Sunday, January 12

Real Life Diagnostics: How Much World Building is Too Much in an Opening Scene?

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy 

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose it on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Six  

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through February 22. The Sunday diagnostics will shorten that some when my schedule permits, but I wanted everyone to be aware of the submission to posting delay.

This week’s questions:

This is the start of a fantasy-mystery, both of a book and a series. It is set in one of my worlds and I am trying to set up that world, the main character, and the inciting incident (and, of course, get the reader to want to read more!). My question or concern is How much world building is too much for a beginning? I try to keep a balance between story and world building, but I'm not sure whether what I do works or not. Does this opening work, do you think?


Market/Genre: Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

"Stop moping,” her sister complained, as Sazzy wandered past, reached the lower hall of their Family's mansion for the third time this afternoon and kept going, continuing her meandering route through the four story house without reply. At least the furniture had stopped leaping around. As Chiary said, usually the floor stayed put-even when the floor coverings strobed.

“I'm not moping, I'm time ill,” she muttered a hall later and safely out of her sister's hearing. She ducked into the Peacock Room and admired the feathered wall with her fingers, got lost in the iridescent blues and greens, and came out when the wall time-strobed to plain black velvet. With a sharp sigh, she left for the hall where the wainscoting blinked in and out every few steps.

All right, maybe she was moping on the side. She had wanted to stay in Chiary's time and help run his investigative agency. But not enough to be time ill--like now--for the rest of her (if she had stayed) short, time--insane life.

For the first time in her nineteen (almost twenty and, actually twenty-two, counting her time at Chiary's) years, she had felt useful and wanted for her talents. She'd been good at organizing; using her moderate Seeking talent, she'd found several missing items for him; she'd, if she wasn't being modest, saved his business for him. Not that she blamed him for being a bit disorganized: he'd lost his business partner and his lover in the space of a moon-passing. If only--

Sazzy sighed, climbed the back stairs, and wandered through the third floor guest rooms, each different color and decorating scheme, sometimes, for her, several of those different schemes in the space of her visit. The unexpected embossed silver wall in the fifth room caught her eye and she admired the work with her fingers until the silver vanished into a mural of a spring forest full of Leafen with their pale green hair and half-tree bodies. Sazzy left that room for the hall and headed back down stairs

On the third landing down, her sister stopped her with a hand to the chest. “Saz-zy

“Wisteria,” she returned in the same tone, then ducked away. “I'll go wander outside then.”

“Don't you even care that someone stole the crown jewels?”

My Thoughts in Purple:

"Stop moping,” her sister complained, as Sazzy wandered past, [reached the lower hall of their Family's mansion for the third time this afternoon and kept going, continuing her meandering route through the four story house without reply.] There's a lot going on here so it's confusing[At least the furniture had stopped leaping around.] This intrigues me, as I wonder why the furniture is leaping [As Chiary said] since I haven't met this person yet this distracts me and I try to figure out how they fit in. Is it the sister? [usually the floor stayed put-even when the floor coverings strobed.] I start to get confused here. She was talking about the furniture leaping, now it's the floor and coverings. I'm having a hard time figuring out what she's talking about

“I'm not moping, [I'm time ill,”] This offers some context, so she must be some kind of time traveler, which is cool she muttered [a hall later and safely out of her sister's hearing.] Not sure you need this, as it draws focus. The world is complicated enough to figure out so far She ducked into the Peacock Room and admired the feathered wall with her fingers, got lost in the iridescent blues and greens, and came out when the wall [time-strobed] this is the second time this has been mentioned and I'm still not sure what it means. This is a good spot to spend a little more time on just what this is to help readers understand what's going on to plain black velvet. With a sharp sigh, she left for the hall where the wainscoting blinked in and out every few steps.

All right, maybe she was moping on the side. She had wanted to stay in Chiary's time and help run his investigative agency. [But not enough to be time ill--like now--for the rest of her (if she had stayed) short, time--insane life.] All the breaks make this hard to parse. Time ill sounds important, so perhaps focus on that and introduce the effects later. Perhaps elaborate a little more on who Chiary is and what he does, and how that relates to the time travel. I don't know if her time travel is normal or specific to her or how it fits in to this world.

