Over this year, Karina is going to share some of her writing seminars on the blog, with the lessons and references for further study. We’ll be posting these once a month. There’s no assigned homework, but if you have questions, please ask them in the comments. Her first workshop is worldbuilding. This is Worldbuilding 201, Lesson 1. Here are the links to Worldbuilding 101 Lesson 1, Lesson 2, Lesson 3, Lesson 4, Lesson 5, Lesson 6 and Lesson 7.
Lesson One: Introduce your world
No matter what your story is about, you have to start it in one of three ways: Introduce your character. Introduce your conflict. Introduce your world. No matter which you do, your world will get at least a partial introduction.
Let’s look at some examples. I am using fantasy and science fiction here only because I want to make a point about explaining a world that is massively different from ours. The temptation is to overshare up front, and that turns readers off in general.
World Introduction: The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett
The sun rose slowly, as if it wasn’t sure it was worth all the effort.
Another Disc day dawned, but very gradually, and this is why.
When light encounters a strong magical field it loses all sense of urgency. It slows right down. And on the Disc-world the magic was embarrassingly strong, which meant that the soft yellow light of dawn flowed over the sleeping landscape like the caress of a gentle lover or, as some would have it, golden syrup. It paused to fill up the valleys. It piled up against the mountain ranges. When it reached Cori Celesti, the ten mile spire of gray stone and green ice that marked the hub of the Disc and was the home of its gods, it built up in heaps until it finally crashed in a great lazy tsunami as silent as velvet, across the dark landscape beyond.
It was a sight to be seen on no other world.
Of course, no other world was carried through the starry infinity on the backs of four giant elephants, who were themselves perched on the shell of a great turtle….
If you’ve not read Terry Pratchett, I highly recommend him, especially for his worldbuilding. He makes the fantastic seem completely believable and loads of fun! I wish I could have found the book in which he begins simply with the Great Turtle, then the elephants, then the Discworld and concludes blithely that in an infinite universe anything is possible, so why not? The great thing about Pratchett is that he’s so delightful in his descriptions that he can TELL you about the world and you just want to read more. You read on because you just know the punch line is coming.
Using this kind of approach works when you need to get the reader into the world right away–whether for the comedy value or because the world is vitally important. Even then, notice that he doesn’t give you a lot of information. This isn’t a State Department Brief (http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/35910.htm) From the introduction above, Pratchett talks a little about the turtle, who is having a great time, and about the spaceship that has been launched off the world with the mission of finding out the turtle’s gender.
Person Introduction: Out of the Dark by David Weber
“Garsul, are you watching this?”
Survey Team Leader Garsul grimaced. Just what, exactly, did Hartyr think he was doing? Of all the stupid, unnecessary, infuriating–
The team leader made himself stop and draw a deep breath. He also made himself admit the truth, which was that as effortlessly infuriating as Hartyr could be anytime he tried, there was no excuse for allowing his own temper to flare this way. And it wouldn’t have been happening if he hadn’t been watching…and if both his stomachs hadn’t been hovering on the edge of acute nausea. Then there were his elevated strokain levels, not to mention the instinctual fight-or-flight reflexes (mostly flight in his species case, in point of fact) quivering down his synapses.
So how much of the world do we get in these few paragraphs? We know there are multiple species, that they are probably in space (talking through a link is a clue, as is the SF nature of the story), and that they’ve encountered something in the world that poses a fright if not a danger. Does it tell you a lot about the world? Not really. Does it tell you enough to keep you reading? It does for me–or would, if I weren’t writing this class.
Situation Introduction: “Ghosts of Kourion” by Andrew Seddon
I awoke to the thudding of my heart and the scrabbling of a mouse somewhere in the room. Pale moonbeams threaded through cracks in the warped shutters.
I’d been sleeping! Despite my best efforts to stay awake, sometime in the dark hours of the night I’d succumbed to sleep–on this night of all nights! I threw off my thin sheet, hurried to the window and flung open the shutters.
The city of Kourion slept bathed in silver moonlight, its sand and time-worn walls standing as they had for hundreds of years. A shiver of mixed excitement and fear trembled over me.
Turning away from the window, I rummaged in a pile of clothes tossed on the floor and shrugged a tunic over my shoulders. I strapped on my sandals and clattered down the stairs into my wine shop where amphorae of choice vintages surrounded me like shapeless statues. I opened the door and dashed out, leaving it swinging behind me.
From far below came the dull roar of the surf pounding the beaches. Otherwise, the pre-dawn night seemed preternaturally quiet–no wind in the trees, no dogs barking or cats fighting, not even a drunkard singing his slurred songs to the shuttered buildings.
It was the morning of July 21, A.D. 365, and it was to be Kourion’s last morning. Were there hours left or merely minutes?
Aren’t you drawn in? Do you have to be told that Kourion is an ancient Greek city on the southwestern coast of Cyprus which was destroyed by a volcano or that our main character had traveled back in time to witness its demise? We don’t need a history lesson here; we have been promised that we will experience history along with the protagonist.
What do we get from these, then? No matter what your approach, in those first few paragraphs, you want to give enough information about your world to orient the reader–but not overwhelm them–and get them interested enough that, combined with character and situation, they want to read on. Simple in theory, not always as easy in practice.