A World in Words
Pick 1-2 characters and drop them in a completely unfamiliar place (perhaps in the world of another story). They don’t know the land, the people, or the rules of the world. Write at least 500 words of the character(s) interacting in this world for the first time.
When a reader opens a new book, they don’t know the world like the author does, even if the story takes place in modern times. The reader trusts the author to gradually and naturally show the setting – the time and place – of the story.
The setting isn’t simply a portrait of a place, but a survey of senses, costume, food, climate, languages, technology, architecture, society, government, and everything that brings a world to life.
The key is to show the world only as the characters discover it, as the reader should be able to discover the setting as the characters do. Refrain from telling or explaining. Utilize the senses to reveal unfamiliar materials. If the characters have never known silk before, don’t reference its name. Describe it, how it feels and smells and what the sensation reminds the characters of. The same applies to computers, or food, or even magic.
- If you’re having trouble, step into a place you’ve never been in, or a room you rarely frequent, or simply go outside. What do you see first? What smells fight to be recognized? What does the air feel like on your skin? What about any sounds? Even in perfect silence, there’s always something to hear, whether it’s the buzz of a light bulb, the sound of your own breathing, or even the strange ringing in the ears that perfect silence often creates.
- Dialogue is a great tool of active interaction to communicate information, however –
- Avoid reader feeder: don’t have one character iterate information to the other for the sake of the reader. “You know how we just came from our super boring fifth period history of Europe class?” “Oh, the class where our teacher uses paperclips like army knives?” That’s reader feeder. Both characters already know this information and have no need to repeat it to each other.
- Think of clincher details, the heartstrings of a world that give dimension to your setting. Old newspapers, rotted wood, cat hair on furniture, wallpaper that your grandmother would be proud of, hairpins all over the stained carpet.
- Choose only the best details. Don’t drown the reader in description – ground the reader. Don’t control the reader’s imagination, but inspire it. Hold back on revealing all the world’s secrets at once, introduce a spoonful at a time. While writing, jot down everything that comes to mind if you have to, then revise and leave behind only the strongest lines. Use a little to convey a lot.
- If you’re having trouble picking lines or deciding what details are necessary, ask yourself “How important is this detail to the world I’m trying to create? How can I make this detail sharper? Clearer? More original and poignant?”
- Don’t rely on physical description alone. How does the setting make the character feel? How do they physically interact with what’s around them? What does it do to their body chemistry? Revealing these details also brings out your character, how they see this world in comparison to their own, and illuminating how they react in such situations and what they do with what’s given to them.
- Make sure you do your research. For any setting to be portrayed accurately and realistically (even in the case of fantasy), realistic worlds depend greatly on effective research.
- Make a checklist of the points you want to communicate in your exercise. Set a realistic amount of goals for your word count, or check off the points you hit and think about why the other points weren’t hit.
(cross-posted from KSW on Tumblr)