The Basics of World-Building

By Mark Alpert

Thanks to a plucky TKZ contributor, we have the opportunity today to talk about world-building in fantasy and science fiction novels. First, let’s take a gander (pun intended; see below) at the fictional world being built in the anonymous contributor’s first-page submission:

Havilah Where There Is Gold

Bacon sizzled, but after a rueful glance at the grill Christine pushed the
menu aside. Assistant Ranger Christine Lemin still had a lot to learn about
her job at Wildwood State Park, but she was already well acquainted with
the unhurried pace at Stacy’s Diner. From her perch at the worn counter,
she had a perfect view of the rack of breakfast orders vying for the cook’s
attention. A carryout sandwich would take forever, never mind a full
breakfast, and she had no intention of being late for work during her first
week. The coffee was good, at least, and by resolutely turning her eyes
from the grill she could feast on the view through the diner’s wide
windows. Feathery clouds tickled the whitened shoulders of the Keystone
Mountains, while at their pine-shod feet Lake Wikitaw stretched like a
dozing cat. Her park. Her domain. She still had to pinch herself to believe
it.

A sparrow flashed past her head, a fresh ticket in its beak. The flutter of
wings dislodged a wisp of her hair, but as this was the bird’s third
flyover since arriving this morning she no longer ducked. The heavyset cook
working the long grill snatched the slip of paper in midair and slotted it
in the rack without missing a beat — or picking up her feet, Christine
noticed with a squint.

“What’ll it be, Ranger?” Stacy Nilikut called over the sizzle of frying
sausages, taking notice at last. A colorful toque inspired by the woven
hats of her Nez Perce ancestors capped the chef’s round, serious face. Her
ample contours were clad in an immaculate white tunic.

Christine got ready with her excuse — and willed herself not to look at the
rack of unfilled orders — when a squirrel scrambled over the edge of the
counter. Christine yelped, sloshing her coffee.

“Good morning, Ingrid,” she sputtered, grabbing a napkin. “I love your
apron.”

Some things about the park were still taking a bit of getting used to.

The squirrel flipped her tail shyly and plunged her paws into the apron’s
frilly pink pockets. After a search, she produced a small pad and pencil.
Christine looked into the squirrel’s proud, coal-black eyes and knew she
had to order something.

“I’ll just have a donut this morning, please,” she improvised. “I hear
they’re delicious.”


For readers of fantasy and sci-fi novels, almost nothing is more fun than entering a brilliantly imagined fictional world. I’ve spent many ecstatic hours roaming the fantasy worlds of George R.R. Martin’s Westeros, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, and Lev Grossman’s Fillory. I’ve also been a frequent visitor to the science-fiction galaxies portrayed in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, Frank Herbert’s Dune series, Orson Scott Card’s Ender series, and Vernor Vinge’s novels. I could probably fill a whole zoo with all the marvelous animals I’ve encountered in these books: Martin’s dragons and dire wolves, Tolkien’s giant spiders, Grossman’s Cozy Horse, Herbert’s sandworms, Vinge’s Tines, etc. etc.

Perhaps the trickiest part of constructing a fantasy or sci-fi world is figuring out how to introduce readers to the fictional landscape at the start of the novel. There are two popular strategies for accomplishing this feat. The first strategy is to insert ordinary people from the ordinary world into the fantastical reality and describe their astounded reactions. In Lewis’s Narnia books, for example, the Pevensie children enter the magical world through a wardrobe in a spare room of a country house; in Grossman’s The Magicians, Quentin Coldwater follows a fluttering piece of paper across an abandoned lot in Brooklyn and suddenly finds himself at Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. The advantage of this strategy is that the reader naturally identifies with the ordinary interlopers.

