Notes on Building a World

I originally presented these slides and notes as a craft talk geared at undergraduate writers attending Sweet Briar College’s 2015 Spring Creative Writing Conference. Eight months later, here is the same talk (finally) as a blog post, with some lightly expanded examples. Some slides are included for emphasis, but I have done what I can to make this piece accessible to screen readers by including all pertinent information in the main copy.

This talk owes a great deal to David Lipsky, whose Craft class at New York University first brought my attention to many of the examples herein.

About that hashtag: I delivered this talk only a few weeks after Sweet Briar’s Board announced that they would be closing the school at the end of the summer. I’m happy to report that since then, the efforts of students, faculty, alumnae, and friends have #SavedSweetBriar, and the school is currently accepting applications for the 2016–2017 academic year.

I took a creative writing workshop every semester of my undergraduate career. At the beginning of each fall and spring, without fail, every professor requested that we adhere to the same guideline: no fantasy, no sci-fi, no speculative fiction. In short: nothing that requires world building. Save the hard stuff for the novels; in here, we write stories.

This never sat well with me. I am predominantly a short story writer, and rarely am I a realist. I hardly ever write anything over fifteen pages, even when charting unfamiliar territories.

I understand the reasoning — world building can be difficult, especially with short word counts, and most instructors would prefer not to deal with it. My professors typically capped stories submitted to our workshops at twelve double-spaced pages. Fair enough. But for those students who want to write about new worlds — whether in short forms or long — they rarely had the opportunity in those classes to learn how to do so. There are at least some general principles that can help along the way, but these never came up during our discussions.

Why should we bother with world-building? Because the reader needs to understand the rules of the story in order to grasp any significance of character or plot. The challenge for writers is to get the reader up to speed in an unfamiliar place without getting in the way of their own narrative. There are two main ways to start:

1. The Outsider Approach

This is by far the easier method. The author provides the reader with a proxy for themselves, and a guide who can explain things as we go.

A classical example: Dante inserts himself as a proxy for the reader in the Inferno, while Virgil guides him through the nine circles of Hell. Dante knows nothing about the architecture of Hell prior to entering its depths, but Virgil is an expert who can explain as they go.

We still see this all the time in more contemporary literature. For instance: Harry Potter begins his saga with no knowledge of the wizarding world, but characters like Hagrid, Dumbledore, Ron, and even muggle-born Hermione with her great love of books are able to explain the structure and limits of the world as the story progresses. And, because we’re in Harry’s head and share his Muggle-world background, we learn with him.

2. The Insider Approach

Much trickier to pull off, the Insider approach tells us about an unfamiliar world while only the reader is outside of the story. This is exceptionally common in realist fiction, where there are fewer unfamiliar variables. For distant worlds, it’s obviously harder.

Common Mistakes

There are a few very common ways that the Insider Approach can fail. Here are some of the most typical mistakes that writers — especially student writers — can make when they get excited about creating a world.

1. Exposition Takes Precedence Over Plot Movement

We live in a time when we are inundated with media to consume at every turn. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing realist or fantastic fiction: if your story doesn’t grab your reader, they will leave you. You are up against every kitten video on the internet, so get your reader engaged ASAP. It’s only polite.

At the same time, you have to guide your reader somehow. There are things they simply need to know. So how can you get them to forgive the necessary background? Introduce some tension early — even if it has little to do with the main plot.

A common example given to MFA students (in my program, at any rate) is Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin, which begins like this:

The elderly passenger sitting on the north-window side of that inexorably moving railway coach, next to an empty seat and facing two empty ones, was none other than Professor Timofey Pnin. Ideally bald, sun-tanned, and clean-shaven, he began rather impressively with that great brown dome of his, tortoise-shell glasses (masking an infantile absence of eyebrows), apish upper lip, thick neck, and strong-man torso in a tight-ish tweed coat, but ended, somewhat disappointingly, in a pair of spindly legs (now flanneled and crossed), and fail-looking, almost feminine feet.

