Over the past two weeks, we've talked about the basics of world building, how it's not just for sci-fi/fantasy writers, how to freshen up tropes, and having the right mindset to conquer the doubt demons and build a whole new story world.
Now let's talk details. Using specific, evocative detail in your world building is the best way to draw readers into your story, to ensure that what you're writing is not derivative of other creative works, and to create memorable and universal characters.
Let's start with an example!
I cannot tell a lie, I'm more than a little bit obsesssed with The Locked Tomb trilogy by Tamsyn Muir. Queer necromancers in space, oh my! Book three just came out and I haven't finished it yet, so we'll stick with Gideon here to avoid spoilers.
Muir is a master of wickedly sarcastic voice and mind-bending storytelling. But the thing that fascinates me the most is the mashup blending of the ritual and rebirth aspect of Catholicism with some of the tropes surrounding the knight/cavalier as a romantic hero, all with a dash of necromancy and horror-inspired bone magic.
She didn't run. Gideon never ran unless she had to. In the absolute darkness before dawn she brushed her teeth without concern and splashed her face with water, even went so far as to sweep the dust off the floor of her cell. She shook out her big black church robe and hung it from the hook."
There's a lot of world building packed into this opening and even though the reader doesn't know what it all means yet, it still paints a picture of the world. Specific details like Myriadic Year of Our Lord, the King Undying, and the Prince of Death, the sword, the church robe, and the dust on the floor of her cell, when coupled with the idea of the ten thousandth year, give us clear clues that we're not in a contemporary story, while also beginning to evoke that mashup of religious imagery and dark gothic tale.
But there's a playfulness here as well with the introduction of Gideon's dirty magazines, which are used to great comedic effect throughout the first book. Beyond showing us Gideon's irreverant nature, Muir is also cluing us in that despite the swords and the religious iconography, this is no courtly romance, it is more than an Arthurian legend set in space. That's a lot of ground for three sentences to cover.
Avoiding the dreaded info-dump...
If you're currently looking at your opening lines and wishing they were a bit more like Tamsyn Muir's, you're not alone. Most of the early drafts I see (and, let's be honest, many that I myself write!), whether sci-fi, contemporary, fantasy, or thriller, begin with an info-dump of some sort. We'll talk another day about why this is not only expected, but totally OK for an early draft. But the tl;dr is that you should be focused on turning off the inner editor rather than trying to remember every craft rule you've ever learned when you're drafting.
Maybe that info-dump describes the main character's backstory. Or their physical description. Or some orientation to the world, the magic system, or the power dynamics that on the surface seems absolutely necessary for the reader to know right up front.
But look again at the opening lines of Gideon and what is NOT on the page. We don't know we're on another planet or that a space shuttle is required for her to leave the House of the Ninth. We don't know where she's going, though her story goal--escape--comes through loud and clear. We haven't seen much in the way of magic system or necromancy, though we have a juicy oxymoron in "kindly Prince of Death!" that also denotes a religious fervor important to the world. We don't know how this King is going to impact the story or what his relationship is to Gideon (boy, that makes for an exciting reveal in Book 2).
The reader doesn't know any of this on page one. But you can bet Tamsyn Muir did when she crafted these opening lines. That's why good world building comes down to planning. Not just so you have the big picture in your head, but so that, when you sit down to write, you know where and when to sprinkle in those specific details that are going to grab the reader, make them curious about your world, and tell a story that is uniquely your own.
Write on, my friends!
PS - I don't write only about story, sometimes I write about life as a regular old human. Or, in the case of last week's blog post over on bookcoaches.com, about lessons I've learned as a working mom. Check it out.