Tuesday, May 11, 2010

World-Building 201: A closer look at seeding your world

First, I'm hijacking my own post. My first pro sale, a short fiction piece titled Fool's Fire, was published in the May issue of Flash Fiction Online! Huzzah for publishing credits! Now back to your regularly scheduled programming...


Since world-building and character backstory are all about showing rather than telling, and hands-on work helps more than lecture, as promised, this week I'll follow up the discussion of burying and seeding your information with some seeds of my own, and a 'workbook' at the end of the chapter.

The key thing with this approach to world-building, as we discussed last time, is keeping the information portion of the seed unobtrusive, tied to the character's voice and world view, and, when necessary, piquing the reader's interest. Make them wonder, and they'll work to put the pieces together. Whether you want the reader to note a hint and wonder about it or absorb it and move on, of course, depends on the information you're trying to convey.

A little context: Save for the last one, these excerpts come from the first chapter of my work-in-progress, opening as my protagonist flees pursuit by Lorahn, whose context you'll pick up as we go. The other character mentioned, Khory, pops up and slows things down. Also these don't come in order.

Unobtrusive information:
“You green-eyed bitch! You’ll only make it worse.”
I rank character descriptions under things readers shouldn't notice. The more you try to hammer home someone's appearance, their dazzling eyes or arrogant jawline (a phrase I'm still puzzling over), the less a reader will care because they're expected to care. It's even tougher when eye colour matters, such as my protagonist's, which mark foreign blood in her ancestry, or Joanne's protagonist's, whose eyes hint at greater purpose. Bury it where it's not the focus, and it goes down much smoother.

Obtrusive, pique-worthy info:
“What were you thinking?” He groaned and hustled after me as I hurried for the ramp. “Ran off so fast I thought you had a barghest on your tail.”
“I’m a little old for fire tales, Khory. Anyway, this dog has two legs.”
This exchange comes on page two of the first chapter. If it didn't matter, I'd have chosen  a less obscure reference, but I want the reader to note this unfamiliar word, barghest, and hang on to it. What I don't want, though, is to lose the reader entirely by telling them a character looks like a Fphne'mnelella, and then not explaining how on earth to take that comparison. My protagonist's reply provides two cues for that: first, the thing in question is a fire tale; second, the thing is likened to a dog (the two-legged version being Lorahn). And just in case you're not sure how to take the term 'fire tale,' there's a cue there too, as my protag also implies that fire tales are primarily told to children. We may not know the precise details, but we've got context enough to stay with us, and when another mention crops up a chapter later, it will build on the first.

Side note: When playing with unfamiliar or created words, a light hand works best. No one will remember the concept of a barghest even a page later if we've also had a hinkypunk, a nargle, and a snib thrown at us.

Voice and backstory:
Of my Guild-mates—former Guild-mates—Lorahn was the least of my concerns, but if he knew where I was, then so did—
I swallowed back panic and fought through the last straggling spectators.
That’s what they called me. Two years lifting coin on my own and now someone in Blacklake had gotten it into his head that I owed them. Two years of lost profits, so they stuck a price on the girl-thief’s head and sent Lorahn to sniff her out.
I didn’t look back. I could picture well enough how Lorahn would whip about at the sound, lip twitching. Shift the knife’s grip in his hand. After nigh ten years fighting for favour alongside him—ten years had I not sloughed all bonds and fled—I knew Lorahn as well as any. He was not an easy gull.
 These three excerpts come peppered over a few pages amid the action. They're long enough they don't look like hints anymore, but they don't actually go into much detail individually, and they don't halt the flow of the overall narrative. Grounding the information in the character's voice inevitably makes it more engaging (unless your character's voice is unpleasant to read, in which case backstory may not be your chief issue), and these snippets of context come as asides, the internal mutterings of someone in the midst of a rather bad day -- or reflecting back on it, in the case of some first person narratives.

Each of these excerpts also swings around within two sentences at most (three if you count Defector as a sentence) back to the events at hand. We get sense of a Guild, leaving said Guild, and then back to the scene. We get a little more context, why they're former Guild-mates, and then back to context with Lorahn's present pursuit. We get a sense of actions taken though my protag isn't looking at them, a nod to why she would know without looking, which also provides more hints on the leaving of said Guild, and then back to why this matters at the moment. How far you can stretch this depends on your narrative voice, the pacing of the scene, and the information you're working with. The same approach also works marvels for large-scale world-building in terms of magic, important history, and the like, but we don't need two examples of the same.

