For Part One go here.
We’re back for Part 2! In case you missed our first part, this is a Worldbuilding Roundtable Discussion with Kait Feldmann at Arthur A. Levine Books, Stephanie Stein at HarperCollins Children’s Books, Saba Sulaiman at Talcott Notch Literary Services, and Jim McCarthy at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret as part of #DVpit’s Blog Hop.
During this part we’ll be talking Rules, Structure, and Detail. Let’s get started with question #2 (& question #3 is further below):
In her much cited “Five Foundations of Worldbuilding” post, author Malinda Lo emphasizes the importance of establishing logical rules for how science or magic works in your world. What do you think of the importance of having governing rules and what advice do you have for writers for structuring their novels in terms of worldbuilding?
As a super distracted and disorganized person, I feel my credibility in saying this is a bit strained, but structure is so important! Even in chaos and abstraction I feel there should be some form of logic or methodology behind it, otherwise you might lose your reader. Picture books are especially tricky because you’re trying to do a lot in a very little amount of space, but there’s also an exciting amount of freedom with which to play. And there’s an element of worldbuilding to consider in picture books that doesn’t apply to text-only stories—that is, establishing rules to how the art is read.
One of my all-time favorite picture books is Suzy Lee’s SHADOW. This is a very simple story about a girl who is playing a game of make-believe. But what makes it magic is how Suzy casts the real world against the world of the girl’s imagination. The book is read horizontally, with pages flipping up. On the page above the gutter we start with the girl in her garage; the shadows of this scene are cast underneath the gutter. In an opening scene, on the top page, the girl links her thumbs together and spreads her fingers, and on the bottom page it forms a shadow-puppet bird. On the next spread, the girl flings her arm up, and the shadow of the bird takes flight. It has become “real.” With each page-turn, another shadow takes the shape of the what the girl pretends to see, and slowly their real-life counterparts fade from the garage, until we are completely immersed in the world of the girl’s imagination.
It may look simple, but the logic is brilliant. Suzy establishes a formula for reading these images and that is our gateway into the story—obviously if we were to start in the middle of the book we might not recognize that we’re in the world of the girl’s mind. But by guiding us slowly from the familiar to the make-believe, Suzy successfully visualizes the world of play on the page. What I love about this is that Suzy uses the physical book itself as a storytelling tool—first she establishes the gutter as a hard line between worlds, and once we understand its purpose, she subverts it and plays with how the real world and make-believe world can interact, crossing over and blending until they are one and the same.
This is another very specific example of worldbuilding, but I think a takeaway is to guide your reader. Don’t try to overturn a world before you’ve established how it works.
I loooooove Malinda’s post on worldbuilding, which she breaks down into Rules, Rituals, Power, Place, and Food. I won’t explain each one—go check the post out for yourself! But one thing I take away from it, filtered through the submissions I see, is that a lot of authors think of world-building very specifically in terms of Place. They know where they’re writing about—they could draw you a map and explain the visuals of the whole world, but when you start to look a little closer or push them to get a little deeper, they tend to be less assured. There’s a reason Lo puts Rules first—they govern the logic of your entire universe and allow the reader to familiarize themselves with how this world works. When urban fantasy was the peak of trendiness, I remember seeing a lot of submissions where characters in our recognizable world would be turned into vampires and just kind of roll with it. And I was always thinking, “Why aren’t they terrified? Why do they believe this makes sense? Where is their confusion?” One of the best ways to explore the rules of a world is to dig deep on how your characters are reacting to developments. If on page 1, a robot has a conversation with an elf, and they carry on about their day, we can accept that this is a world with robots and elves, and that’s simply the fact of the world. But you have to keep in mind that everything you commit to paper must agree with what you put before it. And that goes to Kait’s point about structure. You need to understand the totality of the world you’re creating in order to develop it page by page. That’s where Malinda’s delightful and fascinating point about food comes in. How we eat is so culturally specific, and what I take away from her point here is that it’s important not just to build a world that makes sense, but to fill it with the details of everyday life so that what you create feels as rich and realistic and multi-pronged as the real world is.
