Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Paintings on The Ceiling (Why Your World Building Needs Immediacy)

Picture your story as a grand cathedral. There are gleaming tiles, niches filled with statues, and candles that shed light and provide ambiance. Subtle signs are left out, and ushers direct your readers to their proper places, ensuring they can follow along with the ritual of your tale. The acoustics lets your narration reach everyone, drawing them along in the wake of your story.

Your world building, in this case, is all around your audience. It's the smell of the wood polish, the quality of the light, the murals on the walls. However, most people who show up are there for the sermon, the grand tour, and the story you're telling. They don't show up to admire the walls, because they're just there to set the scene.

Sure, this is fun... but is this what matters right now?
That is not to say that all those details are not important to your story. But the question you need to ask is whether those are the things you should be focusing on?

Because if the elements you're pointing your readers' attention at don't matter to the story, then they have no immediacy. There is almost no faster way to lose someone's attention than that.

Paintings on The Ceiling

Give you an example of what I'm talking about with a conversation I had with a fellow creator a while back. Names shan't be mentioned, nor details given, as they aren't necessary to understand the point being made.

This person had their world all figured out. They'd laid out the ages of history, which parts were known and which parts were unknown, and what sorts of relics had been left behind. They understood the world's magic system, as well as what level of technological development was in which part of the setting. It made for a fun mixed bag of sci-fantasy, which was fun and engaging, giving the reader a lovely world to romp around in.

And if they'd just stopped there, they would have been fine. But the ball wanted to keep rolling.

No, really... you can stop building now...
Because, you see, there was not just a world but an entire cosmos at play here! There was space travel, and alien empires, and extraterrestrial organizations of cybernetic peace keepers, and all sorts of other cosmic craziness. And there was nothing wrong with any of that. It was fun, it was engaging, and it was interesting.

But it did not enhance the story that was being told. All it did was drag the focus off the primary setting (this fun little rock with it's odd nations that were one part post-apocalyptic badlands and one part nouveau medieval kingdoms with wizards and shotguns in them), and add a bunch of additional stuff that was just going to be a distraction.

All that other stuff was the fresco on the ceiling of the church. Sure it might be beautiful, eye-catching, fun, and filled with all sorts of amazing details, but if it isn't actually a part of the sermon you're there to listen to, all it's doing is making you tune out, lose focus, and miss big swaths of what's being said.

The Need To Know Basis

When you're writing a story, you only give out information on a need-to-know basis. You, as the creator, need to know all the little nooks and crannies of your world. If it's pertinent to you to know that the sword your protagonist found in a tomb was forged in fires heated with the bones of dead warriors, and the carbon that introduced into the process is where the steel developed such unusual properties for an iron age style setting, then by all means put that in your notes. But don't take time out of your book to have someone explain the intricacies of chemical changes during the forging of a blade if it is in no way relevant to your story, and it does not move your plot forward in any way.

I love this documentary, too, but don't waste the reader's attention.
This applies to basically all your world building; it needs immediacy in order for it to be relevant, rather than a distraction.

Now, that doesn't mean you should just ignore things that aren't on the straight path of your plot. If a major city is the headquarters of the Wyvern Knights, mention that. Have them flying around, or put one of two of them in the background. But don't step away from the story you're actually telling to give us a history lesson on that order, and on wyverns in the region if it's not germane to the story you're telling. If your setting has two moons, you should probably mention that during a night time scene, but don't go on for an entire paragraph about what those moons' affects on the planet are, or the mythology surrounding them if it doesn't affect your main cast and what they're doing. If there's a wizard in your scene, and they're doing wizard shit, describe what we see rather than giving us a big damn aside about how magic works in this world, unless you have a novice character receiving a lecture about it, and that lecture somehow fits into the journey that character is taking.

Everything, and I do mean everything should be in the service of immersing your reader into the story you're telling. Let them drink in the details, but remember that those details are not your story. They're stage dressing. They're atmosphere. Let them be that, instead of putting them in center stage so you can talk about them. Because unless these facts are important for the readers to know to understand what's happening, all you're doing is distracting them.

And if you do need to explain to your readers what's happening, don't just have your narrator do it. Work it into dialogue, build scenes around the learning process, or provide enough clues to pick up context. We don't need to know the intricate process of becoming the Sanctum Dominatus of the library, but we can probably figure out by the way other people react to the title that this person is serious business, and that if they are displeased with you then you're in a lot of trouble.

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That's all for this week's Craft of Writing! For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

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