Nabokov can be excused some extended introductions, just because his writing is so damn good. But even he understands that readers won’t stick around forever unless something is going on, no matter how beautifully and endearingly he continues his introduction of Pnin. So only a paragraph later, he gives us this:

Now a secret must be imparted. Professor Pnin was on the wrong train. He was unaware of it, and so was the conductor, already threading his way through the train to Pnin’s coach.

Ah! Trouble.

Pnin won’t learn that he’s on the wrong train for another nine pages, but the reader knows, and Nabokov pauses after every few paragraphs of exposition to remind us. Meanwhile, the exposition highlights that Pnin is traveling to deliver an important lecture that he is now in danger of missing, thereby heightening the dramatic irony.

Ultimately, everything turns out okay for Pnin. He arrives not only on time for his lecture, but also on time for dinner. There are no lasting consequences. But Nabokov doesn’t need the wrong train to chug on through the story; it has served his purpose, keeping the reader entertained enough while he gave us the character background we need in order to get into the rest of the novel.

2. Nothing Kills a Show Like Too Much Exposition

Even if all of your backstory is awesome, your reader will glaze over if you give them too much all at once.

The Harry Potter series is, at its heart, about the fight against bigotry — studies have even found that children who read the series grow up to be more tolerant people. But when we begin the story, exploring the wizarding world through Harry’s eleven-year-old eyes, there’s no reason for J.K. Rowling to tell us the full history of wizarding intolerance up-front. Still, she knows that this is key to the series as a whole, and that it underlies the whole structure of her world, so she finds a way to give us a little taste of it in the very first book, when Harry first meets his rival, Draco Malfoy, while shopping for school supplies in Diagon Alley. Draco asks,

“But [your parents] were our kind, weren’t they?”
“They were a witch and wizard, if that’s what you mean.”
“I really don’t think they should let the other sort in [to Hogwarts school], do you? … I think they should keep it in the old wizarding families. What’s your surname, anyway?”

Here in chapter five, Harry is exposed to this critical idea that there are people who are biased against witches and wizards born to non-magical parents. At the time, this exchange gives Harry reason to dislike Draco, and makes him anxious about beginning his studies at Hogwarts without having lived in the wizarding world — two important plot points that keep tension flowing in the early chapters.

We won’t even hear the words “Death Eater” until the fourth book in the series, and we won’t start to see institutionalized discrimination against muggle-born wizards until book five, but all of that political background is alluded to in the early chapters of Sorcerer’s Stone. Rowling knows when to give and when to hold back.

3. Failure to Trust the Reader

Your reader doesn’t need every little thing explained to them. Trust them to interpret some clues for themselves. Writing for the lowest common denominator is a good way to alienate huge portions of your audience.

In 2013, on occasion of the release of Dan Brown’s Inferno, The Telegraph ran one of the greatest book reviews in modern history, poking fun at the author’s excessively expository style:

Renowned author Dan Brown got out of his luxurious four-poster bed in his expensive $10 million house and paced the bedroom, using the feet located at the ends of his two legs to propel him forwards.

The lesson here: trust your reader. Don’t be Dan Brown.

The Hunger Games

A Case Study in Exposition

You’ve probably heard of, read, or seen Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. Narrated by sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, the books are set in a dystopian future. Every year, each of the impoverished twelve districts of the country Panem must send two children between the ages of 12 and 18 to a televised fight to the death for the amusement of the ultra-rich Capitol city. At the end of chapter 1, our narrator’s 12-year-old sister, Prim, will be chosen to compete in these Hunger Games, and the narrator will volunteer to take her place.

That’s a lot to take in, and as cool as it might sound, we could definitely find ourselves suffering from Too Much Exposition if Collins had tried to cram all of the necessary details into the first few pages.

