World building can be a tough job. The more complex the world, the harder it can be to convey that world to the reader without going into a lot of infodumping and backstory.
When you have a complex world, how do you get the reader on board without losing them?
1. Determine the critical elements of that world
The rule of three is a handy helper. Readers notice things mentioned three times, and three details is easy for them to remember. Fewer details can be forgotten, more can overwhelm.
Pick the three most critical elements of your world that readers need to know to understand how your world works. But you don't want just any three details. Try picking details that hit the key elements: setting, character, and conflict. Something physical about the world, something critical about the character, something that shows the inherent conflict of the world.
For The Shifter, it's: A tropical island setting, times are tough for locals (due to a military occupation), and the main character can shift pain.
First, the setting. "Tropical island" brings with it its own set of details and readers can instantly fill in the blanks when I describe the island. It's the physical world in which the story unfolds. Knowing those details helps ground the reader into that physical setting.
Your world will have physical details that will give the reader a general impression of the lay of the land. What are they?
Next, a critical trait of the protagonist. This trait is central to the story and if readers don't understand how pain shifting works, they'll be lost. It's also central to the catalyst that leads to the core conflict of the novel (and the series). It's the magic of the world.
Even if you don't write genre, there's something about your character that makes them unique. Something that will likely affect the story. Maybe it's a skill, or a secret, or a personality quirk.
Last, a critical part of the history, which is where much of the conflict of the story comes from. Times are tough and people are barely getting by. This is a detail designed to make readers wonder why times are so hard, so I'll be able to slide right into the history of the occupation and the lost war for independence later. Notice these are not things I dumped in at the start. No history lessons or infodumps. I only left hints to suggest the larger world and get readers curious.
Your world has a history, and even if only a tiny part of it affects the protagonist, it still affects her. What is the underlying element of your world that is causing trouble for your characters?
(More on elements of world building here)
2. Find a situation that captures the essence of your world
Once you determine what elements you need, design a situation where you get to use all three. Something that will show that setting, allow the protagonist to use or display that trait, and involves the conflict of the novel.
Since all scenes need a goal and stakes, odds are it'll be something where your protagonist's trait is either causing them trouble or is what gets them out of trouble. ("trouble" is used loosely here. Just look for something to move the story forward through conflict). That moment where the world they live in suddenly hits a bump.
What typical (or maybe atypical if need be) problem does your protagonist face regularly that shows (or can show) that critical trait?
For The Shifter, it was my protagonist stealing food to survive, feeling sympathy for someone else in an equally tough situation, being forced to use her pain-shifting ability to escape prison, and being seen doing it.
This allowed me to describe the physical setting as she ran through the streets to get away. She had reasons to look at and think about the physical surroundings because they mattered to her survival at that point.
I could show the results of the history and backstory of this world and character, thus creating groundwork and drumming up curiosity from the reader about how things got this way.
I could show the magic of the world in action, and even trigger the next step of the plot and hint at the greater stakes of this magic. Again, I just showed them working and letting the reader figure out there's a larger significance to these details.
(More on finding the right scene to show your world)
3. Explain the bare minimum required to understand that world
Hints and suggestions are key at this early stage. Readers don't want history lessons, they want characters with problems and actions to entertain them. Pique their interest, get them curious, make them want to know the history, so in a few chapters, when you hit the brakes on the story to explain it all (and large dumps of information almost always stop the story) the reader doesn't care about the stop because they want to know. They're invested now and this information matters to them.
A warning: Hints and suggests doesn't mean be vague for the sake of hiding information. Be clear about what it happening and how things are, but don't feel you have to explain it.
"Bare minimum" doesn't mean use only one or two details either, just limit the things you show the reader so they have time to absorb it all. Use enough details to establish the setting, character, and conflict you chose to focus on.
For The Shifter, it was an island canal city, bridges over the water, hot and humid, palm trees, orphan boys, a Healers' League, soldiers, people struggling to survive, pain shifting, shocked and scared faces after seeing that pain shifting, trying to persuade witness they didn't actually see any pain shifting, and so on. I didn't try to explain the reasons people were struggling, why pain shifting was dangerous, or why the protagonist had to steal food to survive. That all came later.
One last tip: If you can add additional details naturally, then go ahead and do it (three details is a suggestion to make it easier, not a rule). I was able to slip in a bit about the religion of my world because it fit with what was going on. My protagonist naturally thought about the gods when in trouble, so it flowed seamlessly into what was happening. Those are perfect moments to world build because they don't stop the story to explain anything. It's just characters doing what they do in that world.
(More on knowing how much to describe your setting)
Explanation is a world building killer. Once in a while you might have to explain things, but in most cases you can convey the same information without the infodump. When you start explaining how the world works or the history of that world--stop. Instead, look for ways to show someone living in that world, or dealing with the results of that history.
Exercise Fun: (CONTEST CLOSED) I enjoyed last week's writing exercise so let's do it again. Winner gets a 1000-word critique, and that winner will be announced next Monday (all posts must be in by noon EST on Monday, February 25), where I'll do another fun exercise contest. Let's see if I can keep this up every week. (Though I reserve the right to skip the critique part during the busy weeks)
Write a 250-words or less opening that includes three critical details: An exotic setting, a world in economic decline, and character who has recently suffered heartbreak.
Your call on genre and scope (world can be a small town or a school).
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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