Hi everyone! I’m going to be doing a series of teaching videos on a free writers’ website called Commaful. Give it a visit! It’s a colorful site full of great writing samples. The videos I’m making should be about ten minutes long, so I thought I’d write out my article for you here, as well.
It’s been awhile since I spoke about the craft of writing. We’ve been so focused lately on the editing, publishing, and marketing. Those are all important things, but without a great book to use, all those things are a waste of time. Harsh, but true. So today I want to talk about world-building.
The first thing I tell authors is, “Tell us everything you see, and nothing that you don’t.” We all know through point of view that if you are telling Harry’s story, you can’t know how Sally is feeling, and vice versa. Well, a similar principle works with world-building. Your world is explained through the eyes of your characters. Depending on what age group they are and the book’s genre, the characters are going to notice different things.
That last paragraph seems all over the board, but stick with me for a minute and I’ll tie it all together. The world your characters are in, lies within the details of your story. What might be a detail to Sid, may not be a detail to his friend, yet be a very big detail to Detective Mackenzie. So tell us what each character notices about their world. And link those things to the characters’ emotions, because as humans, we are very emotionally connected to our world and the things around us.
If Suzie sees a sunset on the beach, it is wonderful to tell us how vibrant the colors were, and how the clouds are flames that appear to lick the night sky, etc., but it does nothing for the story if you don’t tell us what that sight does to Suzie, how it makes her feel. Does it give her new hope? Is it the answer to an unasked question? Does it remind her of her late father and break her heart? Tie our emotions to that beautiful word picture. Now it matters.
If Suzie then steps into the shadowy interior of her late ’70s Mazda with cracked leather seats, still warm from the sun, maybe it correlates to the warm feeling inside her. Tell us everything she notices that has importance to her. It could be nothing. Maybe she’s numb and drives home on auto-pilot? Or maybe she bounces to her favorite song along the way, and it renews her optimism, and she sings, “Everything’s gonna be alright…” But that’s a song, that’s not world-building, I hear. You are wrong.
Every sensory detail in your story builds the world around your characters. And everything they come into contact with should have a reason for being in the story. Do NOT add details for shock value, and then not follow up with the shock. You will anger and disappoint your readers. If you want to write better chapter hooks, that’s a different lesson. But don’t use the appearance of a gun on the table to make the reader think there is danger, only to find out, it was an attempt at making the world “edgier.”
In fact, there is a theory in writing called “Chekov’s Gun.” Loosely, it states that if there is a gun on the mantle in act one, it had better go off by act three. This is what I’m saying. And maybe that gun appears to have no point now, but if it comes out later that it was an important detail, your readers WILL remember. Trust in your readers to pick up all your hints.
Many writers have a tendency to turn world-building into something called an “info-dump.” I find this happens most when a character enters a home and gives us every detail of the floor plan upon entering. Or walking into a room and giving us every detail of the room before anyone speaks or acts.
Incorrect: Bill opened the door. The room was dark, and light from a single candle danced on the walls. Bill could see a table near him with a sharp letter opener and a stack of mail. Across the room of waxed walnut flooring, sat a matching side table where the candle illuminated the face of his arch rival, Danvers.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” Danvers said, raising a gun.
So, how do I do it then?
Simple: Tell us what they see as they see it.
Bill didn’t walk into the room and have time to notice all those details, while Danvers waited patiently for him before speaking. Intersperse your world-building details within the scene. When someone walks into a room, they notice one or two things–one being the “feel” of the room, if there is one. This can be a physical or emotional climate, but it should affect your character. I would change the above paragraph to something more like this:
Bill opened the door. The room was dark and cold, and he shivered. The light from a single candle danced on the walls and illuminated the face of his arch enemy, Danvers.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” Danvers said, raising a gun.
Bill’s gaze darted to a table near him where he could make out a stack of mail next to a wicked-looking letter opener. Would he have time to make it? Bill slid along the walnut flooring as though it were freshly waxed, his hand reaching for the handle, as a shot rang through the air.
That’s all world-building, and when added throughout the scene in bits that affect the character, it’s hard to go wrong. In this second example of Bill’s situation, I didn’t mention the table next to Danvers at all. Because it wasn’t important to either of the men, or the story, or the room for that matter. When giving a laundry list of descriptions, I needed a place to ground the candle, and ended up adding something that had no importance. Look for places in your writing where you can make the scene more active, more descriptive, and more concise.
Use rich words, descriptive words, with your detailed narrative. Make as many word pictures as you can. Authors sometimes forget that the reader cannot see what’s in their head. If there are shadows lurking around the edges of the room, you need to tell us. When the character notices it, that can go along with the character’s apprehensive feeling about this private meeting–it might make him feel the deal could be sketchy. Think about how you want the environment to feel, and add details that support the atmosphere you’re going for.
In using descriptive words, don’t slip into using a bunch of adverbs, or words that end in -ly. Like, the sun shined brightly, the dog barked loudly, the kids laughed happily, the room was decorated prettily. Okay, that one’s weird, but hopefully you get the point.
Use adjectives, though, along with metaphors and synonyms. Don’t you mean similes? No. Adjectives are the descriptive words that come before a noun. Not just a penny, but a clean penny, a shiny penny, a new penny, a worn penny, a moldy penny… those are all descriptive adjectives for “penny.” One thing that’s NOT an adjective is “very.” Cut out all your “very’s.” She’s not very happy, she’s ecstatic. This is where your synonyms come into play. Look up an online thesaurus while you’re writing and when someone seems to be very pretty, or very tired, or very whatever, find a stronger word. Look up synonyms for the word you’re tempted to use, and see if there isn’t a better-fitting word for what you want to say.
Metaphors are using one thing to describe another. Ever hear, “She’s madder than a hornet’s nest?” That’s a metaphor. Remember earlier when I talked about the clouds in the sunset as flames? That’s also a metaphor. If you are writing sci-fi and/or fantasy and there is a new and/or unfamiliar object, describing it with metaphors is sometimes easiest.
For example, “It was a green slime that projected from the hole, kind of like the trickle from a water faucet. It strung down in spaghetti-like strands on the ground and hardened into something we could use for rope.” Can you spot all the metaphors I used in those two sentences? You can combine adjectives and metaphors, and whatever you like, as long as it makes sense and creates a picture in the minds of your readers. Help them to see the world you see.
Lastly, you must follow the laws of physics. Even in alien worlds. Unless you can explain the way it looks so well, there is a doubtless clarity about what you’re describing. For example, light shines in beams, or streams. But light cannot jump, or crawl; a glow cannot drip or fall. In order for those things to happen, they must have mass. You must make things work in a familiar way, unless you are making a point of creating it differently for a reason. If there’s no other reason than to be “unique,” really consider if it’s worth possibly confusing and losing readers–and definitely have it read by others before getting it published.
In conclusion, look at the world through your characters’ eyes. Tell us everything they see, hear, smell, touch and taste–and leave out what they don’t. Use everything you put in the scene to develop the story and give it to us as they experience the world.
Until next week, keep writing!