the guinea pigs.

David B. Coe, in the book How to Write Magical Words, suggests that magic should also have a cost. In his Winds of the Forelands series, for example, the magical race is less hearty than their non-magical counterparts, because every spell cast shortens their lifespan. Steven Harper, in Writing the Parnormal Novel, agrees. To quote “Magic rarely comes free. Otherwise, magicians and magical creatures would rule the world. Be sure you’ve chosen appropriate, consistent limits.”

Whatever you choose to do, make sure that you keep a file on your rules and limitations, what each character or creature type can do, etc. It’ll also help to have a cheat sheet for your world, both for your own reference and for your editor and copyeditor if you’re working on a series. I can’t tell you how often authors have depended on their fans to remind them of something they’ve done in book one and forgotten all about by book four. Fans WILL remember, and they’ll call you on it.

I’ll illustrate here a unique magical description in an excerpt taken from Kalayna Price’s Grave Witch:

Releasing my connection to the magic stored in the obsidian ring, I unclasped the thin silver charm bracelet on my wrist and shoved it in my pocket. The extra defenses the charms gave me vanished. The chill of the grave pressed against my mental shields like icy water lapping at the edge of my consciousness. I drew in a deep breath and sank deeper into a trance. The grave essence lifting from the corpses within my circle persisted, thundering against my mind. Beckoning. Taunting. Demanding.

I dropped my shields.

A racking wind rushed through me. The clammy touch of the grave slid against my skin, beneath my flesh.

I opened my eyes.

My vision had narrowed, leaving the world covered in a patina of gray. Flakes of rust covered the stainless steel gurneys on either side of me. The threadbare and tattered linen sheet covering the body on the gurney to my left rippled in the breeze blowing through me. The linoleum floor under my boots had worn away, and the cement beneath it crumbled. Outside the circle, John’s wrinkled jacket was pocked with holes, but he was filled with light, his soul a dazzling shimmer of pale yellow. I looked away.

In the novel, her heroine Alex Craft’s grave sight has limitations: the grave reaches for her, its chill fills her up. It takes her sight awhile to come back, meaning it’s too dangerous for her to drive, and if she uses the sight for too long, she’ll be functionally blind. She has to go about with shields up except when she chooses to use her power.

Part III is here.

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