Luckily, Collins has a background as a television writer, which means she’s very good at efficiently relaying information. On TV, every new scene can mean a new set built, more limited airtime used, so as often as possible, scenes should be accomplishing multiple objectives at once. (Her TV background also means that Collins is very good at cliffhangers; she will end chapters at absurd points just to get you to keep reading — she’s been trained to keep viewers engaged through commercial breaks.)

The first chapter of The Hunger Games is often regarded by readers as the weakest in the book, but I’d argue that it actually does what it has to do remarkably well. (All emphasis that follows is mine.)

Jennifer Lawrence and Willow Shields as Katniss and Prim in The Hunger Games (2012).
The Hunger Games, Chapter 1, Paragraph 1:
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course she did. This is the day of the reaping.

Right off the bat, we have something to look forward to: the reaping. We don’t know what it is yet, but it sure sounds ominous, and we know that it’s something that gives little girls nightmares.

Collins will mention the reaping nine times before it’s ever defined — and when she does define it, the explanation stems naturally from a conversation taking place between two characters.

So already, we have our ticking clock; something important and scary is happening today. But notice what else is here.

  • Already, Collins has introduced one of the most important characters in the series: Prim, who we can infer is the narrator’s sister.
  • She has introduced the scary-sound reaping, which we’ll see later, is the first event leading into the titular Hunger Games.
  • She has given us two small clues about the economic situation: the rough canvas cover on the mattress, and the fact that the sisters typically share a bed.

In the first fifty-two words of the story, Collins has introduced the three most important things in the whole series: Prim, the Games, and the economic disenfranchisement of the districts.

The Hunger Games, Paragraph 3:
Sitting at Prim’s knees, guarding her, is the world’s ugliest cat. … He hates me. … I think he still remembers how I tried to drown him in a bucket when Prim brought him home. … The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed. But Prim begged so hard, cried even, I had to let him stay. It turned out okay. My mother got rid of the vermin and he’s a born mouser. Even catches the occasional rat. Sometimes, when I clean a kill, I feed Buttercup the entrails.

Two paragraphs later, we learn the following things:

  • Prim is a character who seems to be in need of protection.
  • This story takes place in a world where you’d drown sick cats rather than cure them.
  • This is a world where you feed your cat entrails, because there’s nothing else. Food of any kind is scarce.
  • Prim is the narrator’s weakness. It’s only paragraph three, but we’ve already been set up to understand that Katniss will do anything for her sister — which will be crucially important once her sister’s name is drawn for the Games at the end of the chapter.
  • Collins introduces some particular language here: “when I clean a kill.” We don’t know it yet, but Katniss is a hunter. Collins uses a hunter’s term for what Katniss catches, which gives her authorial credibility and reinforces the story’s internal logic: this is how Katniss sees and describes the world.

Even this silly paragraph about the cat is doing a lot of work.

Next, Katniss leaves home, shimmies under a fence that is supposed to be electrified but rarely is due to a constant lack of electricity in this town, and enters the woods, where she retrieves a hidden bow and arrow.

The Hunger Games, Paragraph 9:
Even though trespassing in the woods is illegal and poaching carries the severest of penalties, more people would risk it if they had weapons. But most are not bold enough to venture out with just a knife. … Most of the Peacekeepers turn a blind eye to the few of us who hunt because they’re as hungry for fresh meat as anybody is.

From this, we can gather that:

  • We’re in a police state. There are supposedly-electrified borders to keep people in; the woods are off-limits. Weapons are forbidden. But — security where Katniss lives is a little more lax than it should be.
  • Everyone is hungry, even the official-sounding Peacekeepers. This is a good “Trust Your Reader” moment: Collins doesn’t need to define “Peacekeeper,” because she’s given us enough information to figure it out for ourselves. The term sounds like good, solid propaganda. It sounds real, so we can accept it and move on.

At this point, plot-wise, we’re just going about Katniss’s day. But here’s the multi-tasking TV writer at work: at the same time, Collins is giving us a tour of Katniss’s world and everything that matters to her. And through it all, we never forget that the reaping is coming. That scary clock keeps ticking.

