This is a random topic I felt like doing. Because.
1) Advantages for the hero definitely need to be set up early.
This one is simple and lovely and obvious. Why? So that they don’t pop up at the end of the story to become a deus ex machina. If the hero can tame and control dragons, and the dragons are the ultimate fire-breathing, flying, magic-wielding weapons, then it might be nice to see this mentioned before, oh, page 590 of a 600-page book. Having the dragons pop out of nowhere to save the hero is not on.
Despite my problems with the book, which mostly concerned viewpoint, I think this is something Chris Wooding does well in The Weavers of Saramyr. From the very first page, the presence of Aberrant powers—essentially magic, but which often result in deformities, and are looked upon with disgust, fear, and hatred—in his world is noted. They’re one of the two main struggles the heroine faces, trying to keep herself from burning everyone around her alive when she gets angry, and they’re involved in the book’s secondary plot strand focused on the Blood Empress and her daughter, and there are other characters in the book who reveal themselves to be Aberrants. They don’t show up the moment the heroine gets into danger, which magic has a bad habit of doing in other fantasy stories, and they aren’t immediately controllable, and they aren’t just a plot device (I’m using “plot device” in the sense of “something which advances the plot but isn’t well-integrated into the book’s world”). So when the heroine does start using her powers against her enemies, we actually know something about what she can do.
On a tangent, I think unpleasant surprises can sometimes work better than pleasant ones. If you have something that inconveniences the hero greatly but has to stay a secret for a while, I think it works better than something which has never been mentioned, but coincidentally—yeah, right—helps him escape from his enemies, or defeat them, or saves his life.
2) Realize the tone this bit of worldbuilding information sets.
Here’s the point where I turn back on Weavers, because it doesn’t do this as well. Wooding gives the reader a lot of information about his world through an omniscient point-of-view. There’s one passage, about the Empire’s language, what dialects it’s split into, and how it’s written, that is highly academic in tone. Problem is, it sits right in the middle of a scene where the heroine is experiencing grief and loss over the sudden deaths of her family.
I really think there are better places for that kind of thing. Apart from it being a lump of infodumping and snapping the constraints of viewpoint, it destroys the emotional tone completely. The heroine has no reason to think about the language—but, more to the point, she has no reason to think about the language that way, with that very detached and scholarly approach.
I think this might actually be the reason I find some infodumps incredibly easy to absorb, while others stick out at me like a sore thumb. (Well, okay, I lie. Infodumps that are accompanied by a character saying that she knows this already—hi, Medalon!—stick out at me like a sore fist, no matter how they’re told. Find some better character to tell your infodump to than a history teacher who already knows all of it). It’s not so much the what, but the how. It doesn’t sound like the way the character would think about this particular subject right at that moment, no matter how essential the information is to let us understand the scene. If Kaiku, Wooding’s heroine, had already been shown to be someone who would recite dry facts to herself in an effort to remove herself from grief, that infodump about the Saramyrrhic language would have worked. Likewise if the omniscient voice had told the information in a way that accommodated itself to the emotion of the scene. Since Kaiku feels the emotions very strongly, though, and her only companion was present at the deaths of her family, so knows about them already, it makes no sense. The grief goes away for a paragraph. Then it’s supposed to come back. But by now the damn infodump has salted the ground, so it can’t.
Here is where this essay gets personal, because, if there is a battle between characterization and worldbuilding info, I think characterization should always win. Yes, always. If this isn’t something your character would notice or think about right now, save it for later. If it’s not consistent with the emotional tone of the scene you want to set, save it for later. If it isn’t relevant to the plot strands you’re working with, save it for later.
Or, y’know, hint.
3) Shadows are just as much fun, and sometimes more so, than outright telling.
So you have a new character walking on stage? Do I need to know, instantly, that he has five siblings, he’s the second child of the five, he hates and resents his elder brother, he has gray eyes like his grandfather’s, his family made their fortune off selling salt and these are the details of how they did that, he speaks four languages and here are the names and geography of the countries those languages are spoken in, and he loves roast lamb and despises blackberry sauce?
No. Fuck, no. It may not be relevant—in fact, some of those things are almost certainly not relevant the first moment we meet the character—it may ruin the emotional tone as in point 2, it will weight down the narrative like clay feet on a pigeon if the author is graceless enough to toss all that in at once, and, above all, it’s boring. If we really know everything about a person the instant we meet him, what is left to explore?
