Saturday, August 9, 2008

Entering a World

Recently I was part of a forum discussion called "The Hardest Part," where writers were talking about which aspects of story writing they found most difficult.  "Middles," some said.  "Endings," said others.  I had to come down on the side of "beginnings."  I think I've rewritten the beginnings of stories - and that includes short stories and novels - more than anything else.

Beginnings are hard for me because I'm hopelessly in love with worlds.

Which is not a bad thing.

World design is a thorough and gradual process, as I discussed a couple of days ago.  I pointed out then that one of my writer friends was still helping me adjust the language I used to describe my world - after I've been working with it for ten years or more!  Usually what I'll do is work out basic parameters first.  That means cosmology and geography basics, physiology and species model (if it's an alien species), and basic societal structure.  Basic societal structure includes the basic labels for social groups, such as "undercaste" or "nobility" or "oppressed race" and the names I've designed for them.  

Once those things are laid out, I'll start writing, but as I write, I'll keep discovering things.  At the beginning, the labels will be flat, like paper nametags, but the further I go the more I'll start to understand what those labels mean for how people behave, what they value, and how they judge what they see.  Only when I get to the end will I have a full sense of how the different social groups see one another, how they interact, and everything else that makes their behavior feel real and three-dimensional.

BTW, I would love to talk about developing the behavior of societal groups if anyone has a group they're working on that they'd like to tell me about!

So the feel of my world will be as follows after draft one:

--  --  --  --  --

Shallow at the start, and deep at the end, which means I have to go back and rewrite from the beginning, with two goals.

1.   to have the world feel "complete" from the very beginning
2.  to have the world be "accessible" from the very beginning.

Usually, goal number one takes a whole rewrite - and goal number two takes another whole rewrite.  Why? Because a world in its full complexity is awfully hard to grasp on minimum evidence, so if I write from the beginning as though I know all the world's secrets (because I do), then people who don't know all the secrets along with me can easily get lost.  This is one reason why I always find it valuable to have critique readers who have never encountered a particular world before:  I can get great advice from those who know it thoroughly, but those people aren't able to speak to the problem of entering the world, because they know too much. (Makes me sound like an evil dictator, mwahahaha)

This problem of entry is at the top of my mind right now because I'm currently working on a complex world piece.  And while as a reader I love to get thrown into the deep end with a complex world and figure stuff out, as a writer I feel like I lose valuable readers if I do it too much.  

So this is where I go back to my discourse analytical tools.  On the one hand, I try to track what each sentence contributes to the world view, and how much it requires the reader to construct.  On the other hand, I try to make sure that the story is so compelling that a reader can't help but go along with me.  

My friend Janice, whom I've mentioned before, wrote an opening scene for her novel The Pain Merchants that was just so awesome you couldn't help but keep reading, because you were laughing and curious at the same time.  I won't give too many spoilers, but I will say that this scene involved a chicken - and ever since then, I've thought about "finding my chicken scene" when I open a story.  

So what is a chicken scene?

I don't know that I can describe it with full accuracy, but I'll do my best.  It's a scene that plunges the reader straight into conflict, but which also instantly illuminates the point-of-view character, the world he or she lives in, and the central conflict of the story to follow.  

That sounds hard, and I guess it is in some respects.  But if you think about the character you've created, and the conflict he or she is about to experience, very often you can pick an aspect of that conflict that stumbles right into your character's main weaknesses, or strengths, or both at the same time.  And if the world you've created is more than just a backdrop, but contains social detail that informs the identity of your character, then your character's reactions to and judgments of other people in the first scene, and of the situation he or she has gotten himself into, and (don't forget this one) of him or herself in reacting to that situation - everything that character does will help to create the world all around.

Now I'll have to run off and find some good examples you all might be familiar with... 

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