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
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
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
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?