Here is where a common mistake rears its head. I’ve complained before about how little fiction there is in fantasy; every old folktale turns out to be real, every mad character is in fact sane, every wild rumor or traveler’s tale actually is the complete truth about those lands no matter how old or far away they are. And with characters, there are precious few with dark pasts whom the author doesn’t mean to have dark pasts. If a character does seem to have secrets, the secrets usually turn out to be integral to the whole of the plot. What is he hiding? He’s actually the traitor, of course. Why does the girl traveling with them look so mysterious and skittish when asked about her home life? Because she’s the runaway princess. (Though I don’t know how well it would hold up now, because I haven’t read it in years, one thing I remember being grateful to Tad Williams’s The Dragonbone Chair for is that all the travelers on a minor quest had secrets, and one of those secrets is revealed pretty damn fast, so that the story can get on with the interesting political consequences of it rather than try to stretch a paper-thin pretense across three books).
You can allude, and tease, and hint. Perhaps this character’s secret really is ordinary, but she doesn’t want to talk about it because she’s embarrassed or ashamed. (There are not enough embarrassing or shameful secrets in fantasy, either, as opposed to angsty ones like abuse, or proud ones like, “Oh, I’m really the best knight in my class, but I can’t let anyone know!”) Perhaps something extremely interesting happened to the character, or he has an extremely interesting family, but he doesn’t babble about this; he just thinks about it sometimes. Perhaps the land called Farella really is the most fascinating place in your world, but there’s no reason to give us a potted history of it in the first ten pages when your hero doesn’t visit it until Chapter 30.
Think about what stories you can show as hiding away in the corners of your world. You might know the whole truth of them, but if there’s no reason for your readers to do so, then seeing their shadows can still hint at the flavor and depth of a created setting without making your readers feel you’re more obsessed with your notebook than your actual narrative. And then more people than just the traitor and the runaway princess can seem as if they had lives before the story began.
4) The book is the boss.
Attributed to Alfred Bester, and I think this quote is damn true. The book is the boss. Not the character profiles. Not the lists of kingdom names. Not the family genealogies. Not the artificial language. The story. What the profiles and the lists and the genealogies and the language are there to support through and shine in.
Tolkien is usually pointed out as the exception to this, and sometimes to excuse an author’s tendency to dump in a whole lot of extraneous information. Thing is, Tolkien did cut some information out of his story and leave it in the appendices, including a lot of the history of Rohan, the romance of Aragorn and Arwen, the ultimate fates of most of the members of the Fellowship, and tons of Elvish language details. The facts that pop up in his books, including details of landscape and Elvish legends—and, yes, language—overwhelm many readers and turn them off Tolkien (and I think showed up where they did because Tolkien loved them too much to get rid of them entirely, while he could do without depicting a ton of romance). So “Tolkien did it!” is not a valid excuse for the novel to be loaded down with stupid details.
What does “stupid” mean in this context? It means, “Things that do not serve the story.”
Does the sibling rivalry your deadly assassin had when he was a child inform his motives now, make an entertaining way to humanize him, add a touch of humor at the appropriate moment, serve to hint at the existence of the sibling before she enters the fray, explain an important custom in bite-size format, or otherwise tie in to characterization, setting, plot, or the mixture of them that’s called the story? If not, what is it doing there? No, I mean it. What is it doing there? Its being written down in a character profile is not good enough reason for it to exist in the story.
And, yes, the balance between the “shadows” I talked about in point 3 and excessive infodumping is hard to maintain. Some pointers to keep in mind:
- Know how interestingly you can write them. One reason I skim over lots of fantasy mythology is that the author is doing nothing more than retelling Paradise Lost, except with the God of No Name/the Dark One in place of Lucifer and multiple gods in place of one, and utterly failing to make it interesting. (For once, I want to see a fantasy mythology that does not include a Fall. Or it’s at least a Fall based on something other than the Judeo-Christian model).
- Know what you’re passionate about. This is often a great clue as to what you can make interesting. If you’re wild about military history, then the section where the grizzled war veteran thinks about his campaign experience will probably shine. On the other hand, including a bunch of notes on clothing just because they exist, when you care zilch about clothing, will drag. This is why I either do not describe what the characters are wearing, or get it out of the way in about a sentence. Look, they’re not naked, okay, and if I tried to go into detail, it would bore me to tears, and come out as a bunch of clichés.
