Wednesday, September 29, 2010

On World-building - Less is More

Tim Stretton may be one of the best fantasy world builders ever.  It's all done through the story, not lengthy explication.

So says fellow writer CN Nevets.  Is he right?  Probably not, in truth, although I appreciate the sentiment, and it does give me the chance to outline my theories on the business of world-building, probably at tedious length.

What do we mean by world-building?  According to Wikipedia, 

Worldbuilding is the process of constructing an imaginary world, sometimes associated with a fictional universe. The result may sometimes be called a constructed world, conworld or sub-creation. The term world-building was popularized at science fiction writer's workshops during the 1970s. It describes a key role in the task of a fantasy writer: that of developing an imaginary setting that is coherent and possesses a history, geography, ecology, and so forth. The process usually involves the creation of maps, listing the back-story of the world and the people of the world, amongst other features.
Swallow that undigested and you've already fallen into a hole so deep you can't climb back out.  You may, as a writer, want to flesh out your world to give it a "history, geography, ecology, and so forth" (the "so forth" gives me the shivers); you can't, though, expect your readers to have the same level of interest.  The more of this kind of work you do, the harder it is to resist bringing it into the story--almost always to the detriment of the text.  Few readers will be engaged by a travelogue--reader engagement is created by character and plot.

Many readers have praised the world-building of the Mondia series (no, really, they have), but if I reference back to the Wikipedia definition, I could tell you nothing about its ecology; less about its history than the reader might imagine; and the geography arises entirely from the maps I created before I started.  I need to know more than the reader in all of these areas, but to be convincing and engaging I need to emphasise elements other than world-building.

It's important to realise why we are world-building.  If you are writing a novel, the setting is not an end in itself; it's one component of a multi-faceted work of art.  Here, as in so much else, Tolkien clones often miss the point: The Lord of the Rings does not succeed because of the author's obsessive documenting of Middle Earth, but because of the epic scope of the narrative.

However much world-building you do as preparatory work, you only need to show the reader enough to give the story texture and credibility.

Glount had been the seat of the Dukes of Lynnoc for a thousand years.  One of the oldest cities of Mondia, squeezed between the Penitent Hills and the sea, it had long been a centre of commerce.  If Croad was a poor cousin to Emmen, Glount was an older uncle, steeped in every vice and abomination concealed under a veneer of urbanity.  The Dukes of Lynnoc embodied the essence of their city, and could trace their lineage back to its foundation with only a minimum of creative genealogy.  A powerful independent city for six centuries until its fall to the first King Jehan, it had taken its absorption into the Emmenrule with scarcely a blink.  Things went on as they had always done, and while the King away in Emmen might wield a nominal authority, to the folk and rulers of Glount, matters went on as they had always done.
--The Dog of the North

In the passage above, I am trying as economically as possible to give the reader a flavour of one of the story's minor locations.  I resist the temptation, therefore, to list the lineage of the Dukes of Lynnoc for the thousand years in question (and indeed, never felt the need to compile one in my preparations).  In mentioning "the first King Jehan", my aim is to create a texture of history (there must be at least two Jehans) without overcooking it.

The paragraph above is simple exposition, and this is important too.  It's all too easy to convey information to readers solely through dialogue, which is frequently takes place for no identifiable dramatic reason.  If you want the reader to know something, the best way is often just to tell them in simple declarative prose.

I also try to make my exposition short.  "Little and often" is the best policy here.  In The Dog of the North, the idea of separate Winter and Summer Kings is critical to one of the plot strands, but the reader would be poorly served if I set out all the details up front.  Piece by piece, the reader learns (much of it alongside Lady Isola and Lady Cosetta, who as outsiders are well-placed to be fed the information I need the reader to have).

Lady Cosetta let out a gasp.  “I had heard Mettingloom was remarkable,” she said.  “But I never imagined this.”
“‘The City in the Sea’,” said Beauceron.  Allow me to point out the main features.  You see the little cluster of islets ahead, through the neck of the bay?  That is where the customs men, or Pellagiers, conduct themselves.  Then, rising from the sea itself, you see the ‘Metropoli’:  a cluster of closely-packed islets.  They are linked by bridges, and instead of roads, there are waterways – the famous ‘aquavias’. That is where we find the King’s palace, the Occonero.  Over to the left you see Hiverno, the Winter King’s residence.  The Summer King’s retreat Printempi is behind the Occonero and not visible.”
That is the first we hear of the Winter and Summer Kings.  For now, it's enough: it's time to get on with the story again.  The reader will not understand everything at once.  That's not a bad thing, because it helps foster the curiosity which will draw them into the story.  A few pages on, I'll feed them a bit more.

Those are my general principles for world-building.  I can summarise them in two precepts.  First, respect your reader, who has come to you for a compelling story, not a display of your cleverness; and trust your reader, who doesn't need to be told everything on page one to remain interested in your story.

I'm interested in other writers' views too.  How do you go about it? (And, since all writer must establish their credible fictional worlds, I'm addressing a wider audience than the fantasy community here).


C. N. Nevets said...

Tim, I still stand by my statement, and doubt I will change my mind when I have finished the book. You may not be able to supply details about the ecology and full history, but you imply a lot of them (probably more than you know). To me, that's one of the secrets of good writing -- doing the heavy lifting and then letting the reader's imagination take it the rest of the way.

I have read quite a bit of fantasy, though probably not enough to be considered an expert. In too many cases, the authors build their worlds like length digressions, expositions, historical narratives or (heaven forbid) elves' singing. Those passages may be interesting to some in their own right, but there's no denying they weigh the story down and do nothing to advance it.

In the old days, I was an expansive world builder. For my fantasy and science fiction novels that will never emerge into day (at least as first written), I had maps and charts and profiles and histories that I created and referred to. I relished every opportunity to integrate that material into my story. I thought it would intrigue and captivate the reader. I think instead it probably distracted the reader from my story and made me sound like a know-it-all.

I think to some extent I overreacted for a few years and trimmed the world building so much that the readers never got a sense of the context in which the story took place. I have since realized that's just as bad. In all sincerity, the way you manage it the Dog of the North has given me a really good model for how to integrate those touches within the story itself.

Tim Stretton said...

Thanks, Nevets.

World-building is a fun activity - it's just that the obsessive variety should never be mixed with the business of writing a novel.