Benjamin Tate – Ripples on Water

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Today please welcome our special guest Benjamin Tate, author of the exciting new fantasy, Well of Sorrows. Benjamin, a college professor in Endicott NY, began writing seriously in graduate school, using the fantasy world of “Well of Sorrows” as an escape from the stress. “Well” is his first novel, to be followed by two more. Let’s hear it for Benjamin!

Ripples on Water

First of all, thanks to the wonderful authors here at Magical Words for giving me the opportunity to blog here. I really appreciate the opportunity!

My name is Benjamin Tate and I have a new book out from DAW called WELL OF SORROWS. You may also know of me through my “Throne of Amenkor” series written under the name Joshua Palmatier. If you don’t . . . well, go check them out! *grin* I also have a short story called “Mastihooba” in the anthology CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE URBAN KIND, with a few additional short stories coming out in various places over the next year or so.

In thinking about what I could talk about, I realized that that’s what I should start with: Where to start. I have two series out there, both set in the same world but on completely different continents with completely different characters and societies . . . which meant that for each series I had to introduce the reader to a brand new world different from our own. This is one of the main challenges of anyone who writes fantasy fiction or science fiction. The worldbuilding is a challenge in and of itself, which I won’t go into here, but once the world is built, how do you get it across to the reader so that it makes sense and, most importantly, DOESN’T OVERWHELM THEM?

That’s what I want to focus on here: How to introduce the reader without overwhelming them. When I critique new or beginning writers in the fantasy genre, this is typically the main problem I see in their work. They have this great new world that’s full of cool ideas that they love and they want the reader to love it all as well . . . and so they dump all of it, all at once, onto the page right away. What happens is that the reader gets lost in all the new names, terminology, culture, races, and world, and then the exact opposite reaction occurs. The reader gives up reading. It’s too much to take in too fast. And the writer can’t see this easily because the writer has been living in this world and has developed it slowly enough that it isn’t overwhelming.

There is no one way to resolve this problem in a novel, but I would like to mention one of the “tricks” of the trade. It’s not a stunning trick. In fact, it’s rather simple: start simple and reveal the world slowly.

What this means is, start the book with your main character in some situation easy for the reader to slip into that doesn’t require a lot of knowledge of the world itself. It usually needs to be something familiar to the reader—stealing food off of a cart; escaping a gang of hooligans; anticipating meeting a lover at a masquerade ball; etc—something the reader can visualize without the need for a ton of description or new lingo. By the time you’ve resolved that situation, the reader has settled themselves into the world through the characters.

After this, you want to start revealing each little piece of the world—what makes your world different and unique—in stages. That first scene leads to a second, and there you introduce the idea that theft in this city is punishable by the cutting off the right hand, or that the band of hooligans is actually a group of students at the local magic college, or that the masquerade ball is where the most powerful merchants of the city come to find suitable matches for their heirs. All of those facts are additional information that shouldn’t necessarily be thrown at the reader in the very first scene. But revealed slowly, they give the world more depth. In the next scene, you expand outwards from these a little further. Perhaps now the thief reports back to a mentor who rules the underground street gangs, or the beaten student has to attend a magical class with the group of hooligans, or the young lover is approached by a merchant with a proposition regarding trade for a potential marriage arrangement. Etc, etc, etc. At each step, the world surrounding the main character is being expanded, but at a rate that the reader can handle and absorb. As the saying goes, slow and steady wins the race.

I’ve heard this technique referred to as akin to the ripples on a pool or water. The action starts in a small farm village with the main character getting into trouble because he or she doesn’t fit in; the stone dropped into the water. Something occurs and the main character is forced to flee or to travel to the nearest town, expanding the worldview from the village to the local town; the ripple has spread from the point where the stone was dropped. From there, the character travels to the main city, then the next province, then across the kingdom; each stage is another ripple on the water, spreading outwards and revealing a larger and larger, and more complicated, world.

In my novel WELL OF SORROWS, I introduced the reader to the world by having my main character being beaten up by a group of thugs in a small port town. After the beating, Colin limps home, exposing the reader to the fact that the town is brand new, a settlement on the coast of a new, unexplored continent. The beating also introduces the idea that the refugees from the main continent aren’t welcome here. From there, we see how the refugees are surviving, and the tension between the refugees and the original settlers grows. The obvious solution is to have the refugees begin exploring the new continent. As they do, we see more and more of the world, the introduction of that world to the reader unfolding as the group of refugees travel. Ripples on water. It was a natural technique to use for the progression of the plot of this novel. However, looking back to that first “Throne of Amenkor” novel, THE SKEWED THRONE, I used the same technique there, even though the main character remains in the same city the entire time.

