Wednesday, May 10, 2017

0 WoW: Building a world (that comes alive) in 7 easy steps

Today, I am so thrilled to welcome L.E. Sterling, with a post on world-building in Science Fiction and Fantasy YA literature. I often read slush for contests and spent time as an intern at a publisher and one of the most common issues I've noticed while reading SFF unpublished manuscripts is that writer struggles to balance plot, characterizations and world-building. All too often there's lots of pre-loaded information about the fantasy world before the writer has given the reader a reason to be interested in the story. I've often wondered about techniques to effectively build worlds and so I'm beyond excited to have this amazing post. Stay tuned for information about L.E.'s new book, TRUE NORTH. But first here's…

Building a world (that comes alive) in 7 easy steps
By L.E. Sterling

I have a crazy imagination. You’d think this would help a SFF writer like myself, wouldn’t you? It’s true that in some ways this is a blessing -- building strange and complex worlds doesn't seem to be an issue for me.

But how do you make these worlds come alive? How do you prevent world building from taking over the plot? The worst thing is when you write a SF or Fantasy story only to discover that all you have is an amazingly intricate set, populated by stick figures.

So. I’m here to share with aspiring writers everywhere a few tips on how to make that world shake and shimmy and float with life – and to work with your plot, rather than having your world building plot against you!

1 - Don’t tell everything all at once.

One technique I’ve adopted as a writer comes from film. When you watch a film you enter a world one camera shot at a time. Stories can be the same. In fact, there’s a school of writing that draws on the “iceberg theory”: there is a lot more floating under the surface, not talked about, and this adds depth and character to narratives. Subtlety is an art form!

Start with a complete world in your head, but dole out details on that world – how it operates, what it looks like – sparingly. Don't throw it all out in a single page dump over the first 40 pages of your manuscript – tease it out a few details at a time. This will help you weave the plot in and through the world and give your narrative a more realistic feel.

2 - Think about perspective.

The characters in your story are going to interact in your world in different ways. It’s important for you as the writer to think about those interactions. Do a certain species of alien tick off your main character? Does someone love a certain landscape -- or despise it? Do they have a place they feel at home?

Thinking about your characters and their perspective on their world will also help you achieve point 1. As your characters interact with elements of their world, you have the opportunity to shed a light here and there on the world, adding depth and richness to the reading experience without overwhelming the plot.

Also remember that in most cases, your character is not going to be a “newbie” to the place they find themselves in. What details will they notice -- what will make sense to them?

3 - Simple is better – don’t overcomplicate.  

One reason that YA series’ like The Hunger Games and Divergent works so well is because the worlds have been simplified. In Divergent, for instance, society has been broken down into easy-to-understand factions (Dauntless, Abnegation, etc.). Roth focuses on the parts of the world that matter to the plot – everything else should likely be cut.

This is the hardest lesson for those of us with overactive imaginations, who like to let our sci-fi-fantasy gardens, in the form of world building, grow wildly out of control. But trust me. Pruning that particular garden, reigning in that imaginative impulse, will really help your story shine.

4 - Don’t worry about the reader so much.

Now, this is a bit of a contentious statement.

On the one hand, you should be thinking all about the reader (see the first three points). You should be thinking about what the reader needs to know, what the plot needs to move it forward, and what your characters will experience.

On the other hand, I basically believe in the intelligence of my readers. I want to immerse them completely in a world, which means that I don’t hold their hand and guide them gently into my universe. I plunge.

I don’t take the time to “explain” every little thing. To my mind, this level of explanation bogs down the action, and it runs the risk of keeping readers from fully being immersed.

To be honest, not all of my readers have enjoyed that experience. Some prefer the handholding. I say there’s a fine line: you can explain what is going on without being blunt about it. Don’t think like the person dreaming up the story – think like the person in the story. And then consider the person reading the story. How many details will they need?

5 - Show, don’t tell.

This is one of the most basic tenets of any creative writing class, and relates to my last point. “Telling” involves explaining things to your reader.

Showing, on the other hand, involves acting like that movie camera again. As the writer, you are the lens: what do people in the world see, feel, touch, smell?

This is as simple as the difference between the following examples:

Telling: John didn’t like the way the prickles on the alien plant felt because they were sharp and thorny. The plant cut him. John wasn’t sure what to do next.

Show: John put out his hand. The alien plant flickered to life, a pod extending to nip at his fingers. Sharp pain lanced through his hand. He pulled back his fingers. Blood dripped steadily from a jagged wound.

He murmured softly, in case the plant was also sentient. “Ah, hell. We need a gardener.”

So. Which example do you think is more effective, and why?

6 - Be clear with your intentions.

It might actually be better to start with plot and build up the world around it. I like to map out, even if only very generally, what I think will happen in the story I’m writing. Then I’ll know which elements of the world will be the most important to the plot, and can even map when certain world details need to be revealed.  

7 - Don’t blow it up.

Okay, so now you have built an incredible dystopian world. Aliens are being seeded on earth by plants. The plants are taking over the banks, they are choking out the sky. And it’s fabulous. Or so you think…. And then you think again.

Don’t be discouraged if there are things about the writing and the plot that don’t make sense or seem too plodding. This is what the backspace/eraser is for.

Editing is a really important process of writing – it helps you turn the rough cut into a gem. If you’re frustrated and don’t think the story is working, please don’t have your characters build a crazy alien bomb that blows everything up (unless, you know, this is part of the plot).

Go back slowly through a story and see if you can make your world clearer. Cut and past and rewrite. Take notes on your world and your plot so you can map the two together and try to remember the details you added 20 pages earlier. Use a friend who’s opinion you trust read over your story and give you helpful feedback on where things don’t make sense.

Here’s something every new writer needs to know: stories are never finished. Worlds will never be complete. It’s the story you tell in between that matters. And, like parallel universes, each version of the story you tell is a uniquely wonderful creation.

About L.E. Sterling
L.E. Sterling had an early obsession with sci-fi, fantasy and romance to which she remained faithful even through an M.A. in Creative Writing and a PhD in English Literature – where she completed a thesis on magical representation. She is the author of two previous novels, the cult hit Y/A novel The Originals (under pen name L.E. Vollick), dubbed “the Catcher in the Rye of a new generation” by one reviewer, and the urban fantasy Pluto’s Gate.

Originally hailing from Parry Sound, Ontario, L.E. spent most of her summers roaming across Canada in a van with her father, a hippie musician, her brothers and an occasional stray mutt – inspiring her writing career. She currently lives in Toronto, Ontario.

About TRUE NORTH (True Born Trilogy #2)
Abandoned by her family in Plague-ridden Dominion City, eighteen-year-old Lucy Fox has no choice but to rely upon the kindness of the True Borns, a renegade group of genetically enhanced humans, to save her twin sister, Margot.

But Nolan Storm, their mysterious leader, has his own agenda. When Storm backtracks on his promise to rescue Margot, Lucy takes her fate into her own hands and sets off for Russia with her True Born bodyguard and maybe-something-more, the lethal yet beautiful Jared Price. In Russia, there’s been whispered rumors of Plague Cure.

While Lucy fights her magnetic attraction to Jared, anxious that his loyalty to Storm will hurt her chances of finding her sister, they quickly discover that not all is as it appears…and discovering the secrets contained in the Fox sisters’ blood before they wind up dead is just the beginning.

As they say in Dominion, sometimes it’s not you…it’s your DNA.

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