To Write Big, Start Small

Learn the art of weaving description and your reader will never leave. It’s better to make the reader do the work than it is to hand them the finished puzzle.

To Write Big, Start Small
Photo by Art Lasovsky / Unsplash

I am one of those writers who loves to wax verbose. My stories are rich with background information and I like taking my time describing the motivations for scenes. It’s one of the reasons why I enjoy the novel format — there is so much room to play.

The problem emerges when you become so enamored with the history and construction of the world that you lose sight of what really matters: the characters, the intimate details of their surroundings; the small things that actually comprise the deeply sensory world of the novel.

As a science fiction and fantasy writer, what I do is essentially invent worlds — up from the customs of the local population, to the technology levels, to the food on the breakfast plate, I am responsible for it all. I may “borrow” from common knowns (perhaps my characters drink coffee, despite the story not taking place in a universe where Earth exists). Such things can help orient the reader within my story, especially if there are lots of elements which are truly outside the normal sphere of everyday life. These elements from the real world can help cement the reader, giving them something strong to hold onto.

When constructing a science fiction or fantasy landscape, you are placed in the role of the Supreme Creator of all existence. Whether your story takes place a hundred million years from now deep within the subterranean caves of Gomb, or on a dragon-nesting island in the middle of the Potakian Sea, you are responsible for building a world real enough for your characters that they can explore it through their own senses. This might very well mean that they interact with things very far removed from coffee and other common “knowns.” They may drink things with strange names, walk the streets of cities built unlike anything on Earth, or speak of pieces of common culture which are totally alien to the common culture of your own life. How to bring all that out onto the page?

When building a first draft, I am working heavily in this realm of pure invention. I’ve discovered at least one character and I probably have a bit of action to set them on their adventure. Then, around them, the world takes form. A few pages in, another character reveals itself, and then the interaction of those two characters hints at cultural norms which I suddenly know will be important later on. The world builds itself around my characters, expanding as I discover it all for the first time.

But, when returning to the first draft with an editor’s eye, what I generally notice is that I’ve “information dumped” onto the page. The cultural exchange of my two characters? It feels forced and overworked — did I really need to let the reader know why a particular way of shaking hands was important? Did it matter that the city of Thermalopi had been conquered fifty years earlier, leading to the destruction of all the statues of the old royal lineage? It mattered to me, at the time of the writing to be sure — this was all important worldbuilding — but for a new reader?

In a sense, what I see when I read a first draft is the whole scope of a character’s implicit knowledge playing out on the page. If the character knows why the statues of Thermalopi are desecrated then that goes onto the page. The special handshake? Well, my characters know that it’s a custom from the ancient Finndi tribes of South Western Bortlavia. These things that I, the writer, am discovering, are already part of the interior world of the characters. It’s good to know that they are there — it is important for the writer to understand the significance of it all because the more the writer understands the nuances of the world, the more the story will flow; the more the characters will move naturally through the landscape. But, when dropped from the sky onto the reader, all this important information becomes a blockage to immersion.

Ursula K. Le Guin has an exercise in her wonderful book Steering the Craft where she has you take a chunk of historical and cultural information and spread it out throughout a scene, subtly. The point is to keep any lump from being so large that it distracts. The reader should be able to encounter the deeper layers of the world in unobtrusive ways — through the smallest details.

One of my favorite ways to bring the deeper elements of a world to the reader is through the physical descriptions of a space. The reader can learn a whole paragraph of information by reading one cleverly-written sentence in this way. Here’s an excerpt from my short story Lighting Home, published in the first Apocrypha Files anthology.

The underground marketplace, which Maze had called the “Zocalo,” was vast and strange. Alex followed his guide closely, cautious to avoid the myriad distractions that presented themselves; so many colors, sounds, and smells assailed Alex that it was nearly crushing. They moved around the side of a large booth, inside of which, several men and women were working hard. They were gutting strange looking fish, exchanging them for small plastic coins handed over by anxious market-goers leaning in from all sides. The buyers crowded around, jostling loudly, engaged in the competitive — yet friendly — pursuit of their daily business.

Here, I set up the underground marketplace in such a way that it tells the reader things about the larger world: how money is used here, what life here might be like; Alex, too, becomes a clearer figure — he isn’t used to this sort of life, the place he comes from is much different, foreign to this dirty, messy world underground.

And you can go much deeper, too; sometimes it’s better to play through a long and detailed physical description than it is to hand the reader information directly. Recently, writing a scene within the science fiction novel I’m working on, I spent two pages detailing the construction of a single building and its surroundings. This detail informed the reader of much about the larger world — what is pleasing to the people of the world (flowers and aesthetic architecture), where the government does its work (inside a Temple), and that there is a deeper mythology of secrets and hidden things buried under the workings of the city (the strange silent tomb around which the Temple, and city, have been constructed).

If I had come right out and told the readers everything, it would have only taken a paragraph or two — I could have broken down the history of the city, the technology by which it ran, and given away the secret of the tomb, all at once. But why would the reader have wanted to keep going?

It’s better to make the reader do the work than it is to hand them the finished puzzle. It’s more fun for you both that way; if you connect all the dots for the reader (or even just most of the dots) they are cheated of the opportunity to figure things out for themselves. The immersion is created by allowing them to sink into the world and form the connections based on the crumbs you leave.

You need to trust that your readers are intelligent collaborators in the construction of your world. They are capable of picking up on the clues you leave — they will also draw their own connections, right or wrong, about the deeper layers of your constructed world. That’s half the fun.

So, when writing — and especially when editing — take care to spread the worldbuilding out across a large area; settle the history of your cities and civilizations into the bones of description rather than handing it over as an encyclopedia entry.

Give your reader the opportunity to fall in love with the depth and intricacies of the world you are devising and they will stick with you through to the very end.

Hi there! I’m Odin Halvorson, a librarian, independent scholar, film fanatic, fiction author, and tech enthusiast. If you like my work and want to support me, please consider becoming a paid subscriber for as little as $2.50 a month!

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