GUEST POST: Worldporn versus Worldbuilding by Robert Jackson Bennett

“Worldbuilding” is usually the hot commodity in fantasy and science fiction. When someone says they love a fantasy or science fiction book, that word almost always pops up as a reason why. If you don’t have solid worldbuilding, odds are people won’t warm to your book.

In other words, in fantasy and science fiction, worldbuilding is a zero sum game. You’ve got to have it to be successful.

But what goes into successful worldbuilding? What’s the difference between making up a world and writing about it? I know I don’t have all the answers, but from writing my first secondary world fantasy, City of Stairs, I have a few personal rules for making a secondary world work on the page.

Rule One: It’s Got to Do Something

Worldbuilding is almost always elaborate, and the more elaborate and immersive and rich, the better. Your world needs to be complicated, thoughtful, clever, and believable.

But when it comes to the page, first and foremost, it’s got to be functional.

Let’s say you’re writing your story about the Young Naïve Adolescent with a Strange Gift who comes to the Big Magical City. Let’s say your protagonist swings by the Magic Academy, and receives extensive instruction on the history and rules of magic in this world, and its relation with all the noble families in the region.

Here’s the question you need to ask: what does this scene do for the plot? What does it do for the characters? Is this elaborate for elaborateness’s sake, or does it do something?

For example, does the Magic Academy show back up in the story? Will the rules of magic or the history of the noble families have any sort of implications or consequences to the plot? Does the main character react to these rules in any kind of way, or do they just sit there passively, having information dumped into their heads?

This is the big danger of worldbuilding: it can turn into worldporn, fantastical voyeurism. Plenty of genre novels feature scenes set in places where nothing is really happening: it’s just cool to look at this elaborate, fantastical place. (For big offenders in the medium of film, Tim Burton and, more recently, Terry Gilliam tend to commit this crime pretty frequently.)

But that’s not compelling on the page. It’s not good storytelling. If you’re describing the intricate, ancient armor of some holy warrior, I expect it to mean something. Let’s say the armor is beaten, worn down, and it’s made of an ancient kind of magic metal that nobody knows how to fix anymore. That says a lot about the current status of the holy order that wears the armor, so this might be worth keeping. It’s not worth keeping if this holy warrior is just in one scene and never shows up again in the story.

Worldbuilding is about figuring out what’s background and foreground. Stuff that only shows up once is almost always, by default, background, and should be treated as such. Don’t focus the reader’s attention on something if it’s not worth it. That’s energy that they don’t have.

Rule Two: Suggest More

One of the things that makes good worldbuilding work is the idea of a world happening beyond what you’re seeing on the page. The scenes of the world don’t suddenly come into existence right before the protagonist walks into them, like lilypads appearing under their feet as they cross a pond: these places have been there for a long time, and likely will be there long after the heroes depart.

So you need to make it clear that this world exists beyond the action of the plot. This doesn’t mean you need to describe the entirety of the world beyond the plot: you can artfully mention the nature of lawmaking or finances in this world without describing tort reform or how a bill becomes a law.

The key here is to suggest, not to tell. To tell means informing the reader what is out there; to suggest means informing them what could be out there. One is terrifically more stimulating for the mind than the other.

This is, again, a matter of background and foreground. Imagine driving through a city here on Earth: do you need to drive down every single street to understand it? No. You just need to go through a main thoroughfare to get the general idea of it. You know there’s more, and you’re curious about it, but you don’t have to see it.

So think of the main thoroughfares through your own work, places where characters can look out on the world and get an idea of it. But don’t send them down every street.

Rule Three: Worldbuilding has to be Thematically Resonant

This is the final and toughest rule, because not everyone thinks about theme and ambiance when writing a story (let alone reading one).

But it’s important to the worlds themselves. There needs to be an overarching narrative to a world’s story, because the world is a character just as much as the hero. Look at Middle Earth, from Tolkien, a world of lost paradise, of departed magic, of beauty fading from the world as it changes. Everything from the Ents to Galadriel to Minas Tirith reflects this sense of melancholy loss.

