“If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write.”—W. Somerset Maugham
“Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”
One thing I like about this quote is how it challenges both the character and the reader to discover “what they are made of.” That “they” can work on multiple levels—making this quote both straightforward and yet layered.
Interestingly enough, this is just one of Vonnegut’s eight tips for writing (number six, specifically.) He’s not the only writer to dish out eight tips—seems like a comfortable number for a lot of us. You can read all of Vonnegut’s eight and the eight tips from other great authors over at this post.
Over the last few days, some friends in an online writing group and I have been discussing worldbuilding in our writing. Long time readers will know that worldbuilding is something of a passion for me and my own worldbuilding in The Bell Forging Cycle often draws compliments. So whenever there is an opportunity to chat about creating and exploring secondary worlds I’ll gladly join in.
One question came up and I thought it was interesting: can a writer maintain the breakneck pace of an action story and still worldbuild? As a writer who has written three action-oriented novels, I believe the answer is yes. I figured a quick post would be the perfect way to go a step further and explain how I maintain pace and still write a plot-forward scene that expands a world. Show don’t tell, right? To demonstrate I threw together a quick scene, you can read it in all of its trope-filled glory below.
My opponent was Ver, a kudär, one of the desert dwellers. He wore the leathers of a Stalwart, cut from the backs of the enormous lizards that reside deep in the shifting dunes. His was a caste accustomed to war, violence, and bloody hand-to-hand fighting. That didn’t bode well.
Ver beat his chest and threw a handful of dust in the air above his tattooed head. Around us, the crowd chanted, “VER! VER! VER!” in a steady throbbing rhythm.
I rolled my neck; feeling it pop, and shook my arms to keep them loose. I wondered if I looked nervous. A damned kudär, here, of all places. They tended to stick to the fringes, away from population centers. Kudär didn’t usually fight in sanctioned matches. I’d need to change strategies; perhaps I could—
The gong thummed, cutting off my thoughts. No time.
So, let’s break it down. Here’s what I am doing in that tiny 143-word scene to expand the worldbuilding without interrupting the pace.
- I’m establishing the action immediately. A fight is about to go down. Just calling out an opponent introduces the tension. The pace is set, let’s keep it up.
- Relevance matters. Don’t throw in random details that don’t serve the scene. Keep your reader focused on what is happening in the moment.
- I begin to hint at some interesting stuff without getting bogged down in details. Everything is focused on the fight and then rolls from there. This is key. As my friend Jim has said, think of worldbuilding as a spice. Like any good chef, you don’t want to over season. Give just enough to enliven the imagination without derailing. Should any of these ideas become critical to the plot, they can get revisited. But for now, keep them lean, so the action keeps moving. But there’s a lot there, consider:
- The kudär. Who are apparently some sort of desert people?
- They hunt giant lizards for leather.
- Apparently, the kudär people operate under some kind of caste system.
- Ver is a “Stalwart, ” and apparently that means he’s accustomed to fighting.
- The kudär tend to avoid population centers. It’s rare to see one. Our narrator is surprised, this changes his strategy.
- This match is somehow “sanctioned.” Which opens up a lot of questions. By whom? Why? What for?
- I also threw in some personal rituals. Ver slaps his chest and throws dust like Lebron. I find little details like these important. Readers like personal connections. I feel like they go further in establishing character than most writers realize. Everyone has nervous tics or habitual fidgets. Play ’em up.
Seasoning worldbuilding elements throughout your story can help to expand the world. And you can do insert them anywhere. The trick is to layer in your deeper world, while you avoid reveling in it unless necessary. Reveling in detail is often where one finds the dreaded info dump. Remember: in the end, all things must serve the plot.
How about you? How do you enhance worldbuilding in your own work? What tricks do you use? Leave a comment and let us know!
Interested in my other articles on worldbuilding? Check out any of the links below.
- Fallout 4 and the Struggle of Consistent Worldbuilding
- Mad Max: Fury Road and the Art of Worldbuilding
- Right in the Feelies
- Middle Earth And The Perils Of Worldbuilding
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“A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.”
It’s time to share a few interesting links I have found throughout the week. Some of these I mention on Twitter, if you’re not already following me there, please do! Have a link I should feature in the upcoming link pack? Let me know!
Big thank you to writer Drew Gerken (@worddrew) for picking up my slack and running with the Friday Link Pack in my absence. He found and shared a lot of great stuff. If you happened to miss it, make sure you hit up his blog and check it out. I know he plans on continuing posting link packs of his own. So give him a follow while you’re at it.
$14 Kindle Paperwhites
Amazon is offering a Kindle for the price of a trade paperback. $14 bucks a month for 4 months. No interest. No credit checks. Regardless about how you feel about Amazon or ebooks it’s a heck of a deal and a smart play from Amazon.
Can bestseller lists be bought?
The LA Times looks into a recent story where a church from Seattle paid an estimated $210,000 to ResultSource to make it’s senior pastor’s book Real Marriage a bestseller. Shady, yes. Stupid, totally. There’s a big difference between numbers and valuable numbers.
Here Amid the Wild Woods new works by Kari-Lise Alexander
When I last left you I mentioned Kari-Lise’s show Here Amid the Wild Woods was opening soon at Auguste Clown Gallery in Melbourne. Well it opened and it was incredibly successful. You can see the full show here. I believe there’s only one piece left and the gallery does have prints available.
Cover Reveal for Brandon Sanderson’s Words of Radiance by Michael Whelan
Despite my own vocal opinions about the book cover for Sanderson’s latest epic fantasy I have to admit Michael Whelan did a really good job explaining his process. He’s an incredibly talented illustrator and it’s cool to get a behind the scene’s look.
Big Hug Mug, a True Detective Playlist
So, I am obsessed with HBO’s True Detective, and not just because of the Robert W. Chambers connection (though that helps.) When Wilson Miner (@wilsonminer) put together a pretty incredible playlist I was stoked. It’s worth a listen, or like 75 listens in my case. (TEASER! I have a playlist coming for The Stars Were Right. I’m hoping to post it soon.)
TED – The Gentlemen Thief: The Art of Misdirection
If you could control someones attention what would you do with it? A great TED talk/presentation with a pretty stunning ending.
Lovecraft Story of the Week:
Sometimes it’s best to leave well enough alone.
Farewell Gif of the Week: