Shorts, Underpants and Teases

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How’s that for a provocative title? See, Mom, I’m good at titles, I really am! I don’t just steal song and album titles and slap them on random stories. 

Okay, I do, but that’s for another post. 

I look everywhere for inspiration for my posts here at MW, and one of the first places I turn is my site-mates. They’re also where I turn for inspiration in my books, and just for a little pick-me-up now and then, but that’s beside the point. This week David wrote an awesome post on world-building, and I’m totally going to use that as a jumping-off point to talk a little more about short fiction and touch briefly on world-building and why I steal the real world instead of creating one out of whole cloth. 

Let’s start with underpants. I know, it seems like a non sequitor, but if you’ve ever had a conversation with me, you know that sometimes things swoop in out of left field and smack me in the brain and while they seem unrelated, a few sentences later it all makes sense. That’s what we’re hoping for here. 

World-building is like your underwear – important, and nine times out of ten you don’t want to let it show. Sometimes there’s a really awesome bit of superstructure that you just want to share with the world, and that’s fine, but most of the time we want to know that there’s a good underpinning for what we’re seeing on the outside, but the things underneath should remain underneath. One of the best ways to reveal a lacy hint of world-building is through dialogue. And of course you have to be careful of “As you know, Bob”s, but just dropping hints about the political situation in a realm in conversation can establish a whole political structure without breaking off into paragraphs of narration telling us that it’s a thousand-year-old monarchy with an inbred figurehead taxing the country into ruins. 

Character action is another great way to handle hiding your world-building. Or perhaps more accurately, character re-action. This is something David does well in Thieftaker. When Ethan uses magic, it’s a big deal, and he has to deal with people’s reactions. This tells us a lot about the world and their approach to magic without blatantly telling us. Again, David isn’t showing us his underpants. I for one am grateful. Just sayin’. Love ya, buddy. :) 

Yeah, I’m gonna pay for that one at ConCarolinas. 

Anyway, that’s just a couple of tips on hiding your world-building, but why should you bother? Well, honestly, it’s friggin’ boring and nobody cares about better than half of the stuff that you spent hours obsessing over. Nobody gives a flying rat’s butt about Bubba the Monster Hunter’s Grandfather’s birthday, and whether or not he served in either World Wars (he did, WWII). I need to know that stuff, and it’s important for me to keep in mind as I’m writing that not everyone else needs to know everything I do about my characters and their world. 

Some writers get so wrapped up in their world-building that they forget to move the story along, and in today’s market, that’s death. World-building is important, don’t get me wrong. It’s critical to getting a full, rich experience for your readers, but if you have to sacrifice a chapter on politics or a fight scene, you’d better believe I’m the guy cutting the chapter on politics. Of course, I also cut all the Fortinbras stuff when I direct Hamlet. Let’s see if that gets a rise out of our Shakespeare experts. :). 

That’s enough single entendres for one morning. Y’all think about world-building, and give me some other great examples of people that hide it well, and maybe a few kindly humorous examples of people who show their underpants a little too often. But don’t be mean, that ain’t what we’re about. :) 

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10 comments to Shorts, Underpants and Teases

  • Well, I know I couldn’t get through book 1 of Kevin Anderson’s Saga of Seven Suns. It was dry. It went too far into the politics and machinations and setting to grip me. I would read chapters and chapters of, well more like worlds, building and set up and then one tiny bit that would make me think things were finally happening, then more chapters and chapters of the same. I managed to choke down maybe less than 2/3 of the book, but just couldn’t continue. I’m not sure if it was underpants showing, but I do know it dragged for me, like a Depends too full.

  • But others have loved it, which was part of the reason I tried it. And I loved Frank Herbert’s Dune (but not so much the second book), so I figured I’d dig it. Probably didn’t help that it was touted as space opera and I guess my tastes for space opera just don’t extend to reading huge chunks of text on setup and such unless there’s a lot more to keep my interest.

  • “I’m gonna pay for that one at ConCarolinas.” Yeah, you are . . .

    I actually don’t entirely buy the “worldbuilding as underwear” analogy, because I think that some worldbuilding should be visible. As you say, it adds texture and richness to a story. It makes the difference between a backdrop and a fully realized setting. To me worldbuilding is more like accessorizing: too much bling and you just look dumb. But touches here and there make the entire outfit come alive. My $.02.

  • MY current WIP is requiring more world-building than I’ve ever before attempted. As a result, it keeps wanting to turn into a frakkin’ travelogue than the adventure it is supposed to be.

    A major part of the reason for this is the point-of-view character is outside the culture he has been thrown into – so in addition to avoiding the trap of modeling my aliens on Medieval Europeans or Japanese or Norse or some other Earthian civilization, I have to resist his analyzing each Nifty New Thing and sounding like a Fodor’s publication.

    As David said, it’s a delicate balance of just how much to show and how much to keep hidden. How to decide what to include is the question, and there is no easy answer.

  • Cotton.
    No. Wait.
    World-building. Right. Don’t show that either. Much.

  • So true. I was in a writer’s group where one of the members (an experienced writer who was a major controlling force in the group) handed in a 25 page first chapter in which the protagonist woke up, dressed, and then wandered his village greeting people and having “as you know, Bob” conversations to establish things like the lunar cycle and the name and historical origins of the festival they were about to celebrate and who was related to who even though 90% of these characters would never be seen again because the actual quest in the story required the MC to leave town with one friend. Twenty-five pages!! And this was draft 10 of the novel. When I gently suggested that she cut it down to get to the action faster, she gave me a lecture on how I’d never get published if I didn’t do good world building and suggested I buy her book on plot structure.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Actually, I’ve been thinking a little bit about the trap of falling in to too much world-building description and other explanations when one first starts out writing. I think that what sometimes happens is that, as beginners learning to write, we might start out experimenting and (consciously or unconsciously) copying other writing styles floating around in our memories. But the *writing* we remember is writing that drew attention to itself, writing that *wasn’t* subsumed into the story. And so it might seem natural to start off *writing* cool world-building descriptions and character reflections because we haven’t got the comparison experience yet between the act of *writing* versus how a *reader* experiences the result. We haven’t had the chance yet to try practicing invisible writing.

    This is also a hard topic for me, because it is the *worlds* that really pull at me to want to write, but really it’s the characters that are required to realize those worlds for a reader. This also reminds me of a Patrick Rothfuss Storyboard recently about storytelling in video games. The discussion focused a *lot* on realistic game mechanics and world-building details, but in my opinion, a game’s story really comes alive when at least a strong handful of NPC *characters* have been richly developed.

  • I‘m reading a book right now that has so much world-building and character backstory, by page 137 the main character has only had three scenes in which he actually did anything. But boy oh boy do I know every little thing about every single person who makes any sort of appearance in the story. It’s a bit exhausting.

  • I love well built worlds, but I only want to see them through the eyes of the characters who live in them. I don’t know how a telephone works, and I’m not about to explain to another phone user how they work; I’m just going to make my calls. I expect the same casual acceptance of the common technologies of any world I read or write in. If the cavalry rides forth on mechanical horses, the soldiers only have to know how to ride them; they don’t have to know how the gears inside allow the horse to gallop!

  • I agree with what Lyn said–I don’t want to know the inner workings of everything in the bookworld. If knowing the details about a specific aspect of the world is necessary to drive the plot and/or character development, okay. Otherwise, too much detail about the inner workings actually pulls me out of the story because I wouldn’t need to have all of that explained to me if I actually lived in the world.