Next up: Katniss’s friend and hunting buddy, Gale, meets her in the woods and they sit down to eat breakfast.

Jennifer Lawrence and Liam Hemsworth as Katniss and Gale, in the woods before the reaping. The Hunger Games (2012).
The Hunger Games, Paragraph 18:
“I almost forgot! Happy Hunger Games!” He plucks a few blackberries from the bushes around us. “And may the odds — ” He tosses a berry in a high arc toward me.
I catch it in my mouth and break the delicate skin with my teeth. The sweet tartness explodes across my tongue. “ — be ever in your favor!” I finish with equal verve. We have to joke about it because the alternative is to be scared out of your wits.
  • Note that there is no reason for them to be eating in this scene, except that everything in this book is about food. This helps cement the internal logic of the world: if you’re always hungry, as Katniss is, then food dominates your way of thinking. She describes the way everything tastes. Later, when she is presented with elaborate meals in the wealthy Capitol city, she mentally runs through how much time and energy it would take her to reproduce even a paltry version of the same meal back home. Food is always important.
  • “May the odds be ever in your favor!” This is the slogan of the reaping. We haven’t heard this phrase in context yet, and we don’t really know what it means, but when we see it reappear later in the chapter, we as readers are reminded that Collins knows her own world. Her characters give the impression of really existing within it.
  • “We have to joke about it, because the alternative is to be scared out of your wits.” We still don’t know what the reaping is, but Collins won’t let us forget about it. It is all over this first chapter, keeping the pressure on.

The next few pages show Katniss and Gale hunting, selling what they’ve caught at the black market (underscoring the rigid laws and dangers of living in this world), and finally, we get to the reaping itself.

Collins waits until we’re practically there to tell us how this event works. In short: children between the ages of twelve and eighteen have their names entered in a lottery, one slip for each year they’ve been eligible. Exceptionally poor children (which includes practically everyone) can earn a bit of extra food for their families by agreeing to enter their names more times.

While we wait for the reaping to start, Collins finally tells us the rules of the Hunger Games themselves, so that we can understand the full magnitude of what this following scene means: those children chosen in this lottery are sent to compete in the Games, a televised fight to the death orchestrated every year by the powerful Capitol. There can be only one victor, who is showered with riches. Katniss’s district, the poorest in the country, has only one living victor, despite the fact that the Games are held every year.

The Hunger Games, Paragraph 73
I find myself standing a clump of sixteens from the Seam. We all exchange terse nods then focus our attention on the temporary stage that is set up before the Justice Building. It holds three chairs, a podium, and two large glass balls, one for the boys and one for the girls. I stare at the paper slips in the girls’ ball. Twenty of them have Katniss Everdeen written on them in careful handwriting.

There are a few nice details in this paragraph:

  • “Clump of sixteens.” We don’t need more than this; we can gather for ourselves that the children are divided by age in the town square where the reaping is held. This sounds like familiar short hand — which underscores that this is an annual event.
  • Heightening tension: the odds are not in Katniss’s favor.
  • Collins finally tells us Katniss’s full name, just a few paragraphs from the end of the chapter. By giving this detail to us here, it’s fresh in our minds. When the name Primrose Everdeen comes out of the reaping ball in a few minutes, there can be no mistake that it is Katniss’s sister who has been chosen.

So, in summary of chapter one:

Collins keeps our interest by withholding the meaning of the reaping; she can do this because she establishes that it is terrifying and inescapable very early on. She also saves time and backstory by telling us things only when we need to know them.

For a truly great example of this kind of timely exposition, also check out George Saunders’s “CommComm.”

Some Tricks of the Trade

Now that we’ve seen examples of what not to do and examined a case of exposition done well, let’s break down a few other ways to build a convincing world.