I simply revealed the city one layer at a time through her actions. *grin*

The main goal, of course, is to let the reader settle into the world and live in it without the world itself becoming overwhelming. Make the world familiar enough and expose the differences from our world in slow and steady stages, and the reader won’t even notice that they’ve snuggled deeper into their chair and are turning the pages that much faster. And that’s exactly the reaction you want.

Thanks again to Magical Words for the chance to blog here! If you’d like to find out more about my books, visit either www.benjamintate.com or www.joshuapalmatier.com.

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13 comments to Benjamin Tate – Ripples on Water

  • Hi Benjamin. I’ve often heard the advice to reveal worldbuilding slowly, but the way you described it helped me visualize it better. Thanks!

  • I like that analogy, Benjamin. The ripple idea makes sense, because that’s probably how it’s happening for the character, too. Bringing up information as it’s relevant lets us experience things through the character’s eyes. And it helps to avoid the dreaded “As you know, Bob”, too. Welcome to MW!

  • @ekcarmel: I’m glad the visual worked! Sometimes being a teacher is helpful. *grin*

    @Moira Young: Thanks for the welcome! Yeah, my general approach is to only tell the reader what the character knows as they encounter it during the course of the book.

  • Welcome Ben. Great advice. I’m curious about the shift in identity (Joshua to Ben) despite the fact that you’re working in the same world and with the same publisher. Your website even calls Well of Sorrows your first novel. Is there a story you can share there? I wouldn’t ask but you are uprfront about your dual identity here and, as someone who writes in multiple genres for different publishers using the same name, I’m curious about what motivated your decision [if it was yours] and whether it’s working for you. If it’s a tricky subject, ignore the question 🙂

  • Welcome to MW! This is a great job done in explaining what seems to be difficult for many budding writers. Slow down. Trickle the info out instead of infodumping. Not only is it overwhelming to the reader (something I never really considered before) but it tends to make for some boring writing. Thanks again.

  • Hi Ben. Lovely post and very timely for me. While I’m not starting a new world with my next novel, your techinque will work well with existing series, too. Allowing readers to get to know an old world should work in teh same way. Especially as I’m taking an existing character to a new place. I like!
    Thanks for being here with us today!

  • Welcome to MW, Ben, and congrats on the novel. May it be immensely successful.

    I enjoyed your post very much. I hate to admit it, but I recently learned tat lesson for myself the old-fashioned way, also known as ‘the hard way.’ I started a YA fantasy a whle back and kept finding myself in info dump mode. It took me four or five drafts to finally get out of that and into narrative mode. It wasn’t ttally watsed effort though; I do now have a much clearer understanding of the world and characters than I did before those false starts.

  • @A J Hartley: Ah, the identity shift. *grin* Well, short story is that the marketing department thought it might be a good way to bring in new readers. It was supposed to be a secret until the book hit the shelf, and then I could announce it was really me to the world. People who read my blog regularly knew it was me, because I spent a good year and half blogging about writing WELL OF SORROWS as Joshua Palmatier. I think the idea was that the new name might attract new readers (who might ignore it if they knew it was JP) and all of the fans of Joshua Palmatier would know to pick it up because I told them all it was me. I’m not sure how well that plan worked. But in the end, the publisher suggested it, so I went with it.

    @Stuart Jaffe: Yeah, infodumping is boring for the reader . . . and usually the writer as well. *grin* Glad the post was interesting!

    @Faith Hunter: Timely posts are timely. *grin* Glad to be here!

    @Edmund Schubert: I pretty much learned all of these sage lessons the hard way as well. Good news is that “the hard way” method usually makes the lessons stick. Bad news is that it’s hard.

  • Hi Ben! Thanks for this post. I have a new world/new story/new character putting pressure on my head, and this is a great way of thinking about how to get started putting it down on paper. Perfect timing!

  • Nice to know I got that right!

    Every book I’ve started to read and lost interest in had one of two things that caused me to put it down; one was too wordy, the author speaking just to hear the sound of her/his own voice, (I call it the ‘disappeaing up your own bum’ principle,) and the other was info dump. I don’t want to be hit with everything at once and when I realised that was the very thing I was doing with my onw early drafts(the info-dump, not the other:))I quickly learned the gentle art of rippling my information.
    Thanks Benjamin for a great post

  • Hey, BenJosh.
    Nice to see you at another familiar venue. As somebody who has read your books, I can say the ripple technic is something that you do well in practice.

    Thanks for dropping in and explaining this great piece of advice.
    Now, off to get some writing done. BIC.
    DJF

  • @Megan Haskell: Glad the post was so timely! Good luck with the writing!

    @widdershins: Glad you enjoyed the post. And those are two very good reasons to put a book down, I think. Hopefully I never fall into those traps myself.

    @NewGuyDave: Gah! Will I never be able to escape you! *grin*

  • Jonathan

    Thank you much for this. As a padewan writer I’m constantly looking for how to do it the right way … and this “feels” right.