The second strategy is to abandon the ordinary world entirely and plunge right into the fantastic. Martin, for example, drops his readers into Westeros with no preparation, but it doesn’t take long for them to find their orientation. (Going beyond the Wall is bad. Going to King’s Landing can be even worse.) Asimov’s, Herbert’s, and Vinge’s novels are all set in the far-distant future, so many thousands of years from now that humans have spread across the galaxy and there’s virtually no memory of ordinary life on Earth. You may notice, though, that in many of these books the main characters are relatively innocent souls (like Tolkien’s hobbits or Herbert’s Paul Atreides) who must travel to more dangerous regions (Mordor of Middle Earth, the desert planet of Arrakis) to battle terrible enemies (Sauron, Baron Harkonnen).

Now, with this background in mind, let’s consider the strategy employed in today’s first-page submission, which takes the reader to the aptly named Wildwood State Park. The point-of-view character, Assistant Ranger Christine Lemin, is a newcomer to the park who still has a lot to learn about her job, but this clearly isn’t her very first visit to Wildwood. This halfway approach allows her to show some surprise when she sees the park’s animals performing human tasks at Stacy’s Diner, but she doesn’t need to show any shock or horror, because she’s already become somewhat accustomed to the craziness. This strategy naturally creates a comic tone, especially when Christine tries to act nonchalant when Ingrid the squirrel takes her order.

I felt, though, that the author could’ve started the novel more dramatically by turning the introduction of the intelligent animals into a Big Moment. To demonstrate what I mean, I’m going to refer to a scene in the first episode of the second season of the TV series The Man in the High Castle, which is based on the novel by sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick (although the TV show strays pretty far from the book). The novel is about an alternate history in which Germany and Japan defeat the U.S. in World War II and partition the country afterward. The TV scene shows teenage children entering a classroom in an ordinary-looking American school. The children’s school uniforms look a bit militaristic, but not overly so. They begin their day by facing the front of the room to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, but instead of placing their hands over their hearts they stretch their arms forward in the Nazi salute. They’re pledging allegiance to Hitler. It’s a Big Moment, surprising and horrifying.

In the first-page submission, the Big Moment feels a bit diluted. The first hint of strangeness is the sparrow carrying a ticket in its mouth, but the bird is described in such a desultory way that it doesn’t have much impact. The description of Ingrid the squirrel is better; I liked the animal’s pink apron and tiny order pad. But it also felt a little too cute. It made me think of the helpful mice and birds in Disney movies, such as the ones who sewed Cinderella’s dress. (For a great parody of the garment-making rodents, check out this Saturday Night Live clip.)

I have a suggestion for improving this opening scene and turning it into a really Big Moment. Instead of Ingrid the squirrel, what if the waitress at Stacy’s Diner was a gigantic, fearsome grizzly bear? The scene could show the bear bursting out of the diner’s kitchen and Christine desperately trying to curb her fear as the grizzly lumbers across the room, knocking over all the chairs and tables in its path. Then the bear would rear up on its hind legs and reach one of its enormous paws into its pink apron and growl, “Hey, Christine, what’ll it be today?”

You see what I mean? The bigger the surprise, the better.

Any other thoughts about this submission, TKZ-ers?

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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014) and The Six (2015). Next books: The Orion Plan (coming February 2016) and The Siege (July 2016). His website: www.markalpert.com

10 thoughts on “The Basics of World-Building

  1. I don’t mind Ingrid the squirrel; it might very well be that the writer is going for cute and funny, you never know.

    My one point of confusion was at the very beginning, I thought Christine was frying the bacon then find out she’s late for work. Perhaps instead of focusing on the bacon right away, a few details about the diner and it’s atmosphere. Surely Christine’s not the only one in the diner–certainly not because of all the unfilled orders. And are the animals just working there or are they eating there too? My thoughts are a little scrambled right now–and I don’t drink coffe–but basically, start with Christine’s muted frustrations mixed with the overall atmosphere and hint at some fantastical elements. When a reader knows it’s fantasy, even a hint of unusual at the beginning is enough to go on until Ingrid shows up.

    Saying all that, I really liked this opening page. Good job.