1. Use the Familiar to Your Advantage

Proximity to things that we know from our own reality can make unreal things seem more real by association. It gives the reader context and makes them feel at home.

Consider a scene from the beginning of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. In a magical, alternate-reality Oxford University, our main character, Lyra, witnesses the Master poisoning a decanter of wine. In these early pages, Pullman has already asked us to accept that everyone in this world has a magical, sentient animal companion, or dæmon, which externally represents their soul and accompanies them everywhere they go. He doesn’t want to overdo it. So the scene goes like this:

The Master took from his pocket a folded paper and laid it on the table beside the wine. He took the stopper out of the mouth of a decanter containing a rich golden wine, unfolded the paper, and poured a thin stream of white powder into the decanter before crumpling the paper and throwing it into the fire. Then he took a pencil from his pocket, stirred the wine until the powder had dissolved, and replaced the stopper.

What if instead of a pencil, the Master had used a magic wand to dissolve the potion? Plot-wise, it would achieve exactly the same thing, but it would be yet another element for the reader to accept. The pencil reinforces the story’s academic setting and gives us a familiar touchstone to ground everything else.

2. Know Your Own Rules

Just as you trust your reader, give them reasons to trust you by building a logical world — even if its logic is completely unfamiliar.

For example: during her adventures in a completely absurd place called Wonderland, a girl named Alice discovers that ingesting one thing will make her shrink in size, while ingesting another will make her grow. She accepts this fact, and quickly learns to use it to help herself on her journey. We see it happen repeatedly throughout the book.

Lewis Carroll, a mathematician by training, wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in protest of the radical new mathematics rocking the academy in the nineteenth century, a practice that moved beyond the strict Euclidian rules that Carroll revered, and introduced bizarre new concepts like imaginary numbers. Carr0ll designed Wonderland as a place where the rules of geometry and algebra no longer apply — yet even in this deliberately absurd world, there is some small amount of internal logic. Perhaps Carroll was simply too logical a person to shed all consistency entirely, but regardless, the growing and shrinking foods do the reader a service. We may all be mad in Wonderland, but there are at least a few constants that can help us (and Alice) navigate the place.

3. Reinforce What You’ve Already Established

Sloppily written books make us feel like we’ve wasted our time. If a writer doesn’t care enough about the story to know it well, then why should we take our time to read it? A good callback can remind us that the writer is in control, and that we can trust them. Let us return to Pnin for a moment.

After his introduction on the wrong train, we see Pnin move into new lodgings, coming to live with a fellow faculty member and his wife, who are seeking to fill a vacant room in their home. Discussing the accommodations with his new landlords, Pnin tells them, “I must warn you: will have all my teeth pulled out. It is a repulsive operation.” Pnin secures a new pair of dentures, and then the incident is largely forgotten.

Several chapters later, Pnin greets his ex-wife (wearing a new brown suit, paid for by the lecture he nearly missed in the first chapter — another nice callback). Upon seeing him, the ex-wife exclaims, “Oh, he has splendid new teeth!”

By now, the reader has long forgotten about Pnin’s dental operation. But to his wife, who has not seen him in years, the new teeth come as a shock. To be sure, Nabokov could have left the exchange out and nobody would have noticed, or else they simply would assume the wife had chosen not to comment. By having her respond to the new teeth, Nabokov asserts his own mastery over his characters and his story, and assures us that we’re in capable authorial hands.

In Summary

Your readers are taking their time to engage with your work, so make it worth their while. Be mindful of their needs, even as you balance your own. Creating a new world can be daunting, but it doesn’t have to be impossible, even with a limited word count, as long as you can appropriately leverage the common ground we all have in this reality in order to make it happen.

At the Sweet Briar conference, each faculty craft talk was followed by a reading of the speaker’s own work. In hopes that it might illustrate some of the my points, I chose to share “Sudba 1,” a piece of speculative fiction which now appears in the Fall 2015 issue of The Iowa Review. A video reading of the story is available online.