For the first time in her nineteen (almost twenty and, actually twenty-two, counting her time at Chiary's) years, she had felt useful and wanted for [her talents] At this point I assume her time travel skills, but then it describes other things, so I'm not sure. She'd been good at organizing; using her moderate [Seeking talent] perhaps wait to introduce this skill after readers are grounded in the world. It's a lot to take in and now I'm trying to figure out what seeking is and how it relates to time travel , [she'd found several missing items for him; she'd, if she wasn't being modest, saved his business for him. Not that she blamed him for being a bit disorganized: he'd lost his business partner and his lover in the space of a moon-passing. If only--] This introduces several other problems and I'm feeling quite lost now. These look like fun problems and good things to have, but I don't know what's important or what I'm supposed to be focusing on, or how any of this relates to each other

Sazzy sighed, climbed the back stairs, and wandered through the third floor guest rooms, [each different color and decorating scheme, sometimes, for her, several of those different schemes in the space of her visit.] I get what this says, but it takes work [The unexpected embossed silver wall in the fifth room caught her eye and she admired the work with her fingers until the silver vanished into a mural of a spring forest full of Leafen with their pale green hair and half-tree bodies] These details are nice, but I have no context for them. Does she know what time period they're from? Is she aware of why this is happening?. Sazzy left that room for the hall and headed back down stairs

On the third landing down, her sister stopped her with a hand to the chest. “Saz-zy

“Wisteria,” she returned in the same tone, then ducked away. “I'll go wander outside then.”

[“Don't you even care that someone stole the crown jewels?”] A whole other issue is raised and I'm really thrown as it comes out of the blue. What does this have to do with the other problems? I'm guessing Chiary's firm will get hired to find them? What do these girls have to do with the jewels? I'm not even sure what time period they're in at the moment. The house feels old, but time travel feels science fiction and futuristic.

The questions:

1. How much world building is too much for a beginning?


Quick answer: If it bogs down the story and distracts the reader it's too much. But that varies wildly by book and even genre.

This looks like a very complicated world with some unusual magic/science, so it'll take special attention to ground readers in it. I don't think the problem here is too much, but too little, and without the right context. I'm just not feeling grounded yet.

(More on grounding readers in your world here)

The details are all described as if I know what they mean, but I don't, so I'm lost. Some details I can figure out from context, like being time-ill means things shift around you, but I don't know what that actually means. Does she affect the world around her or does she just see it? Since the sister tells her to go outside, that indicates it's more than just her. But maybe it's just the moping she's referring to.

This is a situation where a little telling might be a good thing. I think explaining (a little) the connections between what time-ill is and how it's affecting Sazzy would help readers get this world and understand what's going on. She's obviously troubled, so her thinking about it would fit the scene. Something as simple as, "She shouldn't have risked time sickness by staying so long in Chiary's time, and now XX (time shifted all around her? She bounced from time period to time period?) -describe effects-"

Right now I can see that time is shifting (strobing), but not what that means. Is this something only she sees? Is the house itself shifting through time or is she? Is she not moving but just seeing time flicker in and out? I'm seeing effects I have no context for or understanding of. This is clearly important stuff, so a little more time spent on it would be fine (and welcome).

(More on describing what the reader needs to know here)

2. Does this opening work, do you think?

Not yet, because there's just too much going on and it's too hard to figure out. There's a lack of narrative focus so I'm not sure what I'm supposed to be paying attention to and what matters. Is her time sickness the problem or just a minor irritation? Is the problem that she can't work for Chiary? Is it his business and personal issues? The stolen crown jewels? The story is bouncing around and I don't know what Sazzy's goal is or what she wants.

(More on narrative focus here)

I'd suggest picking one of these things to be the opening scene issue and then working in the world building as she deals with that problem. Since they seem connected, perhaps it's that she wants to stay and help Chiary and can't due to the time sickness and rules around that. That would give her a goal, stakes, and a reason for you to spend some time on the mechanics of this world and how they work in a situation where they apply.

Internalization will be your friend here, as Sazzy can think about things to explain the time travel without it feeling infodumpy. If she's rationalizing going back and weighing the pros and cons, then that's a natural way to explain the information in context of the scene. Time travel makes her sick or being in another time for too long makes her sick, this is the repercussion, here's how it works, and how might she circumvent those rules to get what she wants. The other problems can come up after the reader is grounded in this world and understands how the time travel works.

