Tuesday, June 29, 2010

World Building from a Reader's Perspective

I recently finished a perfectly adequate YA urban fantasy. The voice was fine, the plot was fine, and the characters were--you guessed it--fine. But when I turned that last page and set the book down, I didn’t make a mad dash to the computer to research the author and find out when the next one would be coming out. It just hadn’t grabbed me. And I think a lot of that had to do with a less-talked-about element of storytelling: world building.

First, a disclaimer: I know as much about world building as your average unpublished writer of all things fantasy and science fiction, so this post is not meant to be prescriptive so much as observational. These are simply a few things I’ve noticed as a reader. Feel free to disagree with me all you want (and take my observations with a truckload of salt).

All right. So I don’t want to talk about the stories that don’t work, because that’s just rude. Instead, I want to talk about those stories that do, and what better examples do we have than the two most recognizable, most successful book brands in the world? Yep, I’m talking about the Harry Potter and Twilight series (serieses? seri?).

The Simple Approach Say what you will about Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, but her world building was one of the books’ stronger points. I feel perfectly confident in admitting that the world of TWILIGHT totally sucked me in. For the few hours I read it (and it was just a few), I was completely willing to believe granite-skinned vampires lived (sort of) among us.

And why was that? Because the world of TWILIGHT was so similar to reality. Except for one tiny detail, Bella’s world could have been my own. As a reader, I didn’t have to remember a bunch of new rules or keep track of a bunch of new places. I just had to let myself be swept up by it all. Over the course of the series, a few more world-building elements trickled in (like the existence of werewolves and the Volturi, and the bloody history of vampire turf wars), but these didn’t change the real world much, either. The elegance of TWILIGHT’s world building lay in its simplicity.

The Complex Approach J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, on the other hand, lies at the opposite end of the spectrum. Think about all the new words Ms. Rowling introduced to our vocabularies (like Muggles and Quidditch and Expelliarmus, oh, my), and all the new places she took us (like Diagon Alley and Platform Nine and Three-quarters and, of course, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry). The world of HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE was just so dense, and each book thereafter only added to the density.

And therein lies the key to this more complex approach: The writer doesn’t give everything away all at once. When I first read HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE, I truly felt as if I were stepping into a world that had never existed before--and only catching those glimpses of it that were vital to my understanding of the present story. A thousand more places and a million more stories existed in that world, but Ms. Rowling whisked me right past them without bothering to explain. And that was how I knew her story world was so full and developed. Because I sensed she could have told me so much more, but, for the story’s sake, didn’t.

Note to self: Never underestimate the importance of world building. Because it can be what makes the difference between a good book and a great one.

So what are some of your favorite story worlds? And what makes them so memorable?


Christine Fonseca said...

I think you hit it right on the head - it doesn;t need to be complex to the readers - even if the world IS a complex one. Great post.

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

Great post, Krista.

Some of my favorite fantasy worlds are obviously Narnia and MiddleEarth, but I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir with those two examples. :)

Even in historical fiction it's important to build your world. I recently read Avi's Crispin, The Cross of Lead and he does a beautiful job of recreating England in the Middle Ages.

With multi-cultural fiction it's also important because your average reader won't have the worldview that your protagonist has, and the surroundings are different. That's what I struggled with the most in my very first novel, because it was set in Hong Kong. I was so surprised with some of the things my beta readers were confused by. It took extra explaining about little details at points where I didn't want to slow down the plot. Obviously, I'm not a world-buidling expert! :)


Krista Van Dolzer said...

Thanks, Christine.

Amy, you make an excellent point - historicals and multicultural fiction definitely require the same skill with world building.

Unknown said...

World building can be tricky. Recently I was a big fan of Graceling. I got sucked in by that story big time. ;)

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Karen, I thought the world of GRACELING was very well developed, too.

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