World view:
He grew wary the moment we touched rock again, sweeping the green wall of the forest while I dumped lake water from my boots. I scanned the mist-ridden wilderness. Lake, rock, trunk, bough, dirt. Good job finding the hut now, or a road out for that matter.
The opening chapter, set in a city, notes details of the dock at the opening, the rooftops shortly after, the texture of clay tiles under nails and their shattering on cobblestones. Take my protagonist out of her environment though, and the narrative changes. Myself, I could wax poetic for days about the beauty of a fabulously damp and misty landscape but my protag just doesn't give a rat's arse about it. It's all the same: monotonous, unnavigable, wet, and miserable. Her bias creeps into the descriptions, the level of detail shrinks, and the environment's impression on her comes through in the metaphors. A character's world view should colour pretty much everything, from scenery to history to backstory. Their own biases can offer tons of context with very few words spent.

Here's where you get to pick up your pencil (keyboard?) and stretch your writing muscles. Ever a fan of multiple choice, I offer you options.

1] Construct: Write a scene, a paragraph, a snatch of dialogue, or share a snippet from your WIP which encapsulates some element of world-building, character backstory, or the like, and post it in comments to share. Let's see how much you can load into one short piece. I'll let you know everything I can possible glean from your piece.

2] Deconstruct: Don't want to write something? Pop on over to Flash Fiction Online and read my short piece, Fool's Fire (why no, this isn't flagrant self-promotion at all). At only 950 words, the story has no explanations, asides, or verbal exchanges to offer context, and an unreliable narrator to boot, yet there's a very clear sense of backstory buried under the mud. Tell me what you can piece together from the seeds I've planted, and let me know what sort of a job I've done.

Missed the earlier posts?
~ The Rules of Magic
~ World-Building 101
~ World-Building 201: How to eliminate the info-dump


DebH said...

wow. very informative posting. i've no present WIP, so I popped over to your *cough* shameless promotion *cough, cough* story and read it. ooooooo... very chilling.

my guess is the woman was meeting her darling to elope, she was wearing her mother's wedding dress, and she's been murdered (throat slit?). she's become a ghost that lives in the swamp where she died and "awakens" whenever an eligible man comes near enough to be bequiled by her "magic" lantern. the stuff of wonderful Ghost stories to tell around a campfire.

did I reveal too much information to spoil future readers? i hope not, but this is all i garnered from your hinting.

Congrats on pub credit.

Hazel said...

How exciting for you! And also for me, because I love to read a published story under the name of someone I know. Congratulations!

Thanks for more on world-building. Here is a short excerpt from one of my short stories; I am attempting to create a suitable atmosphere for the story that will transpire in this setting.

The pavement glistened from recent rain. Beams from the street light on the corner were dimmer now, interspersed with shadows from overhanging branches. She glanced back quickly to where the bus had stopped to let her off. He was still leaning against the bus shelter. She hesitated briefly, then reluctantly turned up the sidewalk leading to the house. Fumbling for her key, she eyed the distance to the front door. The outside light was not on. After more fumbling, she unlocked the door and stumbled inside.
“Now he knows where I live,” she whispered to the empty room. “Why didn't I go around the corner and come in the back?” She shuddered at the thought of the unsightly lane behind the house she had moved into earlier in the day.

Kay said...

Congrats on the credit.

Love the tern "seeding". It's a concept than could prevent lots of info dumps.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Hi everyone, just a quick note that I'll be in the city until this afternoon, but I'll catch up with everything when I get back!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Hayley,
I like the way you slip in information. It's very subtle but it sticks with a reader. I think we do our readers a disservice if we don't give them the opportunity to figure out a few things themselves. Readers are smart and they have good imaginations too. Give them a few key physical descriptions of your characters and let them form their own picture.

I'm giving part of the opening of my novella "Flawless". See what you can glean about the character and the setting from this:

Down the hall, the heavy iron door creaked open, then closed again with a clang. Footsteps echoed on the stone floor, growing louder as they approached his prison room. When the footsteps suddenly stopped, Hunter Smith opened his eyes, surprised. In the eighteen months he’d been in this God forsaken place, no one had visited him, not his so-called friends, and certainly not his parents.

He turned his head to see a neat little man in an impeccable black suit and bowler hat waiting patiently for the guard to unlock the barred gate of his cell.

“He shouldn’t give you any trouble, Guvnor,” the guard said as he opened the grate. “Not like some as in ‘ere. Quick to steal your purse and slit yer throat for yer trouble, most of them. But I’ll stay close by just in case.”

“That won’t be necessary,” the little man said in a voice that spoke of British public schools and a cultured upbringing. Hunter hated him immediately.


Karyn Good said...

Great post, Hayley. I'm trying to do some seeding of my own as I work on my Saskatchewan short story contribution. So, with your advice in mind, I'm trying to seed as much relevant information in as I can, without info dumping, into 5000 words.

So here is a short portion of the first scene. (This a first draft!)I don't know what you can tell from something this short. I wanted to include the whole first scene but it would have been too long.

