Sunday, April 13, 2014

Building the “Building” Where Your Characters Live

Writers often associate worldbuilding with science fiction, and bildungsroman with coming of age. But isn’t every novel world at least partially imaginary—composed of details about the environment that the author must somehow communicate? And doesn’t every protagonist with an arc advance from inadequacy to greater strength?

The building you have to build reveals what your protagonist faces and why. And if you want readers beyond your loved ones, exploring that building must be fun.

Tip: Secrets are the most fun when one discovers them one snippet at a time.

The secret to successful worldbuilding and backstory? Hint just enough to incite curiosity. Was it murder? Now hold back. Is the protagonist a coward? What must the protagonist unlearn to make it in the metropolis? Will the last human perish?

It’s all in the timing. At a writer’s conference, grinning merrily, Don Maass stunned his audience by saying, “Once you’re seventy percent of the way through your novel, go ahead and have all the backstory you want.”

He’s right, of course. Then how do you build the building until then? By taking a stroll in your reader’s shoes. Aside from the plot, what do you absolutely need to know?

If you’re thinking like a reader, that’s quite a question. Don’t shrug it off. Probe. Deeply and honestly. Want some additional tricks for suggesting and keeping secrets?

~ List at least ten things you intend to hide.
Plan where to insert them, insinuating early, then failing to dish the dirt till the last possible moment. This focuses a first draft or adds tension to a later one.

~ Compose an elaborate backstory.
Writing it out can restrain the impulse to dump all of it into your novel. Drizzle small details, always integrating the past with current conflict. Tease.

~ Explain the whole world.
Add everything. In the first few chapters. All at once. Now? Slash and burn. If you omit everything you possibly can, you might have just exactly enough.

Eventually readers should see the entire building—because you built it one secret, one brick, one shadow of a brick at a time. Getting to know this building? Really, really fun.

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