World Building at ZappCon!

helpful tips

I had a little adventure this weekend! I had the awesome opportunity to fly out to Fresno, CA for a great little convention called ZappCon. I’m still working through some of the awesome of the trip, but I’m feeling over my jet lag enough to address one of the happenings today.

On Sunday, I had a Q&A session with a small group of folks about world building in fiction. At first, I wasn’t really sure I was overly qualified to speak on such a topic (or anything, really, LOL), but there were some excellent questions raised that maybe others are curious about, in as far as my opinion on them exists.

The description of the panel was mostly to do with details in fiction, like how much is too much, when to give a little more, etc, but the discussion itself ranged more widely, which was a good thing, I think. I talked a little about some tips and tricks I use that other writers might find helpful, and I tried to be encouraging to the budding creatives that had come to hear what I had to say. So now, I’d like to pass some of that on to you.

To address the main question (how much is too much detail?), I gave a sort of non-answer answer. The question of how much detail a fictional world needs is very often defined by genre. For example: High Fantasy and hard Science Fiction readers are likely to expect a massive amount of world detail, thanks to expectations set by the likes of Tolkien, BUT, there’s another reason for needing a little more there. When you’re writing in a non-contemporary setting, you face the challenge of introducing the world as you would a character. In contemporary works, there’s no need to describe how humans came to be or various technology, because readers are already familiar with them. Cell phones, cars, air conditioning, heated water… these are all things readers know and take as given. So, say you’re talking about exploring an alien planet, that requires at least some level of explanation about the environment and the equipment needed for going there. Does the atmosphere contain oxygen? Is the gravity different? Can you eat the plants and drink the water? Is there a need for weapons? These are all basic questions that you, as the writer, should know the answer to, but whether or not you address them in the prose is another matter entirely. To help with figuring that out, I offer this…

Show the world through a character’s eyes. Presenting readers with a laundry list of descriptions will result in skimming on the reader’s part. Explaining things as a character takes note of them, interacts with them, reacts to them… those are ways to express to the audience how they should feel about the world they’re reading about and the things in it, rather than just throwing it all up there for interpretation. Readers become more engaged with emotion than with nebulous detail. A brief example of what I mean:

“Thick curtains enclosed the room in darkness.”

instead, try

“The drawn curtains immediately set Jack on edge. Every deep shadow held the threat of something lurking within, ready to strike.”

So, what tells you more about the room? Saying the room is dark leaves the reader open to feel about it any way they want. Perhaps closed curtains give a sense of safety, or reprieve, or calm, or of hiding away. By showing the setting through a character’s eyes, the reader knows how to feel about where Jack is and what might be coming. Not only does it describe the world, but also sets the tone…

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World Building at ZappCon!

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