  2. Brave writer, thanks for putting your work out there for us to take a look-see. I read your opening several times to figure out why I like it. I normally get all excited when an author starts in the midst of action, but your selection is calm. I think what grabbed me were the varied sentence structure, the ease of reading, the setting you laid out early, the descriptions, and who the main character is. And how ‘bout that?–you snuck in Christine’s name twice in the first two sentences, and I had no trouble remembering it.

    I think Mark’s advice about and suggestion for the Big Moment are apt. I would also add that the bird shocked me a little and kicked me off the page for a moment. Perhaps if there were an early hint that this world is a bit off-the-wall, then it’d be a smoother read. One example that gives an early hint is Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. In the first 19 words the protag tells us the day he turned 75 he visited his wife’s grave then enlisted in the army. After that there are descriptions and backstory before we learn of freaky aliens, android bodies, and space travel, but we know far-out things are coming because Scalzi warned us upfront that something’s different about this world.

    I would turn the page to read more, brave writer. I like your writing style.

  3. Christine’s actions don’t seem real. She’s new to a job and quite nonchalant about showing up on time all for a donut. That isn’t a good way to make the reader like her. I think the writer should forgo the cute world building for a chapter or two. Leave hints, that will increase tension as well. Right now, I wouldn’t read on.

  4. I got confused by the bird. I thought a wild bird was loose in the diner, and it stole a ticket from the lineup that the cook used. Or maybe only the counter was under shelter and the rest of the diner was on a patio. When the squirrel arrived, I wondered why animals would work in a diner that had other animals on the menu. I could use more clarity in the opening.

  5. This is a good reminder (for me, at least as a critiquer) that we read these things without any context. This story would undoubtedly have the appropriate cover and back copy so potential reader would realize they are in fantasy world. That being said, I agree with Mark that the creation of the un-real world could be stronger. I thought it sounded a tad juvenile as well. (as noted, Disney-esque). I like the idea of the character being a park ranger, which provides myriad ways to interact with fantasy fauna. But I wish the scene-setting in the diner was more vivid. Also think we could use a stronger opening paragraph. I’d almost rather have that bird dive-bomber her and THEN have her think about it and then ease into description. Plus the first graph is really heavy-looking to the eye and has some confusion issues, which others have pointed out. I think this story begins with the second graph maybe.

  6. Mark, thanks for your excellent explanation of two possible ways to enter a fantasy story world. I’m not too familiar with the sci-fi/fantasy genre so your analysis was helpful. I agree the animal aspect should be a Bigger Moment than it now is.

    While I like the concept and setting a lot, I felt very disoriented and had a hard time getting grounded. The nature descriptions were lovely and well done but at first I was confused whether the bacon was sizzling on a grill inside a café or outside on a campfire?

    Once I figured out the events were taking place inside, then a sparrow dive-bombs Christine. Again I’m confused. A bird inside a café with a ticket? What kind of ticket? Admission to the park? Parking citation? Too many questions kept distracting me so I couldn’t concentrate on the story. Clarify it’s an order slip rather than vaguely describing it as a ticket.

    Maybe cut most of Christine’s ponderings about what to order–full breakfast vs. carry-out. Also at this point in the story, save the description of the cook in the Nez Perce design toque for later. I’m far more interested in a sparrow delivering orders than what a regular human is wearing.

    Instead concentrate on the most important elements: This is Christine’s first week on a new job in a plum location for a ranger; she wants to fit in but is still startled by the unfamiliar customs, like a sparrow delivering order slips and a squirrel in a pink apron. All that is wonderful.

    What if you instead opened with Christine inhaling the bacon aroma outside the café entrance and taking in the view, pondering how lucky she is to be starting a new job in this idyllic location? Then as soon as she enters the café, the sparrow with an order ticket buzzes her. Then the sparrow delivers the ticket to the cook, and it’s a grizzly bear (per Mark’s idea). Then Christine sits at the counter and the squirrel waitress in a pink apron startles her. You can show she’s encountered these oddities previously but is still not accustomed to them. Plus it’s a stronger introduction for the reader into this strange but charming world.

