Thursday, May 3, 2012

Suspension of Disbelief & the "Show, Don't Tell" of Worldbuilding: a Google+ Hangout Report

 This was a great discussion with a rather long title! I was joined by Brian Dolton, Glenda Pfeiffer, Kyle Aisteach, Liz Arroyo, Janet Harriett, and Jaleh Dragich.

I invited Kyle to open the discussion since this was a topic he had proposed. Kyle noted that many books he's reading for his MFA degree, such as My Antonia, he finds affidavits or other statements about how the book was based on a true story, and found this kind of thing strange because coming from a background of science fiction and fantasy he doesn't feel that any guarantee of truthfulness is necessary for people to "buy into" a story. I noted that a similar kind of thing was done with the movie FARGO, which was fictional but for some reason had a similar disclaimer of truthfulness attached to it.

My first instinct was to consider the possibility that there are cultural constraints on imagination. As Glenda mentioned, we're considering a time period (at least in the case of the earlier literary works) when science fiction and fantasy were not nearly as huge as they are today. However, even today there are cultural groups where true stories are seen as more valuable than fictional ones, and kids particularly are discouraged from engaging in creative narrative. I mentioned "What no bedtime story means," a very interesting piece of anthropological research by Shirley Brice Heath.

Brian asked, "Didn't someone freeze to death looking for the money they buried in FARGO?" A Google search turned up this article - so yes, someone did get taken in (in a most awful way). Jaleh mentioned that people keep contacting Spider Robinson to ask if Callahan's Cross-Time Saloon is real (it's not!).

In fact, when we're writing science fiction or fantasy, we're often mixing things that are real with things that aren't. The technique helps our fiction seem more real, and be more involving. If things are too real, though, the sense of wonder may be lost. On the other hand, if they're too unreal, readers may be knocked out of the story. It's a tough balance. And while we're at it, how do we decide what to show and what to tell?

My guests were ready to jump in and consider these issues, of course. Jaleh says what throws her out of a story is seeming inconsistency in the world without any apparent reason for it. We all agreed that if something really unusual is going to happen, its abnormality should at least be acknowledged by the point of view character, and the author should consider building in some kind of explanation. Kyle said he objects when it appears that an author hasn't thought through all the ramifications of something - as an example he asked why it is that in the game of Quidditch, all the players aren't constantly on the lookout for the snitch on the Seeker's behalf (since it's so incredibly valuable).

We also discussed what I playfully called "worldbuilding TMI." Just because you've designed a world with great breadth doesn't mean you have to travel to every location. You should not include explanations of every social detail. It's very important to find a method of filtering the vast amount of information available in a world (like ours!) and making it consumable by a single mind. The best method I've found for this is character point of view. By allowing our characters to have a logical amount of ignorance, we can help to keep the information burden from being overwhelming, and also leave surprises and revelations for our readers to discover.

Kyle brought up a really interesting point about screen acting against green screens (with CGI backrounds). Apparently it's really important for the actor not to try to visualize everything around them, but simply to try to see one single detail very clearly. This more than the macroscopic approach lends believability to their acting. Visually speaking, this kind of single-detail focus provides a great link between the character and the background, and since both the actor's performance and the CGI environment can be seen by the audience, that is usually enough to bring the whole thing together. In writing, the scenario is a bit different, because we don't have the visual medium to bring everything into our senses at once. However, there is a similarity inasmuch as we are very often using single details to evoke much larger knowledge sets - as when putting a cell phone in scene one implies an entire world of available technology. I compared it to releasing water, as follows: by putting in the single detail, you open up the flow of water into the available set of assumptions that comes with it. If you don't want the water to fill the space completely, you have to be very careful to block and channel it in critical areas. Thus, if I have a scene with stone arches and embroidered hangings on the walls, I'm going to be evoking a medieval castle or renaissance palace, and if I don't want people also to assume that there will be no advanced technology, I have to make sure to tell them that there are electric lights on, right up front. If you let your reader fall into an unwarranted set of assumptions and expectations by not guiding them sufficiently at the beginning, then the presence of the unexpected will disappoint rather than excite them. Brian mentioned that this can be a particular issue with stories in which the author doesn't make specific the gender of a first-person narrator.