Yes! I love all of these examples. One thing I want to highlight, from what Kait and Jim have said, is this idea of gradual development and consistency. To me that’s the major thing you’re trying to achieve by laying out the rules of your world ahead of time. You can have a meticulously detailed system of magic with twelve different schools that all interact in different and complicated ways, or you can have a world where sometimes things happen that no one can explain, and the magic is more mysterious, or you can land in a spot somewhere in between. There’s this temptation when we think of worldbuilding rules to lean toward the logical and regimented side of that spectrum. But really, any point on it is fine, as long as the world is internally consistent, and the characters react to it in a way that makes sense and makes me want to believe. Yes—readers are basically Fox Mulder. They don’t want to poke holes in your world; they want to get lost in it. Look at Harry Potter. I think at this point we all have thousands of niggling questions about that world and aren’t sure it all quite adds up to 100%, but the characters all behaved as if it did, and for the duration of the story that was all we needed to get swept away.
So as far as actually creating a set of rules, my recommendation is to take a step back and consider what broad characteristics would best suit your story. Look at scale: do you want a world where there are a lot of minutiae for your characters to navigate, and surprises and twists and action come from your characters learning how to manipulate the rules and work within that system in creative ways? Or do want a world with one big, simple idea that looms over the story, and never gets that complicated but has surprising ramifications? Think about what kind of mood you want to evoke; I often look at this as the Star Trek vs. Star Wars question. Is this a cerebral kind of story where you need to keep track of your resources and you’ll be dealing with thorny ethical dilemmas, or is this a more sweeping and fast-paced adventure story where you can get away with some (literal) hand-waving? Consider how logical you want to be, and have fun answering the questions that arise as you decide.
Excellent, excellent thoughts all round — this is so much fun, and the craft nerd in me is beaming, guys!!
I wholeheartedly agree with everyone, and I think Jim really hit the nail on the head when he highlighted the importance of the minor details that reflect the everyday lives of the characters in order to create rich and fully-realized worlds. These are the details that really set characters apart from other ones I may have read about in similar situations — they endear me to them, which contributes to my ability to root for them to achieve their goals. I also really liked Stephanie’s point about internal consistency, and I’d like to take that one step further and talk about the importance of keeping the language consistent with the mood and tone of the world you’re writing about. More often that not, I’m reading a submission where everything’s working, except someone suddenly uses a word or turn of phrase that jolts me out of the narrative, and makes me question whether the author really paid attention to the words they’re using to describe certain things, or to give characters a certain edge in dialogue. Another extreme, of course, is when authors think that using purple prose is a requirement for writing Fantasy (and here’s a great post on identifying and rectifying it: http://www.nownovel.com/blog/purple-prose-how-to-recognize-it-and-tame-it/). So my advice is this: build lush worlds, but don’t feel the need to unnecessarily inflate your prose to give your world a sense of historicity or “otherworldliness”. And it’s fine if your characters have a particular way of speaking, or even a special language sets them apart from how we speak, but try to make sure the dialogue remains organic and consistent with the other rules of your world, throughout the story.
The etymology nerd in me is so happy you brought that up, Saba. It seems like that’s something that’s often overlooked, which it shouldn’t be, considering words are the only lens readers have through which to experience the world. But when I see something that obviously doesn’t belong—something as simple as “okay” in a medieval fantasy world, or a phrase with a very specific origin that doesn’t fit the world you’ve created (“Adam’s apple” in a world where there’s no Bible, for example)—it can throw readers out of the story and undo a lot of the painstaking work you’ve done. This goes back to character, in a way: what’s in your characters’ frame of reference, and what isn’t?
SO amazing, y’all! I’m loving all of these resources and all the Malinda Lo love (she’s a fave <3).