    Once you clear up the confusion, I would read on b/c the setting is intriguing and fun. Best of luck, brave author.

  7. Thanks for sharing your work with us brave writer. As usual, the folks here have provided some wonderful feedback. Here are my comments:

    Title

    Havilah Where There is Gold seems like an odd title that doesn’t relate to what I’ve read so far. From what I know, Havilah is a land mentioned in the Bible (https://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionary/havilah/). I’m sure that you plan to connect this title to your story somehow.

    Tone

    Make sure the beginning of your story prepares the reader for the coming tone. If your story is going to have animals for waiters, like the penguins in Mary Poppins, it’s a good idea to ease the reader into this kind of a world. The Hobbit begins like this:

    “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit (1937).”

    Opening Line

    “Bacon sizzled, but after a rueful glance at the grill Christine pushed the
    menu aside.”

    This is an awkward opening line. Opening lines should be assertive, and lines with constructions like “but after” make that difficult. I don’t recommend that you begin your story in the place that you did, but if you do, I’d rewrite the opening line, maybe like this:

    “Assistant Ranger Christine Lemin pushed the menu aside.”

    Lots of Character Introductions on First Page

    Assistant Ranger Christine Lemin
    Stacy Nilikut
    Ingrid the Squirrel
    Unnamed Sparrow

    Since I’ve only seen the first page of the chapter, I don’t know how many other animals are introduced. Be careful not to overwhelm the reader.

    Inconsistent Pronoun Use

    For example, you use “her” in reference to the squirrel:
    “The squirrel flipped her tail shyly and plunged her paws into the apron’s
    frilly pink pockets.”

    Then you use “its” in reference to the sparrow, rather than “his” or “her”:
    “A sparrow flashed past her head, a fresh ticket in its beak.”

    Opening Paragraph

    There is some confusion. You write: “From her perch at the worn counter…”
    Is Christine a bird? If so, that would explain her sitting on a perch. However, if she is human, I’d write the sentence without the word “perch” in it.

    Also, while your first sentence contains a simple action, the rest of the paragraph is filled with too much internal monologue (character thoughts).

    There’s also some overwriting. Example:

    “Feathery clouds tickled the whitened shoulders of the Keystone
    Mountains, while at their pine-shod feet Lake Wikitaw stretched like a
    dozing cat.”

    Say it the way Christine would say it. The beginning part of that sentence sounds pretentious and out of place. I liked the “stretched like a dozing cat” part, because that sounds more the way Christine might say it.

    Second Paragraph

    The reader has no idea about what the ticket is. The reader only knows what is written on the page. It’s not up to the reader to try to make sense of a confusing story world. Be sure to be clear about everything. Confused readers don’t turn pages.

    “The flutter of wings dislodged a wisp of her hair, but as this was the bird’s third flyover since arriving this morning she no longer ducked.”

    To whom does the “she” in this sentence refer? Christine? I assume so, but be clear. The second paragraph was a little jarring since the reader doesn’t know what to make of a sparrow coming out of nowhere with a ticket. A grill is mentioned. Is the diner outdoors? Probably not since the diner’s wide windows were also mentioned. But then how do the animals get in and out of the diner? Remember that the readers can see what’s in your head. Clarify everything.

    Repeated Words

    Be careful of repeated words. For example, I noticed the word “still” was used at least three times on your first page. Use software to find repeated words if necessary.

    Overall impression

    I assume this is a book for kids. I’ve always liked stories with talking animals if they are done well. However, I think you need a stronger hook. The real action doesn’t start until the third paragraph. Even then, the action is kind of ho-hum. You don’t want to create a scene for the sole purpose of introducing the setting. Begin with a scene that has some meaningful conflict and then work in the setting and backstory details. It’s difficult to provide too much advice after reading only a page and without knowing your premise. You seem to have a good command of language, and that will serve you well as you work on your revisions. Best of luck, and keep writing. This piece made me smile.

    • “Remember that the readers can see…” should read “Remember that the readers can’t see…” — sorry about that!

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