Another issue that came up is where to put your focus as an author - and this is where "show, don't tell" comes in. Some elements of the world are simple to show, and others are far more complex. Relevance is also an important consideration. If you have an important social issue that is integral to the progress of the plot, then typically you'll want to take the time to place readers close to it and observe it in action, or "show." On the other hand, if it's something like the fact that all the undercaste people in Varin wear hoods to mark their status, that's something you'll want to spend less time doing. Don't show a hooded person here, and one there, and make readers work to draw the conclusion for something so simple. If it comes up, show a hooded person and have your character remark on how that is the undercaste mark. A quick little "tell" and you're good to go, and so is your reader. If you have your reader spend a lot of time deducing things that are ultimately trivial in terms of the story's plot, they will likely be irritated with you. As Janet said, "certain information isn't worth a whole sentence."

There's a certain process of instruction you can develop to introduce key world concepts. The first goal is to get them noticed - to "hang a light" or "stick a flag" on them and include some very brief explanation (by brief I mean two or three words if possible) in a subordinate clause. Thereafter the flag will be the first thing the reader thinks of when the feature appears, and you can if necessary spend more time exploring other aspects of it, gradually expanding the reader's knowledge until all the connotations have been covered in characters' reactions, etc. and the reader knows how to react along with the character.

Kyle says that every story's beginning is a promise to the reader about what they will experience going forward - I agree, and have been known to call it a "contract." Either way, you want to make sure your promises and contracts are being carried out properly. Jaleh remarked that she felt the world exposition in the Valdemar books was really well done and allowed the world to expand gradually. Kyle also had good things to say about the Pern books in this regard, particularly their eventual blossoming into science fictional territory.

It's important that the things you show your reader make sense in context. This is one reason why you don't want to start out showing something very unusual - because you haven't got enough established context for readers to assess its significance. For "difficult" discoveries anywhere in your story, and for places where expectations are violated, you want to make sure that you treat them carefully so that readers can tell you've thought this through. I particularly like to encourage an "on the ground" feeling in my narratives and each event must grow out of that, rather than feeling slapped on by the author.

Kyle mentioned that Berthold Brecht had the exact opposite opinion, that he would deliberately put things in the story to knock readers out and made them think. Well, ok - so it can be done. But it's not necessarily the right choice for most people.

I mentioned a strange spot in the book Watership Down, where the buck rabbits are discussing the two new does who have just joined the warren, after being liberated from a nearby farm. One buck asks another, "Are they any good?" meaning, "Are they able to bear litters?" And the author then explains to the reader why it makes sense for the rabbits to be thinking this. My own impression was that the explanation was unnecessary. We've seen a lot of things at that point in the story to show us that rabbits don't think like people do, and the odd thing that happened with the explanation provided was that it ended up sounding more human-sexist than the original rabbit comment did in context. Remember that the context you create, once established, requires a lot less energy and effort to maintain than it does to create it in the first place.

The character serves as an anchor, but also as a guide to the emotional and cultural context of the story. Use them as such. They must have a psychology that makes sense in the story's context, and which is integrated with it. Characters can show a reader when it's okay for them to be ignorant about something in the world, or satisfied with questions, or burning with desire to learn. If a character is in denial, that can be exceedingly useful too, as a gauge of general world attitudes.

Of course, not everyone has the same thresholds for being kicked out of a story. Maybe one person will have trouble following a protagonist who isn't likeable, or another person may not be able to read a story because it deals with things that trigger severe anxiety. We can't guarantee everyone a pleasurable experience without making our stories bland. However, it's worth putting some effort into watching out for focus issues and the integration of world, culture and character so our stories can be more successful.

Thank you to everyone who came to the discussion! I look forward to seeing you again, and hope to meet more folks in the future.


  1. A lot of really good points were brought up in that discussion. :)

  2. I enjoyed it too, Jaleh. Unusual but awesome topic. So extra thanks to Kyle for suggesting it!

  3. As always, super informative and makes me think - and have a strong desire to shred whatever I'm working on and start again! :-)

  4. Oh, my, Terri - don't shred, please! You've given me an idea for a post, but it may take me a week or two to get it out. Thanks for the comment, and I'm glad you found the post informative.