But now let’s look at the world of Adventure Time, a world that couldn’t seem more dissimilar. This works a little differently, as sometimes the show is more than willing to do something crazy for the sake of doing it, but the overall pervasive feeling of AT’s world is one of buried past trauma: the world is post-apocalyptic, with characters like the Ice King, Princess Bubblegum, and Marceline all featuring stories of tragedies and traumas that betray their whimsical appearances and demeanor. Even Jake the Dog has a weird, foreboding origin story now, and the Lich always lurks in the background, an avatar of death that threatens everything. This is a broken place that seems to have embraced sugarcoated glee for now as a response to its trauma – though episodes that glimpse in the future let us know this won’t last forever. One day, it suggests, the Lich might win.

And I’d say the theme of my own book, City of Stairs, is one of lost history: one country had gods, and used their blessings and miracles to dominate the world. When one slave colony overthrew them and successfully killed the gods, all the miracles that sustained the world suddenly vanished. The world is not only broken, but its “glorious” past is utterly inaccessible: no one really knows or understands how reality worked before the gods died.

This theme of lost history is pervasive throughout City of Stairs. Fragments of miracles still exist and function, but no one can understand them. Whole sections of cities and nations literally vanished – perhaps gone, or lost in some inaccessible sub-reality. But every piece of worldbuilding I included in the book is informed by this feature of the world. This is its nature, and this is how things work.

So try to think of the nature or theme of your world as you write it. Is your world one of never ending conflict? Never ending rebirth? Fading glory? Technological revolution? Whatever you choose, this should act as the source from which you draw all of your world’s fabric. The scenes you write might explore different aspects of this theme, or look at it in different ways, but it needs to be harmonious with the overarching narrative of your world.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

ROBERT JACKSON BENNETT is the author of American Elsewhere, The Troupe, The Company Man, and Mr. Shivers. His books have been awarded the Edgar Award, the Shirley Jackson, and the Philip K. Dick Citation of Excellence. His latest book, City of Stairs, is (and this is Brian talking here) jaw-droppingly good. He lives in Austin with his wife and son. Check out his brand new website, then go order the book!

 

GUEST POST: The Epic POV, by Kameron Hurley

If you’ve read a lot of thrillers or crime novels, even many horror novels, you’ll be familiar with the “primary protagonist plus tons of one-off point of view characters” style. Sometimes you’ll just get a few paragraphs from the point of view of a pilot who gets to view an event vital to the plot from another angle. Sometimes it’ll be from the point of view of a parent horrified when their child starts vomiting cereal, which ties into what the protagonist does for a living, and shows us, the reader, the public hullabaloo that triggers the product recall that gets our protagonist fired from the cereal company.

These point of view switches give readers a wider view of the world outside the protagonist’s head. Intercut with the primary point of view character or characters, they also gives us a narrative break; they can help build tension and create more interesting pacing.

I’m used to reading multiple point of view books in a variety of genres, yet when it comes to epic fantasy, I will hear quite often from readers that epics suffer from the problem of “too many” point of view characters. Oddly, I haven’t heard this much of popular thrillers, which employ multiple point of view characters as well.

I admit I’m not sure what this means sometimes, having read crime novels where you spend the entire first chapter getting to know a character you know will be dead by the end of it, and hopping through a bunch of point of view characters in something like Jurassic Park where I was like, “OK, not sure what that added, but let’s go.” And let’s not even get started with a really vast epic like War and Peace.

The reality is that you should have as many point of view characters as you need to tell the story you’re trying to tell. If you don’t need a point of view character to tell your story, then yes, they should be cut. Use as many or as few as you need.

That’s it. You have my permission.

I often think this rebellion against too-many-point-of-view characters from some readers is an issue related to empathy fatigue. We can only identify with so many people – and then see horrible things happen to them – so often before it wears us out. This has become a bit of a problem with the A Song of Ice and Fire books most notably, where the death count is so extraordinarily high that one often develops an aversion for sympathizing with a character because they’ll be dead within a few hundred pages at best.

This is likely why we’ll swallow more point of view characters in thrillers – at best, we get half a chapter, a scene, with a person before we move on. We’re not given time to get emotionally invested in them. We may be given just enough to find them sympathetic, and then the narrative is moving back to our primary protagonists. We know we don’t have to get invested, because they won’t be around long.

