Organic World Building, Or Avoiding The Stereotypical Speculative Fiction Wormhole
by Merrie Destefano
With twenty years’ experience in publishing, Merrie Destefano left a 9-to-5 desk job as the editor of Victorian Homes magazine to become a full-time novelist with HarperCollins. Her first novel, Afterlife: The Resurrection Chronicles, is available now and her second novel, Feast: Harvest of Dreams, releases on June, 28, 2011. She loves to camp in the mountains, walk on the beach, watch old movies and listen to alternative music—although rarely all at the same time. Born in the Midwest, she now lives in Southern California with her husband, their two German shepherds and a Siamese cat.
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To get this party started, I’m going to give away a signed copy of my novel, Afterlife: The Resurrection Chronicles, to one of the people who posts a comment below. [Drawing to be held and winner announced, a week from today.]
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Everything seems to be going organic lately—from produce in the grocery store to fabrics in your clothing to ingredients in your soap. Even books, which seemed pretty organic to me to begin with since they were made from paper, are now available in a more earth-friendly version—electronic. Personally, as a health nut and a person with multiple allergies, I like this organic revolution and I hope it’s here to stay.
But what about your writing?
What if you took this whole organic process a step further and applied it to your writing, especially as it relates to world building? Most of the readers of this blog either read or write science fiction and fantasy, so to us, world building is crucial to creating a believable story, right? When we buy a book, we expect the world to have a natural, realistic, believable structure or we don’t want to read it. And that’s the last thing we, as writers, want—for someone to put down our book because one element didn’t ring true.
So, below is a list of some of the organic, world-building rules that this writer tries to live by:
1. Set up your world so that it can have a natural evolution. For instance, try changing just one thing within our existing world—like P.D. James did in The Children of Men, where suddenly, no one could have children—then see how, over time, that one change could affect everything else in the world.
2. These changes could be subtle or they could be drastic. But spend time considering how this one change could effect our culture, from politics to religion to social mores. In my book, Afterlife, I created a technology where we could resurrect instead of die and this had a trickle-down effect on nearly everything, including major world religions. I didn’t realize it until I started working on the book, but death is a very significant part of our lives.
3. Reveal these changes to the reader. But do it carefully, gently, clue by clue, throughout your story. Reveal the world in bits and pieces, a little snippet here and there. Make it a mystery and remove the veil, one layer at a time. This way the reader is never overwhelmed or pulled out of the story. Remember, story is king. All the pretty writing and deep, tortured characters in the world cannot replace story.
4. Please note that your characters should not be surprised by this different world. They won’t be amazed by flying cats or talking squirrels. With the exception of a visitor from another time or world, your characters will have lived in this world for their entire lives. If anything, they will be jaded, weary, frustrated and irritated by it—not surprised. Just like we get irritable when we’re stuck in traffic, they might get irritable if they have to wait two weeks for a skin graft that would allow them to grow a third arm.
5. Your metaphors and similes must be in keeping with your new and different world. For instance, you can’t use a phrase like, “The days flew past, like pages turning in a great book,” if your story takes place in a culture where everything is written on scrolls. Likewise, if your main character is a dog who lives on Venus, he isn’t going to think about Astro on the Jetsons.
6. When built correctly, your world should have a domino effect. One thing will cause another thing to happen and so on. Keep the big picture in mind at all times. Even though you may be writing a story that feels like a microcosm—because it involves only a few characters and takes place over a few days in time—remember that there is always a macrocosm lurking behind it. Both pictures, big and small, need to be believable and they need to work together. For instance, you can’t have an apocalyptic world where zombies have taken over, without addressing how humans are still getting their food supply. If zombies are everywhere, we wouldn’t still have items like bread, because grain requires large open fields and these fields would be nearly impossible to guard and/or harvest.
So, there you have it. My six, handy-dandy, world building tips. What about you? What writing rules do you try to live by when world building? And how do you avoid that stereotypical speculative fiction wormhole: the information dump?
And to Becky and the rest of the Speculative Fiction staff, thank you so much for inviting me here today!