This is a repost. I originally wrote this piece at Paper Hangover. Reblogging it here for backup and to share with you.
Some fantasy worlds seem huge while somehow appearing to still be holding tons of information back. Some of the best fictional settings give the reader a sense that the world beyond the main characters is alive. It feels as if that world could truly exist somewhere over the rainbow even if the main characters had never been born. We, the readers, just so happen to experience the world through the point of view of said main character. How do authors do this? That’s what we’re going to discuss in this installment of Writing 101: How to create a setting that’s bigger than big is.
This topic alone could fill up a book all by itself. A single blog post won’t do it justice, so we may end up revisiting this in the future. Some of these techniques also might be a little more suited to fantasy writers. Some genres simply don’t require the story’s world to feel large at all. As always, take what you need and leave the rest. Here a just a few ways to expand your world for the reader:
Novels are unique in relation to other forms of entertainment. Fiction is allowed a certain leeway to go on tangents whereas time constraints placed on movies and TV shows prevent those stories from stretching their legs. This is the advantage of the novel. Authors can take their stories off course a little and should be encouraged to do so. It makes for a meatier storytelling experience, and it’s what separates the novel from all other forms of entertainment. The key is to not go overboard. But that’s true with anything, right?
Think of your world as the Big Bang. Begin by introducing small details and then, little by little, branch out with bigger revelations as the story unfolds. To start out, pick a unique part of your setting and explain it in explicit detail. The reader will feel that since you as the author know so much about the small stuff that when you gloss over the big stuff later, they’ll simply ride along with you. They’ll understand that there’s too much to tell and will accept the illusion you’ve created.
In this case, it’s a good idea to know your world inside out so that you’ll have a detail to zoom in on in the first place. J.K.Rowling charted out everything, and not all of her ideas made it into her books. Whether you outline extensively before you write, or if you learn about your world as you go along, you must know a whole lot more about your world than you’re ever going write about. You don’t always have to know everything up front. Sometimes you discover things about your world as you write about it. For me, that’s part of the fun and I’m a strict outliner.
Each character is the main character of his or her own story. Think about how in real life everyone’s got their own thing going on. You might sincerely care about your friend’s problems. But they’re not always central to the running storyline that is your life. We all have a life of own, and depending on the scope of the story you’re trying to tell, so should each of your characters.
Awhile back on the TV show Community, the writers pulled off a really cool concept. One of the main characters had a mini adventure that took place entirely in the background of the show. A good idea to remember is that even though your story’s plot should always revolve around your main characters, your world, more often than not, shouldn’t. Allow some of your key minor characters to go on their own “off screen” adventures. It isn’t necessary to jump into their POV either (although that’s an option). Whenever they show up naturally in your story, they can tell the main characters about their adventures à la Gandalf the Grey every time he disappears and returns.
At times in Harry Potter, every character Harry met had a moment where they seemed to have something else going on that didn’t necessarily have anything to do with Harry at all. Hermione had S.P.E.W. Hagrid had Aragog, Grawp, and Norberta. Although the plot of each book revolves around Harry, the wizarding world itself could have gone on without or without Harry’s existence. Some of the characters could have even had books of their own written about them.
Every single character doesn’t need to have some wild adventure going on “off camera”, but it does need to appear to the reader that there’s a world out there doing its own thing. One small way to accomplish this is to simply show you minor character or bit player doing the very thing he’d be doing if your main character wasn’t around. Have your MC show up and interrupt the minor character from their daily routine.
Caution: Your main characters always come first. Never give an off screen adventure to a minor/background character at the expense of the main plot. Don’t let your minor characters take over the story. Don’t make their adventures so much cooler than your main characters’ that your reader starts to wonder why you didn’t write that story instead. Or maybe you should write that story instead.
Give your characters the freedom to chew on the scenery. Have them allude to significant moments in the history of your world. Let their conversations go off on tangents to show their personality, what they care about most, their likes and dislikes. This could go against the grain of the rhetoric “tension on every page”, but all of our favorite authors do this successfully. Done right it isn’t even noticeable in a negative way. Your favorite author reels you in with juicy conflict, teases you with tension, and entices you with sympathetic or interesting characters. By the time they serve you that low-tensioned tangent scene in Chapter 10, you had already been salivating for more information about the characters and the world, and you eat it all up when it finally lands on your plate.
Allowing your characters to talk briefly about things that have nothing to do with the main plot is one way the reader can learn more about the characters and their world at the same time. Keyword here is briefly. I want to caution you to be extra careful with the tangents. Not to discourage any writer out there, but not all of us can pull a tangent off. Not all readers even enjoy them. In some instances this very technique can be a detriment to the telling of your story. There are many scenes in fantasy novels that go on and on and nothing (in terms of conflict/tension) ever happens. Many readers do enjoy that aspect of books, but keep in mind that just as many readers don’t like it very much. Know your audience.
Caution: Keep tangents brief. Get back to the main plot as soon as possible. At all times try to make your tangents relevant to the characters (in how they feel or view the world, etc.) or the setting (how it changed or is changing etc.). Tangents should come off natural and shouldn’t feel out of place storywise. If your tangent is just something you think is cool or funny and really has no purpose other than that, be honest and murder your darlings, please. Never include extraneous information without intending to for a story specific purpose. If it’s your goal to input a slice of worldbuilding life in a particular scene, by all means do it. Only as long as you know the purpose you’re providing it for the reader. Make sure you know your intentions with that scene. All readers may not appreciate the tangent, but at least it won’t be in your story by mistake. Haters gonna hate.
None of these methods should ever take over your main plot. Sprinkle them throughout your story in little doses. It’s all about creating the illusion that there’s more to tell. Zoom in on a specific detail while leaving large chunks of information out of the story on purpose. Hint at things going on in the background, but don’t give the full story or maybe not even a resolution. Interrupt those tangents with the main plot just when the tangent was getting interesting. When reader’s only get bits and pieces, we naturally grow curious about what isn’t said or hasn’t been explored.
I really feel that we’re not giving children enough credit for distinguishing what’s right and what’s wrong. I, for one, devoured fairy tales as a little girl. I certainly didn’t believe that kissing frogs would lead me to a prince, or that eating a mysterious apple would poison me, or that with the magical ‘Bibbity-Bobbity-Boo’ I would get a beautiful dress and a pumpkin carriage.
J.K. Rowling (via libraryland)