(More on internalization here)

When a world is this complicated, it's okay to spend a little more time setting it up and dumping a little info as needed. Just keep it in Sazzy's voice and readers will be okay with it.

(More on infodumps here) Note: This one might be especially helpful to the submitter, as I used a little world building through character voice explanation infodump as an example.

Overall, it seems like a fascinating world though, and I'm curious about how it all works and Sazzy's problems. The world itself has a strong hook factor, so "normal" opening scene rules don't fully apply (such as, don't start with describing the world). And it is occurring within the framework of a good opening--protagonist with a problem, something at stake, and something in conflict. Clarify all of that, and I think you can make this work as you want.

(More on when telling is better than showing here) Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

4 comments:

  1. I read a lot of time travel fiction, so I didn't find "time-illness" and "time-strobing" all that strange or confusing, although I agree with Janice that perhaps you over-described the effects. Have you read Connie Willis' books? She also deals with the issue of time illness, especially in To Say Nothing of the Dog, in a way which makes the reader themselves feel time ill. She also never completely explains her world, just presenting it as if it's the real world. I guess it depends on the age level you're writing for as to how much information you think the reader requires to understand what you're showing them.

    I did find your sentence construction confusing. Were you intending it to reflect the layered, sometimes broken, experience of time? Or is it the young, eager voice of the character? It's tricky sometimes when writing in first person to convey character and still maintain clarity with your language.

    Maybe one thing you could try is to open the scene with a deeper pov, showing us what time-illness feels like. That would provide a startling and intriguing opening. Then the comment "stop moping", used a little later, would put the characters into better context - the narrator as being genuinely ill, and the sister as being unsympathetic and inexperienced.

    Just some thoughts. I liked the concepts you created and I would enjoy reading a revised draft to see what you did with time travel. :-) Good luck and keep going!

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  2. Janice's mention of grounding the reader is the main and first thing that would really help with this text. As I read it the first one without the notes, I found myself a tad lost so I was unable to anchor to a character, moment or the scene. But the advice Janice provides should help with that.

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  3. I got quite lost, especially in that broken sentence Janice described as hard to parse. And from my writing group, I can tell you that the first line is entirely too long. You have some really interesting concepts; time-ill and strobing both caught my attention, so I'm curious to see a rewrite!

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  4. Hi, OP. Thanks for sharing! I'm reacting before I read others' thoughts.

    This opening was a little talky for me. I liked the dilemma that it set Sazzy up with - be sick (and presumably maybe die) to be with the person she wanted to be with, doing the thing she wanted to do -- or come back and be safe at home. But it gave me a lot of info I don't think I need at this point in the story.

    For me, this beginning begins either too early or too late. There isn't enough setup given for me to empathize with the character (this empathy probably built through watching them be them, not through being told what they were about), so the thing at the flip with the crown jewels really wasn't more than an intellectual "okay, now the story can start" moment for me.

    I'd rather see the story start earlier -- with Sazzy being forced to take leave of Chiary, setting up her personal stakes in leaving the time travel thing behind -- or later -- with her engaged in the case at hand.

    Paragraph-level:


    1: Leading with "her sister" is awkward -- even though we know it's Sazzy's sister by the end of the sentence, it's a small-m minor offputting element. The paragraph continues with infodump - telling me about the house, before leaving a nice mystery hook at the end.

    2: ...and then seemingly contradicting what was said in the previous paragraph. "through the house without reply } "I'm not moping". Some puzzling got it solved, but the first 2 paragraphs shouldn't need puzzling. And then, taking the time to admire a room when she's either moping or ill -- that struck me strange.

    3: Infodump. Don't need at this point.

    4: Infodump. Don't need at this point.

    5. More wandering. Introduce the Leafen, which is now 2 running mysteries -- I like that, I want to know more about them.

    6. Apart from the missing close-quote, this is fine either way.

    7. No idea what's going on here.

    8. This is a fun hook at first blush, but why would Sazzy care if someone stole the crown jewels?


    Hope this helps. Happy to follow up if useful.

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