Now, question #3:
“In a perfectly executed work of worldbuilding, there would be no gaps in the world for the reader to fill in. Everything from the goblins’ favorite type of baby wipes to the export taxes on Martian ray guns would be worked out (at least in the author’s mind if not on the page).” (Read the full article) But I also love with author Chuck Wendig says here about how mystery needs to be preserved and the general concept that what you see on the page should only be the tip of the iceberg.
What are your thoughts about worldbuilding when it comes to details and making it so even small gestures, like the meaning giving someone the finger in our world, are recognizable in your worldbuilding? How should writers balance the details yet still leave mystery?
Yes to all of this. Also, I’m such a huge fan of Marie Lu’s worlbuidbuilding…if you haven’t read her books, you must! Readers and #DVpit-ers, I hope you’ve gained a ton from what these agents and editors have to say. Thank you so much for joining us for Part Two. You can read Part One here.
The Worldbuilding Roundtable continues at 8PM EST today with Part Three!
About the participants:
Patrice Caldwell is an Editorial Assistant at Scholastic, where she has most recently acquired at auction Kiranmala and the Kingdom of Serpents by Sayantani DasGupta—a middle grade fantasy drawing from the traditional folktales of West Bengal. She also holds a BA from Wellesley College (& considers Saba Sulaiman her Wellesley career big sister), and is especially interested in fantasy, science fiction, and horror (& everything in between!) that’s diverse in terms of the content and creator. She works on numerous chapter books, middle grade, and young adult novels. When she’s not editing, she’s baking tasty treats or writing novels of her own. You can learn more about Patrice, her favorite books, and general musings at her website, patricecaldwell.com, and Twitter, @whimsicallyours, her secondary home.
Kait Feldmann is an associate editor at Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic, where she’s focused on building AAL’s picture book and international publishing list. She’s looking for meaningful, character-driven stories with humor and heart from diverse, #ownvoices authors and illustrators. You can follow her as she tries to figure out Twitter @kaitfeldmann.
Jim McCarthy is an agent and VP with Dystel, Goderich & Bourret where he’s been for 18 years. 18 years! In that time, his list has developed to be more than half young adult fiction with smatterings of middle grade and adult fiction and nonfiction. While he works on contemporary and historical fiction as well, much of his list occupies the sci-fi and fantasy spaces like Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy, Fonda Lee’s Exo and Zeroboxer, Livia Blackburne’s Midnight Thief, Robin Talley’s As I Descended, and many more. He loves fiction that takes place anywhere from a slightly twisted version of our own world through epic high fantasy. Follow him on Twitter @JimMcCarthy528.
Stephanie Stein is an editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books. She acquires and edits young adult and middle grade books, and is generally a huge fantasy and science fiction nerd who likes to frustrate her authors by endlessly asking them why and how and but then wouldn’t…? Some books she’s worked on include Erin Hunter’s Warriors and Survivors series, Cynthia Hand’s My Lady Jane (with Brodi Ashton and Jodi Meadows) and The Afterlife of Holly Chase, Dan Jolley’s Five Elements trilogy, and Anna Priemaza’s Kat and Meg Conquer the World. Follow her on Twitter @stephlystein.
Saba Sulaiman is an agent at Talcott Notch Literary Services, a boutique agency located in Milford, CT. She holds a BA from Wellesley College and an MA from the University of Chicago, where she studied modern Persian literature. She is looking primarily to build her Middle Grade and Young Adult lists, and is particularly interested in contemporary realistic stories. She’s also open to category romance (all sub-genres except paranormal), literary, upmarket, and commercial fiction, tightly plotted, character-driven psychological thrillers, cozy mysteries à la Agatha Christie, and memoir. Being a first generation immigrant who is constantly negotiating her own identity and sense of belonging in a place she now calls “home,” she is committed to highlighting more diverse voices with compelling stories to tell; stories that demonstrate the true range of perspectives that exist in this world, and address urgent and often underexplored issues in both fiction and non-fiction with veracity and heart. Follow her on Twitter @agentsaba.
For more worldbuilding links (including anything mentioned throughout this three part discussion) check out my Writer Resources page.