Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we continued our series on revision with Dynamic Dialogue. This week, we’re diving in to how to revise your world-building.
Building a world is a lot like building a life. There are a lot of ways to do it. For me, when I’ve got pages and pages of ideas and details, and mythology, and STUFF written about my world, it can be difficult to sort out what’s important to keep, and what’s chaff. In the moments when I begin writing my story, I try to remember that the world is like another character. It gains power in relation to other characters.
What that means is that it’s the details that are important. Not just any details, but those which tie to the heart of the people in that place—the details that matter to the characters. A few well-placed details of the world, in relationship with the characters are much more evocative than a vast array of details that aren’t bound to someone’s heart. Compare these two approaches to sharing details of a world:
Example 1: The table was scattered with oogleberries, picked from the tanglewood that hangs from the darkest edges of the cliffs of Baka. The sour purple berries weren’t ripe, and with a growl, I threw them to a banglebird sitting on the veranda.
Example 2: I sat down and popped a handful of oogleberries in my mouth, letting out a squeak as the bitter zing tensed all the muscles in my jaw. Mara had done it again. I’d lost count of how many times I had told my sister to pinch the leaves to see if they were ripe. It was like she was doing it on purpose. Groaning, I spit the berries out in my hand, resolving to make Mara eat them herself. This was just perfect. Now I would go to school with a headache and purple stains on my hand. I could forget about a good first impression. Everyone would take one look at me and think—amateur.
Taken at face value, the first paragraph has more world-building in it. It’s a broader stroke. The problem is we don’t connect with it. It has no real relationship to us. It’s when we dig deeper, and put it in relationship with the MC, and her sister, that we connect. We can learn about the banglebirds, and the cliffs, and the tanglewood as we get to them, in the context of the story, and when they matter.
That’s not to say things can’t sometimes be mentioned in passing, but those things should be a set up. If there are things in your world that need history/explanation (at some point) they should serve the story. They can serve the plot, or they can serve the internal development of the character, but they should matter.
For example, we first hear about a “bezoar” in passing, in Harry Potter’s first ever poisons lesson. We hear about it again, in the Goblet of Fire, when Harry is freaking out about how to ask Cho Chang to the ball. Bezoars come up again during potions class, in Half-Blood Prince, and then at last, Harry remembers what he’s learned about a bezoar and must find one to save his friend’s life. The details about the thing are trickled in when they’re relevant (potions class) to move the story, as we need to know them. This works as a fantastic set up, because it’s repeated, and because it’s not swamped in a mire of other factoids. We learn more as Harry comes into relationship with the bezoar, and as it becomes important. Beware of stacking oddities and details simply to say, ‘hey look at all the stuff I know about this world’.
By revealing your world as your characters move through it, it becomes easier to figure out which details are vital and evocative, and which can be cut, or left in the pages of your pre-work for another time, or another book. It may be anti-intuitive at first (more is better, right?), but you’ll find that it’s the micro—the deeper dive over the course of the story—that will have universal appeal, and will paint the broader picture of your world.
–GABRIELLE K. BYRNE writes MG/YA fantasy in Olympia, Washington where she lives with her husband and two daughters. Gabby studied opera in Philadelphia, medieval studies in New York, literature in Scotland, and marine biology in the Pacific Northwest, but writing is the common thread that ties all her passions together. Her debut, RISE OF THE DRAGON MOON, comes out in winter, 2019 with Imprint/Macmillan. She is represented by Catherine Drayton at Inkwell Management. Find her on Twitter. Her web site is here.