Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Devils in the Details

I spent a good portion of the beginning of this week destroying the world in fire and, as it turns out, it's a lot harder than it sounds.

For those of you that were reading last time, I had just started fleshing out a character that had been floating around in my head for a ~really~ long time.  As I was doing that, I got a better sense of the world that character lived in.

It wasn't pretty.

He told me about radioactive wastelands, vast tracts of desert, hordes of lawless maniacs that would shoot you for a better look at your boots, areas of land choked with scrub and little else--pretty grim stuff.

As the writer of this story, it's my job to figure out what the heck happened and then bring it to you so that it becomes a place thats real enough for you to lay down and roll around in.

Since this post has two parts that I want to talk about, I'm going to split that last statement into two parts

I'll start with the latter half of that statement first.  How do I bring you there?

The best way that I can bring you into the landscape is to provide you with--you guessed it--details.  The first devil wants to dump it all on top of you, but I'll lose you if I do that.  I've got to be pretty sneaky when I'm adding the details, but if I do it right, you won't mind (or even notice) that I slipped a bunch in there.

How do I do that?

A good chunk of it is through character.  You're seeing the world through the eyes of a character.  What you get is what the character is getting filtered through that character's perceptions and prejudices.  You're getting their mood and you're learning more about the character.  The detail is doing double duty here and that's good.

I can also slip in senses other than sight to really put you in the scene.  I can swirl the wind through your ears, getting sand (or snow, or rain or smoke) in your eyes and in your mouth and nose.  That's pretty important because taste, touch and smell are pretty often forgotten in description with smell coming out slightly ahead of the other two.

What I'm trying to do is trigger a memory of a similar sight, smell, taste, touch, or sound in your head as you're reading.  If I can do that, you're there on the ground with my character and we both win.

Now lets take a look at the other "Detail-oriented" part that I want to talk about: Just what the heck happened to the world in the first place?

So, how do you ruin the world?

I won't get into the nuts and bolts of the research I did.  I want to talk about the trap I narrowly avoided stumbling into.

I tried to find an exact scenario to create the kind of world I was envisioning.  Not surprisingly, I couldn't.  Everything I read landed on one side of my world or the other.  It was frustrating and (Even worse) it made me start to wonder if I was wasting my time.  Here's why:

Even if you're writing in the most radically different environment from our own, there are still basic rules to the way things work.  If you've got an object in your hand and then let go of it suddenly, "Something" is going to happen.  Regardless of what that "Something" is, you want to be consistent in the details of what happens.

Working in a familiar environment means that I've got the rules already spelled out for me and you're already familiar with what happens, so if I want to break those rules, you're going to want some details as to why.

Well, I couldn't find a compelling reason for why I could trash the world on the scale that I wanted while not wiping out the human race at the same time.  About that time, the uncertainty came creeping in and destroying the world stopped being fun.

In the end, I shook myself like dog coming out of the rain (anyone else get a flash of that wet dog smell?) and I reminded myself that:
1. I'm writing FICTION and
2. This is world building and I don't have to have the entire history of the universe planned out to tell a story in a certain corner of it.

That's the other devil: getting so bogged down in the details that you don't actually get any writing done, or that you give up in frustration.

Either way, you don't end up with a story which is probably the worst devil of them all.

How about you?  What techniques do you use to bring your readers into the story and what are some of the alarms that go off telling you that you've gone too far down into the World-Building Well?

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