In the epic, you’re never really sure who’s important, or who’s about to get knocked off after three chapters. It can be painful.

I’ve also found that many episodic television series feed and nurture an expectation that no real harm will come to characters in the soap operatic tradition of having horrible character deaths that are either retconned (“it was all a dream/we used this magic thing to reverse time”) or through resurrections (“they weren’t really dead/we used a magic spell to fix them”). These sorts of “they’re dead but not” stories give you the catharsis of experiencing the death of a beloved character without them really being dead. It’s a safe, escapist fantasy, and I’ll be the first to note that with so much horror in our lives, it’s a vital fantasy for many. I can weep along with the death of my best TV friends and cheer when they are resurrected. It gives me the full gambit of emotions, all happening to fake people, all without causing me vital harm. And I know, then, that I can watch the show and get invested in the characters because the likelihood of horrible death that lasts is far less.

This is what it comes down to: we don’t want to risk an emotional attachment to someone who’s going to die, or who doesn’t matter to the story. Writers who insert multiple point of view characters who are sympathetic, who readers come to care for, and then either kill them off or have them show up for three chapter and tap out, make a lot of readers tired. I get that.

But you know what?

It doesn’t mean I’m going to use any fewer point of view characters if that’s how many I need to tell the story.

Writing what we want to write and writing what we know makes readers happy aren’t always going to be the same things. At the end of the day, you need to figure out who you’re writing for and what you want. The reality is that some books hit it through a combination of talent (nominal) and good luck (mostly). So I find that when someone wants to put a cap on something like, “You can only have five point of view characters” I end up pointing out all the really successful work that doesn’t fit that template, and it all falls apart.

Tell the story you need to tell. In the way it needs to be told.

You’ll be loved. You’ll be hated. People will rant about you on the internet.

It’s all just par for the course.

 

ABOUT the Author

Kameron Hurley is the author of The Mirror Empire, as well as the award-winning God’s War Trilogy, comprising the books God’s WarInfidel, and Rapture. She has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. Hurley has also been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, the Locus Award, BFS Award, and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed MagazineYear’s Best SFEscapePodThe Lowest Heaven, and the upcoming Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women.

GUEST POST: Of Meat Hooks and Desire by Max Gladstone

Today’s post is guest piece graciously contributed by the inimitable Max Gladstone. 

There’s more to life than stabbing people in the gut.  Or melting their faces off with a fireball.  Or being dropped out of a helicopter, or tortured with a potato peeler.

I know, I know, I know, some days it doesn’t seem that way.  Especially for writers!  We get this message all the time: more action, more drama.  Raise the stakes.  Set threat level to DEFCON 2.  And that’s great advice, especially since big brassy external threats are easy for readers, writers, and editors to understand.  They’re also a great way to pace up laggy sections of manuscript: everything’s more interesting when you’re running from a shadow demon.  When Haruki Murakami wants to discuss Hegel, he’s smart to hide it in a sex scene like a dog pill in a pat of butter.

Problem is, your story doesn’t always want DEFCON 2.  Perhaps you’re aiming for a softer pace, or subtler.  Maybe your story’s all about careful machinations and schemes, and Jason Vorhees racing through chainsaw held high will wreck your plans and mood both.  Maybe you’re writing TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY and don’t want it to become James Bond.

The first step (for me anyway) is to realize that action in a vacuum isn’t enough to carry a story.  Watch a bad action movie and you’ll find yourself yawning in the middle of a machine gun battle or a giant robot slugfest.  That’s the adrenaline wearing off.  The pure sweet monkey reaction to BIG STUFF MOVE FAST won’t carry you through a single two-hour sitting, let alone the three to four hours distributed over a couple days it’ll take most people to read most books.    But if action by itself doesn’t work, why do we feel action helps stories?

The answer—I think—comes down to clarity of purpose.  In a traditional action sequence, desire lines are clear.  Your central character wants, desperately, to escape the guy with the gun.  To get out of the chair.  To force the bartender to answer a question.  The other characters in the scene have equally clear and conflicting desires: to shoot the main character.  To keep her captive.  To keep his damn mouth shut.

