Tuesday, September 22

World Building: The Bigger Picture

By Chris Von Halle, @ChrisvonHalle

Part of the How They Do It Series

It's always a special treat to host an author who is also a former RLD submitter. Who doesn't love reader success stories? Chris von Halle first submitted a snippet of this story years ago, and I'm delighted to hand over the lecture hall to him today. Please give a big welcome to Chris, who's here to share a few tips on world building.

Chris von Halle has had many different lives in many different worlds—the near and distant future Earth, other planets, and even other dimensions—and his books recreate his childhood memories of such outlandish locations. In this world and life, he lives in Ridgewood, New Jersey, and enjoys such extraordinary activities as playing videogames, tennis, and basketball, and writing the occasional comic strip.

Take it away Chris...

Everybody who writes science fiction and fantasy is familiar (or perhaps I should say more-than-familiar) with world building. It’s essential to a well-told speculative fiction tale. After all, the sublime, otherworldly setting is what makes such stories so intriguing, not least of which because any solidly built world directly impacts the story itself.

When I set out to write my debut YA dystopian novel, The Fourth Generation, I thought I had done all the world building necessary to bring the story to life. In fact, before I even started the actual act of writing the novel, I opened a separate word document and painstakingly mapped out the story’s world—just flat-out brainstormed and popped all the info I came up with into the doc, ultimately ending up with pages of dense information. I also opened up a document I’ve had for years now in which I’ve compiled all kinds of excellent questions to ask myself about any speculative fiction world I develop. It had taken me a while to construct this document (although you could argue it’s still an ever-growing doc), as whenever I happened to come across a writing blog/site that had a helpful world building question I’d never seen before, I added it to the document.

So, after days (who are we kidding? More like countless, agonizing weeks of intense labor; just kidding) of brainstorming and jotting down the answers to all these world building questions, I thought I knew everything about the world in The Fourth Generation. I mean, I knew the answers to the basic questions: where and when the story took place (in a large town on Earth a hundred years after a birth-transmitted disease that kills everyone when they turn seventeen has broken out). I knew more specific things, too, such as the political landscape (a ruling family governs factions made up of either a dozen boys or girls), and how control is maintained in this society (via a type of faction called the patrol, among other more subtle means of control), etc.

I knew other aspects of this imaginary world, such as who provided the food (every faction had a game hunter, as well as someone in charge of running a hydroponic greenhouse, since there’s no electricity in this world) and who reared children (a function designated to nurture and reproduction factions), who is allowed to be educated (the average citizen only learns the very basics of language and math, and is then trained for a specific job chosen to them based on their skills; only the rulers are allowed to read and write), the transportation in this world (horses pull cars), etc.

I knew it all.

Or so I thought.

So I went ahead and wrote an entire draft of the book. BUT. I had forgotten one very important aspect, an aspect that seems so very simple and obvious in hindsight, but, as I learned after the draft, is quite easy to overlook. After I sent my draft out to a few critique partners, the first one to finish reading it came back to me and said something along the lines of, “You have fleshed out the details of the world very well, but you haven’t looked at the BIGGER picture.”

Bigger picture? What bigger picture? My beloved critique partner then went on to explain the importance of looking outside of this single town I had created, because, at the end of the day, I had really only explored and meticulously crafted one town in this entire world. What about the towns, if any existed, that surrounded this town? Is the WHOLE world affected by this birth-transmitted plague or only this or certain areas of it? Are the other towns similar to this one in that the masses serve a single ruling family, or have they evolved differently somehow since the advent of the plague? On and on and on with the bigger-picture questions. As you can imagine, my brain was spinning! Like I said, I’d thought I’d mapped out EVERYTHING. But instead, it turned out I’d studied the trees rather than the forest.

Once I brainstormed and answered all of her questions, I was shocked by how much they wound up affecting the story. Even if my main character didn’t know much beyond his own little world, which did indeed consist of that single town, the fact that I, the author, did know, allowed me to drop all kinds of hints as to the small town’s surroundings, hints to pique the reader’s interest as they read the story, or at the very least flesh out my world even more.

And the fact I dug deeper into the bigger picture even affected something else: part of the plot. It unveiled to me a very delicious plot point later in the book that massively improved the story. I don’t want to reveal it since it would be a spoiler (J), but it upped the stakes significantly, added a ticking time bomb for the main characters to deal with, and served as an unexpected plot twist in-and-of-itself. It was lovely, and it really helped the story, and that’s why it’s so important to consider the bigger picture, to force yourself to look beyond the immediate world of the story. Take it from me. The bigger picture can be very easy to overlook. As writers we might think we’ve learned everything about our world after days upon days of brainstorming, but sometimes we can get lost in the trees. But it’s more than worth taking a step back to observe the forest, to discover even more about your overall world, and then see what you can fit of what you’ve learned into the book. I guarantee it will enrich the story at least a little, and perhaps even as drastically as it did for me.

About The Fourth Generation

In the future, no adults exist. Ever since the plague swept the world 100 years ago, no one has lived past seventeen.

Sixteen-year-old Gorin, a collector of curious artifacts left over from the pre-plague civilization, is on the verge of perishing from that deadly epidemic. And his last wish is to find a way to visit the rulers’ reputedly magnificent, off-limits mansion.

Up against the clock, he and his friend Stausha steal into the mansion and discover a secret more horrifying than they ever could’ve imagined—a secret that holds the key to the survival of the whole human race.

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  1. Thanks for having me on your blog today, Janice!

  2. Wow. Fantastic post. Thanks, Chris. The bigger picture will be ingrained in my head from now on. World building is so hard. There is so much we have to get right, and so much we can get wrong. And just so I don't forget there is a note to self in my office that reads The Bigger Picture. :-)

    1. Yes, Robyn, world-building is definitely TOUGH. But it's fun, too, and it definitely gets easier the more you stretch your view of your world (at least from my experience). Great idea with the note hehe.

  3. Words of wisdom for sure, thanks Chris

  4. I had something similar happen to me, but in the opposite direction. My beloved sister checked the draft & after way to many delays, finally told me "it was a hard read." Why? You've heard my ideas about this story & said you loved them. I've spent months writing it. The incidents, the drama, the secrets, the different people involved in other cities, the works. She said something like "yeah but, what did he say? Why did she say that? What's his anonymous brother's name? What do they eat? I had a hard time getting past the 1st page or 2, so focused on punctuation & grammer." I did some research & found this wonderful site. The advice was "character development" is important. Character development? What character development? I put that stupid draft to the side for a while & researched some more. Mine were like stick people. Cardboard. I had no idea it took emotional investment like this to write a good book. It's not all about the story. It's the people (or uh, horse, monsters etc.).

    1. Absolutely, Gale. A lot goes into a great book. When you read (or see) a well-written, professional one, it's so fluid that it's easy to overlook all the hard work and expertise that went into crafting it. From what it sounds like, though, you're well on your way to discovering what it takes. And the good news is - the more you do it and learn about it, the better and faster you get at creating great stories. Once you nail your characters down for the story you mentioned, I say go back to your book and integrate what you developed into it. Good luck and have fun!