- Show it to other people. The more congruent advice you receive on one section, the more consideration you’ll want to give it. If twelve of your readers are all saying that Chapter 3 would be much improved by getting rid of the scene where the museum curator escorts the heroine around the exhibits and talks about painting techniques, you ought to think about getting rid of it, just maybe. Find some other way to get the plot-necessary information across.
- Do include fiction, fancy, rumors, lies, and myths. Don’t always have them turn out to be 100% true. Don’t only include multiple variations of a story when one of them is a red herring meant to distract the readers from a major mystery.
I appreciate an author falling in love with his world and characters, because that often brings about a lot of great stories. On the other hand, falling in love with them at the cost of the story usually means horrible things.
5) Use the story’s length to your advantage.
Admittedly, I know more about writing novels than short stories, and novels form the vast majority of what I read. The rules are different for most short stories. However, that doesn’t mean short stories need to be bare-bones sketches, any more than fantasy novels need to be front-loaded with information before the story proper starts. In cases where that happens, I don’t think it’s the fault of the form. I think the author has tried to tell the story she wants to tell without thinking about whether the form suits the content.
Got a story that relies on some fantasy clichés, but takes them for a new spin, or includes one unique element that revitalizes the others? I think a short story will work just fine. Demonstrate the effect of that spin or that unique element on one character or a small group of them, and it works even better. I do think that a lot of fantasy short stories are hindered by the authors attempting to explain too many elements of their worlds, or introducing too many characters, or both. Yes, your main character may indeed have six brothers with similar names due to the naming conventions of his country, but that doesn’t mean all the brothers and a detailed explanation of the naming conventions need to show up in the story. Once again, just because they exist in the worldbuilding notes does not mean they need to exist on the page.
Got a unique element, or elements, to your fantasy world that you want to trace all the consequences of? Or do you want to show a whole society instead of just focusing on a few people? Novel time! And because a novel is, get this, long, you have hundreds of thousands of words to show the consequences working out, or the society and how it works. There’s no reason to have a priest elaborating gloomily in the first chapter on exactly what the new scientific theory is going to do to the power of the church. For one thing,boring. For another, turn-off. For another, way not to use your form; there will be time for that later. For another, is this one priest actually going to know all this when he has a limited perspective? For another, too much telling at the expense of showing. For another, giving away your story before you tell it. And last, boring.
I can appreciate that an idea may grow from a short story into a novel, or start out with chaff and have to be chopped down. But that’s what drafting and revision and editing are for. And also looking at the forms, considering their advantages and disadvantages, and deciding which one to use. I don’t understand the blame short stories receive for being too small to show off the author’s unique fantasy world. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to either write a longer story or tell a more tightly focused one? Or look up from the worldbuilding notes and at a narrative once in a while? Adapt and change, rather than shove and force?
6) Worldbuilding sometimes just doesn’t work.
This connects back to point 4. The book is the boss. If the story eats your worldbuilding, I say: let it. With melted cheese.
There are all sorts of ways this can happen. Sometimes the author simply has a better idea midstream. Sometimes the writer accidentally writes herself into a corner, because she didn’t realize that two elements of her created world would come into conflict with each other like that. Sometimes a plot hole shows up that she didn’t foresee, because the plot was less outlined or even thought about than grown from research.
These of course need to be judged. Is the better idea actually better? Are these two elements as opposed as they seem? Would more research fix the plot hole?
But if the answer is unequivocal, I think it makes more sense to cut out an inconvenient element of the background than change the whole story. You could always use that element in another story about this world, or cannibalize it and give it to another setting. Or, to focus on a slightly smaller scale than institutions and created languages, perhaps the backstory that makes no sense when you see how the person acts on paper will fit another character to a T.
7) Know when worldbuilding is just an excuse.
Does a story stall because you need to do research and then never get written on again because you can’t bring yourself to start the research? Or do you think you need to know the life story of every castle guardsman before you can begin, and then the placement of the flagstones in the castle courtyards, and then what color the flagstones are?
The only way worlds get built may be to build them. On the other hand, the only way stories get written is to write them. And if you’re more interested in writing stories than building worlds, the last step has to happen sooner or later.
I will put up a poll in a while, because I seem frustratingly unable to think of topics for essays lately.