That clarity of purpose makes action work for us.  We know, in Taken, why Liam Neeson punches any given guy in the throat: he needs to get through him to find his daughter.  We know, in Edge of Tomorrow, what Cage wants in every single scene—and even better, he wants something different each time!  We know, when Rild blocks Yama’s path in Lord of Light, that he hopes to keep the Death God from killing the Buddha.  When Aeryn rides into the valley to fight the great dragon Maur in The Hero and the Crown, it’s clear what she wants, and what’s arrayed against her.

If action doesn’t work for a particular segment of story, your job as a writer is to replicate that same effect.  You have to know what your characters want.  And I don’t mean want in some nameless, formless sense, or in the Babylon 5 ultimate-answer-to-the-core-of-your-being way.  I mean, in this scene, what change do your characters wish to bring to pass in the world, and what’s stopping them?  Your nurse might want to replace an IV bag and get on with the rest of his shift, not listen to the wounded detective talk about her daughter.  Your soldier might want to justify her actions on the battlefield; hell, she might just want a cup of coffee.

Clarity is all the more important when your characters can’t talk about what they really want—a common issue in my writing these days.  There’s a scene early in FULL FATHOM FIVE where one character, Mara, visits another, Kai, in the hospital.  This is a huge simplification of a complicated scene, but basically: Mara wants to apologize to Kai, because Kai got hurt trying to help her—but she also doesn’t want to do that, for a number of reasons including she’s afraid to look weak, she’s concerned about Kai’s emotional well-being, and she’s really pissed at Kai for getting herself hurt for what Mara sees as a bad reason.  Kai, meanwhile, wants Mara’s support, but she’s completely incapable of expressing that kind of desire.  Neither of them is prepared for the level of emotional honesty (and, frankly, intimacy) the conversation they should have needs.  So the first several drafts of that scene were delicate character portraits—and worked as such, but were very slow for an early chapter of an already slow-building book.

The solution, which I hit on in the fourth or fifth draft, was to give them a concrete disagreement: in this case, a piece of business advice Kai’s offering Mara, which Mara sees as an attempt to sidestep the conversation she wants to have.  All of a sudden, the nebulous conflict crystallized, and the scene felt propulsive—no machetes or chainsaws required.

A simple exercise has improved my sense for this sort of thing. Take a pen and paper, sit down with an episode of your favorite television show that’s not action-driven, and watch.  Television’s good because it’s so condensed and vicious: scenes are short, and competition is fierce.  I used The Wire for this exercise, which in spite of being about violence rarely features anything a summer blockbuster would call “action sequences.”  For each scene, jot down what the principles want, and notice how quickly that desire is introduced—how little want-less air there is. (Often the desire will be finessed in even before the scene starts!)  Then note the resolution of the scene for each principle.  Two sentences each, maybe four if you’re pushing it.  Pretty soon you’ll see the connection between pace and clarity—how a dinner can feel as sharp as an arrest.

Now, TV pacing isn’t always right for literature.  Few book scenes should be as short as the equivalent TV scene, in part because audiovisual media with human actors is insanely high bandwidth.  A book may need a paragraph to convey what Idris Elba can project in a glance, especially with a soundtrack to support him.  But the principles of clarity and desire hold from format to format—at root books and shows both tell stories.

Maybe this exercise won’t work for you; maybe you have little interest in doing anything that doesn’t involve meat hooks and car batteries.  But still, I say, give it a shot.  Stretch your boundaries.  What’s the worst that could happen?  If this sort of plotting doesn’t work for you, the potato peeler will still be where you left it.

Max Gladstone has sung in Carnegie Hall, been thrown from a horse in Mongolia and nominated for the John W Campbell Best New Writer Award.  Tor Books published his most recent novel, FULL FATHOM FIVE, in July 2014.  The first two books in the Craft sequence are THREE PARTS DEAD and TWO SERPENTS RISE.

Max’s Website: www.maxgladstone.com

Max’s Twitter: www.twitter.com/maxgladstone

Read the First Five Chapters of Full Fathom Five for free!

Swordplay and Beer Drinking; The Trouble with Mastery

My friends and I have this game called Shotgun-Shotgun. You take a can of beer, put it on a stump, shoot it with a pellet gun, then run forward and drink the beer spurting out of the can. I can tell you with confidence that I’m good at this game, and although we only play it rarely, I’m unlikely to get much better. That is because it’s really quite a simple game.

