We had a very successful writers’ meeting this past Saturday and I’d like to share with you the exercise we did. The exercise was crafted to hone our ability to create fictional worlds in which to set our stories and, just as importantly, how to describe those worlds so as not to bore the reader to tears.
First, I’d like you to consider that there are two points of attacking the problem of world building: Top-Down and Bottom-Up. To put it very simply, you can build your world, decide on the geography, history, geology, cultures, religions, population, biology, technology, linguistics, etc and then write a story set in this world. Or, you can begin writing straight away and come up with the details of the world as you go.
I advocate for using both methods by turns. I largely let my mood determine which I am going to work on on any given day. Some days, I’m in a really good flow, the characters are coming alive right off the page, the plot is moving along smoothly, interesting things are happening. Some days, my writing is clunky and forced and I just don’t feel like it so, instead of abandoning my work for the day, I take care of other necessary tasks that come with producing a work of fiction. I do some research, I flesh out a character by filling out a character sheet, I seek out music that reminds me of a character or would be appropriate for a scene, or I work out some points about the setting by drawing maps, diagrams, writing lists, etc.
Here is an excellent post by Writing Questions Answered to help you determine when some world-building is in order and when you can safely proceed with putting pen to paper (or pixels to screen.)
Now, what do I mean when I talk about the Three P.O.V.’s?
I find that there are three discernible levels of detail when describing a fictional world. I call these: The Scientist, The Tourist, and The Native. There are appropriate times for each of these points of view and it’s important to use them at the right time.
In terms of description, The Scientist is concerned with the maximum amount of information. The Scientist wants to explore your world and learn every last detail from its orbital pattern around its sun, to how the tectonic plates move, to the weather patterns, to the biology of each ecological zone, to the sentient cultures present, their history, their language, their religion, their technological advancements, their magic systems (if they have any), their economy, their architecture … You get the idea.
The Scientist is the reader who wants to buy the companion guide to the Star Wars trilogy, or the works of Christopher Tolkien that further explore Middle Earth, just to glean more information about the world. You might write a bestiary for your magical world or a compendium of space ships mentioned in your interstellar adventure. There is a time and a place for Scientist-level detail, and it is not in your short story or novel. To fit description into prose, you’re going to have to go with one of the other two points of view.
The Tourist is a reader, or a character, who is wholly unfamiliar with the kind of place you are describing. Imagine a North American person with a desk job being dropped into the Amazon to explore. The Tourist doesn’t care about every last detail, just the details that are interesting or pertinent to their present circumstances. Mr. Businessman from New York probably does not care about the geological formations in the ground under his feet, but is very interested in knowing which of these colourful plants he can eat without swelling up like a balloon and bleeding out his eyeballs.
As a character, the Tourist does not necessarily need to be on vacation to explore this distant, unfamiliar land. They can be there for any reason that makes sense to the plot. The benefit of having a character in the Tourist position is that they give the reader an “in” to the story by asking the questions that the reader themselves may have about the setting in which the story takes place. I’ve also heard the Tourist described as Mr. Exposition. Be careful not to overuse this and fall into Scientist level of description or you may be guilty of “info-dumping.” Take the time to integrate the info into the flow of the story.
The Native is perhaps the most challenging P.O.V. to write from because the description has to be the most subtle of all. The Native is a reader who is familiar with this type of world, perhaps because it’s an alternate Earth, or perhaps because you’ve written a Star Trek fan-fiction. Whatever the reason, when all the characters present are Natives, they do not need to be told what kinds of plants are edible, how the technology works, how to cast commonly-known magical spells, etc. As such, it’s important to only give expository description to things that are out of the ordinary.
If pretty much everyone in the area has bronzed skin, dark eyes, and coarse, black hair, then describing someone as such is largely useless. However, you might want to tell us if she’s wearing a particularly interesting necklace, or if she’s considered exceptionally beautiful by the standards of her people. Natives of Excel Station IV probably don’t give a damn about common eating utensils, but might comment on a hand-painted ceramic plate that is particularly hard to come by in this quadrant of space.
Another example would be me saying: “I just heard that Obama, who is the president of the United States and lives in Washington in the building called the White House, pardoned two turkeys, large fowl typically raised for eating, from slaughter this Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is a holiday that originates …” Yeah, no one cares. Even though your world is fictional, you still should not be dumping information like this. It needs to come out in a more subtle fashion, especially if the scene involves only Natives talking to each other. If there’s no reason to make mention of something, don’t force it in anyway. If you’re having too much trouble fitting necessary description into your prose, you may need to insert a Tourist character to help you.
Hope you find this helpful. Thanks for stopping by, and remember to make good art!