Building the World of the Story (Without Sounding Like a Newscast)

Quote of the Week: Be chary in the giving of the news. The story is not in the news, it is in the moment. – Gordon Lish


One of the most difficult things for a writer to do—especially a beginning writer—is find a way to build the world of the story while also establishing tension, character, tone, stakes and all the other aspects of great fiction.

This is especially true for writers of speculative fiction, since their worlds are often very different from the one in which their readers dwell. How to convince readers that the story takes place on a planet where time travel is the norm, without having a character say something stupid, like, “I’m going back in time to clear up this mystery. It’s what we’ve been able to do on the planet Skyron since the great physicist Muldoor discovered the secret wormhole.”

Here’s where a little advice from the literary (or shall we say non-speculative) writing genre may help.

First, the example above is poor writing because the speaker is telling himself something he already knows. Who among us says aloud what s/he’s about to do, and then provides historical background to validate it? That’s something for the nut job brigade. It makes it obvious that the author or the character knows someone is reading. Unless you’re doing metafiction, characters aren’t aware that readers are reading about them.

But it’s also bad writing because it makes background details more important than the psychological ones. When I say “psychological,” I’m talking about character desire, goals, barriers to those goals, and the risks characters face in overcoming those barriers. As interesting as a world in which people can travel through time may be, that fact is secondary to the above aspects. It’s all about building a connection between reader and characters. If your reader can’t identify with your characters, s/he won’t be interested in your story.

And that means having your characters act like people. Even if they live on Skyron, they need to exhibit enough earth-like attributes so the reader can see their world through the characters’ eyes. So as the story progresses, the characters’ world is revealed in a natural, logical way. Details about the science and the history are delivered when it’s normal for the characters to think of them, which makes that world seem real.

Think about how we get to know people in real life. We meet them and learn gradually through the things they say and do. They reveal themselves a little bit at a time. They don’t stand in front of us and deliver a twenty-minute speech about their backgrounds.

As Gordon Lish alluded, people (characters) live in the moment. This is especially true in fiction.

Make the emotional connection. Think through your characters—let them tell the story. Let them think about things the way they do as they live their lives—the way people everywhere think about their lives—and you’ll establish a connection that allows the reader to see their world through shared eyes—the character’s and the reader’s—and gives the reader the opportunity to really experience the story, not just be told the story.

Joe Ponepinto
Joe Ponepinto is the founding Fiction Editor and Publisher of Tahoma Literary Review. His new novel, Mr. Neutron will be published by 7.13 Books of Brooklyn, NY in the spring of 2018.

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