In this, it is almost exactly unlike chess. Chess, we are told, takes about ten thousand hours to master, ten thousand hours, mind you, for someone who is already pretty fucking good at chess to begin with. This ten-thousand hour rule seems to apply pretty broadly across the spectrum of complex, multivariate activities, things like basketball and the playing of the violin. To achieve a top level in any of these fields, the evidence suggests, you really need to put in about ten thousand hours of sustained, intentional study.

This is a serious problem for writers of fantasy. Or, to put it more precisely, a serious problem for the characters about whom fantasy writers tend to write.

Take, for example, the hoary old trope of the farm boy who becomes a blademaster. Let’s assume the kid has the necessary natural talent. Let’s further spot him a few hundred hours due to his ability to handle a hoe. He’s still about 9,700 hours in the hole when it comes to the mastery of Kvaaana’va, the glowing, bedragoned, unbreakable antique blade of his people.

Consider the curious case of Rand al’Thor.

SPOILERS TO FOLLOW.

As far as we know, the first time Rand’s ever held a sword is in the third or fourth chapter of The Eye of the World. And yet, by the end of the second book (The Great Hunt) he holds his own in single combat against one of the Forsaken, evidently on the strength of a few dozen lessons squeezed in between a lot of wandering, running away from Trollocs,  and playing the flute. Barely half a year has elapsed since he first holds a sword, and yet he’s capable of battling a full blademaster to a standstill. For those of you not near a calculator, half a year is about 4300 hours, and that’s all the hours in all the days.

Given Rand’s piecemeal, ad hoc practice schedule, a schedule not really suitable for a middle school scrabble club, let alone the martial training of the most important person in the world, it’s more than a little surprising that he gets so good so fast.

Of course, there’s something assholish about totaling up hours and insisting on certain tallies for certain activities. This is fiction, this is fantasy, and I’m totally willing to admit a little flex into the calculation. Rand’s case, however, involves more than a little flex. It strains credulity so violently that the whole fabric of the fantasy is in danger of tearing wide open. If this kid can master a sword in a few weeks, it would seem that anyone can do anything – which, as it turns out, is not far from the truth, given the extraordinary abilities mastered by the other characters. Keep in mind that the whole series, all fourteen books, span just two years. The final eight books cover less than twelve months.

Jordan is far from alone when it comes to this issue of implausible mastery. Part of the reason is that fantasy often doubles as a coming of age story, a fact that puts the writer in a bind. Her first choice is to compress the learning process (whether of sword or magic or bow or politics or whatever) into a preposterous time frame. The second is to dilate the space of the novel in order to accommodate the necessary training. We’ve already seen the dangers of the second approach. Expanding the time frame avoids these dangers, but runs the risk of diluting the narrative urgency.

Of course, writers have found a way to tackle this problem. Anthony Ryan, for instance, in his brilliant first novel, Blood Song, makes use of the frame story, a narrative unfolding in a compressed present, to keep his multi-year tale of training, mystery, and self-discovery from coming apart. Without the frame, Blood Song might seem rambling, unfocused. The frame, however, reminds us that the whole thing is aiming at a clear climax. It gives us a particular lens through which to understand the passage of many years. It’s a smart approach, and Ryan handles it masterfully.

Ursula K. Le Guin does something different in her Earthsea novels. Each book covers a relatively short period of time, a few weeks or months (although Wizard is longer). This gives us the intensity and focus that can be lacking in longer, more wandering narratives. The passage of time, the consolidation and mastery of Ged’s skills, takes place primarily between volumes. The years pass, Ged’s abilities grow, and yet we aren’t forced to witness every step along the path. Instead, Le Guin draws us in for the inflection points, the most crucial forks in the road.

A third approach, quite common in the genre, is to start the story with a young character whose training is mostly behind her or him, who is just at the cusp of a major breakthrough. N.K. Jemisin uses this approach quite skillfully in her beautiful, gut-punching novel The Killing Moon, where Nijiri has already mastered the bulk of his training before the book opens. This allows Jemisin to focus on the crucial final steps, the last lessons imparted from master to student (and dredged up from the depths of the student’s own being) in the story itself.