No tears. Tears would get her nowhere with this man. Facts. “Four months ago Nate left the apartment we were staying in and didn’t come back. I found this along with instructions to give it to you if he didn’t return by July twenty-second. That was yesterday.” She handed him the envelope.

“And I should care, why?”

“Because last time I looked you were still brothers.”

“And the last time I looked that didn’t count for squat.”

Molli said...

Good stuff, ma'am, as usual. I like the subtle approach that still leaves room for the readers to think for themselves.
And congrats again on your wonderfully ghoulish sale.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hayley, your fiction has me shivering. Not exactly the kind of stuff I usually read before going to bed.

I've never been good with guessing between the lines or anything. The woman reminded me of a siren luring men to their murky deaths. At first I thought it was a Romeo and Juliet thing where they both die and each night he goes to her. But then it wasn't her lover who came so I got to thinking her lover is the one who killed her and she's slowly 'taking him back'.

But then I read Deb's analysis and oooohhh, that's good!

Congrats on a creepy job well done.


Hayley E. Lavik said...

Deb, that's a fabulous reading of it. I don't think it would spoil anything, it's all still up for individual interpretation, and seeing how it all comes together :) Thanks for joining in!

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Hazel, you've got an intriguing premise behind this little excerpt. I'm very curious just what's been going on. I'm picturing not the greatest neighbourhood, since the bus stop is right near the character's house, and the lane behind it isn't very welcoming. She's new to the area, and not entirely comfortable. I also suspect she lives alone, since the outside light wasn't turned on for her, and that she might not be the sort to think far ahead, realizing she'd need to turn the light on since it'd be dark when she got back.

And of course, we have the other character, waiting and watching, and in doing nothing at all, raising a dozen story questions. I wonder if it's covert or obvious, or what we could potentially glean from his appearance or the way he's leaning. Depending how much you wanted to show right now, you could potentially load up more there, but leaving it simple raises a lot of curiosity, and I'd be keeping an eye out for more answers.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

I think we do our readers a disservice if we don't give them the opportunity to figure out a few things themselves.

Well said, Jana. I absolutely agree. This is right in line with the rejection Silver James mentioned yesterday, in which the work in question was deemed too deep for readers. That should never be an option.

I love your intro excerpt. You offer setting, narrative tone, and character all in one, and a nice touch of context. You give us cues in the dialect and Hunter's reactions as to the broad setting, and a subtle reinforcement just in case we're uncertain, in the mention of public schools. The hint at how long Hunter's been here slides in nice and subtle, and I like that you don't tell us why he's locked up yet, so we've got something to keep looking for. I also love the little personal touches of so-called friends and certainly not his parents, and instant dislike for the man of cultured upbringing. They shed light on his close ties (slim to none), his own upbringing (lower) without directly saying it. The fact that his narrative doesn't sound as cockney as the guard's dialogue also helps to place him in the social spectrum. All these bits come to us for worthwhile reasons, rather than direct passing of information, and are smoothed over by the personal tones of his narrative voice. A great beginning.

This is a character and a narrative I'd enjoy working to unravel on my own. I think I'd be upset if the opportunity to piece it together were taken away from me :)

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Karyn, if you want to post the full excerpt, please do!

From what little you've shown me, I still get a good sense of story, and the unnamed characters. She's warring between the emotional strain of the situation and knowledge that the other character, Nate's brother, simply won't give a damn. I'd also wager excess emotion might actually make him less inclined to care, from the sounds of it. Her matter of fact dialogue contrasts nicely with that initial internal narrative, and I get a sense of strength from her through that.

At first mention of Nate, I thought he'd run out on her, which raised a good question. Then there's the envelope (I love that you don't state it right away, it's just "this" until she finishes what she's saying. Nicely done), which suggests to me there's more at work here, something going on in which he knew he might not come back. My mind is instantly filling in intrigue, possibly foul play, and a trail of clues to find out what happened, but of course that's only based off one line. The rest of your clues will start to set me on the right trail :) I also notice she doesn't live in that apartment anymore, "we were staying in," so I wonder whether her leaving relates to his departure.

The brother. Two sentences, no descriptors, no dialogue cues, but I know exactly how he's saying those lines, and I can just feel the chip on his shoulder. He's got nothing invested in her, and seems at the moment to have issues with Nate, to me. Until you give me more to go on, my knee-jerk reading of the way he says "that didn't count for squat" suggests Nate did something, and his brother's been holding on to resentment for it. We shall see, I suppose :)

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Thank you, Molli! I'd much rather encourage readers to engage with the text than spell it all out for them and take away the fun :)

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Anita, that Romeo and Juliet idea? Awesome! Sounds like a great prospect to explore. Poignantly tragic, and so many ghost stories feature figures returning to the site of their death and reenacting it on its anniversary or the like.