Monday Motivation: The writer as God, the world-builder
“He was drinking brandy, pouring double mouthfuls into a glass that had somehow survived from his grandfather’s time, the glass tinged green and bubbled with the air of the old century. He had gone on drinking since the bottle of port with Wood (who, in Salamanca, fell backwards off his horse after a mess dinner) but instead of the brandy dispersing him, giving him some lightness, it had concentrated him, mind and body, like an iron peg hammered into dry earth. Now and then he spoke to the air, sentences beginning ‘I…’ But they did not progress beyond a word or two….”
A paragraph from Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Free. Why do I quote it? Because it gives me a chance to delve deeper into a question I have recently mentioned, the question of what science fiction and fantasy writers call “world-building”.
A writer setting out to persuade you to suspend your disbelief in the face of a radically different reality with unrecognizable laws of physics (say) has to do a lot of preliminary work figuring out the details and the implications of those details well before she begins her story.
N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy*, is an example of a wholly successful attempt to delineate an alternate reality in which some human beings are able to control energy generally, and the forces of geology specifically. In short, they can control tectonic forces, initiating or preventing earthquakes (among other things. It’s complicated).
This is pretty weird, right? But Jemisin succeeds at this task for a number of reasons. Most importantly, she never explains anything. She leaves it up to the reader to worry at the puzzles and the paradoxes until we (more or less) work it out for ourselves. When clues about the very many strange features of her universe are given, they are always provided naturally, never expositionally. And so gradually, as we fit the puzzle pieces together, the strange becomes familiar, the inexplicable reveals itself, the golem emerges from the shadows.
It’s my contention every novel involves world-building of one sort or another – even if the world in which your story is situated is utterly banal, utterly familiar. Why? Because your reader doesn’t know your world is utterly familiar until you have shown it to them. And of course, you can’t simply announce, baldly, that your world is the world they know – you have to create it on the page.
In short, you have to have in mind the world of your story (which you’ll have thought about in some detail, in advance), and you have to show aspects of that world (without ever explaining) over time.
Which brings me back to the extract from Andrew Miller’s compelling novel.
To begin with, consider how many references he makes, in a single paragraph, to a world much larger than might have been dictated by the strict needs of the plot. There’s his grandfather; time past (“the old century”); the incident of Wood’s falling from the horse in Salamanca (what’s that all about?).
These references serve to embed the narrative in a larger reality.
Then there’s the specificity of Miller’s details: double mouthfuls; the tinge of green in the glass; he’s drinking brandy and not port; it has this particular effect on him; he utters the vacuous beginnings of sentences.
These serve to bring the world, and of course, the scene, into sharp focus. It enables us to join the character in his bedroom and share his sense of rather bleak dislocation.
Behind these references and these details we infer somehow the existence of an entire world. We feel secure in the knowledge that this is not a film set beyond whose margins is a studio inhabited by a crew of more-or-less jaundiced camera and sound men. This is a solid, three-dimensional world, a world of substance, one we can rely on.
Thanks, at least in part I believe, to the world-building that Andrew Millier, like N.K. Jemisin, takes such care with.
* Each of the three novels in the sequence won the Hugo Award – sci-fi’s premier showcase of writing excellence. This was unprecedented.
P.S. I’ve taken to heart the (I think light-hearted) criticism of a reader that I use the word “that” over-frequently. In this piece, I have weighed every use of the word, eliminated a few, and nervously left a couple in place. Do tell me whether you believe I’m still at fault in this respect!