I’m sure there are other ways to handle the dual issues of training and time. I’d be curious to hear from other readers and writers on the subject. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to my own ten thousand hour apprenticeship. If only Lan al’Mandragoran could make me a master of writing in half a dozen quick lessons squeezed in between beer drinking and sledding.

Nebraska Stumps Newton; Three Types of Literary Time

Anyone who’s ever driven across Nebraska knows that Newton was wrong. Not about gravity, of course. Gravity is still a thing (sort of), but about his notions of absolute space and time. Newton believed that both space and time were the intrinsic scaffolding of the universe, that they were present even in the theoretical absence of anything else, like some sort of invisible graph paper and silently ticking stopwatch. In his words:

“Absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature flows equably without regard to anything external…”

Leibniz thought this was a pile of horseshit, and ever since Einstein’s special theory of relativity, the consensus has swung heavily toward Leibniz. Of course, if Newton had just bothered to drive across Nebraska, he would have understood that, despite the neat longitudinal grid of the map, the distance between Omaha and Ogallala expands until it is nearly infinite, while the time you get to spend in Las Vegas when you finally cross the country is always criminally short.

Things are even more complex inside the pages of a fantasy novel (or any novel, for that matter) where we encounter not just expanding and contracting time, but three simultaneously occurring and overlapping time frames.

Hunh?

Time Frame One: Book Time. This is the time frame experienced by the characters inside the story. If the main character wakes up in the morning and is pecked to death by penguins that afternoon, the book covers about eight hours.

Time Frame Two: Reading Time. The duration of Book Time need not match the time a reader must spend, ass in chair, reading the book. An eight hundred page novel could cover a single hour (probably a really miserable hour), and yet it will take a reader thirty or so to complete.

Time Frame Three: Real Life Time. When you find a really wonderful book, the sort that involves sitting down at 6 PM, reading straight through while pissing into an empty Gatorade bottle, Reading Time and Real Life Time are nearly synonymous. More frequently, however, it takes a matter of days or weeks, Real Life Time, to get in the necessary hours of Reading Time to finish a novel. This happens because of a) other demands and b) running out of Gatorade bottles.

As a result, it’s not uncommon to spend twenty hours over three weeks completing a book that spans twenty years. It can be helpful, even crucial for authors to realize that the emotional responses and psychological developments of their characters are taking place out of phase with those of the reader.

For example, if Jessica sneaks into Jimmy’s house on page twenty-five and takes a dump on his pillow, both the reader and Jimmy could be expected to feel a visceral revulsion toward and (unless the attack is warranted) distrust of Jessica. If the book leaps forward ten years, however, between pages twenty-five and thirty (probably through a section break or chapter break), Jimmy’s feelings toward Jessica have had ten years to evolve. The reader’s have had about five minutes.

I felt this acutely when reading Ken Follett’s wonderful novel Pillars of the Earth. The book spans decades, but I read it in days. As a result, my feelings about outrages committed at the book’s start were still burning hot, even when the feelings of certain characters against whom those outrages were committed had cooled, or changed. I had days to process events they had decades to absorb. Despite having loved the book (I recommend it whole-heartedly), the ending left me feeling a little confused, a little left out, largely due to this disjunction between my emotions and those of all the characters.

Of course, an author can use the overlapping time frames in her favor as well. One trick that comes across particularly well is rehabilitation of dubious or downright evil characters. There’s a guy in George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, a character we hate in book one. Martin later tries to bring us around to this dude, to make us see 1) that we may have misjudged him initially and 2) that he’s changed. This sleight-of-hand certainly worked for me, and seems to have worked for most readers, and it leans heavily on the fact that, for most of us, years and years of Real Life Time have passed between the character’s initial evil-doing and his later rehabilitation. In Book Time, however, it’s less than a year. It’s the obverse of the situation mentioned above – we, the readers, are ready to forgive, while most of the characters, understandably, are not.

In the end, the most important conclusion to be drawn from all of this is that if Leibniz hadn’t spent so much time dicking around inventing calculus, he could have written some bad-ass fantasy novels.