Feb 8, 2014

Fantasy Writing and Subtext: Showing vs Telling when you're worldbuilding

I want to grab my head and moan just looking at the heading I put there.

I believe fantasy is actually very difficult to write. There are people who disagree with me. They believe that fantasy is an easy genre because you can "just make it all up." But these people don't understand what makes a good fantasy story. In writing escapist fiction of any kind, you need to write a world that makes sense--that doesn't give the reader red flags that it is imaginary. It needs to seem real, and so there are rules. When you write historical fiction, those rules center around research. You figure out what is authentic, and you work hard to figure out what is not. You do your very best to include authentic details and social structures and landscapes and towns, and characters whose speech never contain jarring modernisms. For instance, if you're writing in 1850, you should probably avoid analogies or metaphors that involve electricity like, "the shock ran up and down his spine." (that's kind of a lame metaphor anyway.)

In Fantasy, you are creating all the rules. You don't have real things to go back and refer to. You're making everything up, which means you have to think hard about every application of those rules in characters' speech, actions and abilities. In their environment. In the way people and whole, made-up societies or perhaps even civilizations or galaxies of people interact with each other and their environment.

You have to think everything through in excruciating detail, and there's a much higher probability that you can give a reader a "red flag" or create a plot-hole or inconsistency to make your entire story seem improbable. Those "How it Should Have Ended" youtube videos point out problems like this in movies we have all watched. The suspension of disbelief needed to create a good fantasy story requires a lot of planning and thinking and creating. We call this World Building.

There are a lot of articles and essays on this subject. Fantasy writers work hard at world building, and so it's natural that when we start to write our story, we get caught up in our world and forget that the entire point of a book is plot. And characters. Characters, though, aren't enough to make a story worth reading--plot is essential. The world you build is very important, but if you get too involved in description at the beginning of your fantasy story, you slooooow dooooown the plot. To the point where the reader (unless they are a very seasoned reader of fantasy or are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt and skip paragraphs) will set your book aside. Yes, they love being caught up in a world. But they need movement. They need a current that takes them through the world and makes it exciting and gripping.

How do you manage to include enough detail to describe this world, its magic elements, its alien social structures and landscapes and also (like with any other story) characters and backstory, but still hook the reader at the beginning and keep things moving fast?

H. G. Wells is fantastic at this. If you read one of his stories (the Time Machine is a good example), you finish it feeling like you've just read a 500 page Science Fiction novel. You're completely shocked when you realize the story you've read, the world you've experienced with all the characters and action and social commentary and alien lifeforms and those poignant, aching moments came about in the course of around 100 pages. It is pretty mind-boggling.

So how does he do it? How can you do it?

My friend read the first three chapters of the fantasy manuscript I am working on right now and reminded me of the answer (and gave me a name for it when I didn't have one before, though I knew the general principle): subtext.

In general terms, subtext usually refers to messages sent, and inferences made, that aren't actually explicitly stated. For instance, in dialog, the way a phrase is worded can make a character seem bored, or angry, or impatient, or however they are, without the author saying "such and such character was bored" or using the ever-popular (and-overused) descriptive-tags-method: e.g. "she said boredly." (not a word, btw.)

In fantasy, the subtext is also your world. For instance: (I'm using examples from my own story. Sorry)

Shem breezed in and took off her coat.

“You smell like the sea,” Madiglen said, handing Shem the porridge pot and a ladel. “You look like it, too.”

Shem began ladeling portions into a dozen bowls, adding cream jasmine honey on to each. “I know. It’s the hair. Like a hurricaine.”

“A lovely hurricaine,” Madgilen agreed, and placed a hand on top of her cloud of curls. “Are you feeling good about tonight?”

“I’ve put it off three months already. I’d better feel good about it,” Shem replied. “We are due for a superior moon this month, so there won’t be a better time.”

“It will help, but your confidence will make the biggest difference. Remember that.”

Shem sighed and ducked out from under her hand.

“Just make sure you don’t skip any chakras. I’d suggest three meditations, and don’t indulge in any heavy foods today.”

This scene occurs on the first page of my story, when I should be doing some pretty intense world building. But see how I'm not taking time to explain about the chakras; I just mention them casually the way anybody living in this world would. SO the reader infers that Shem and Madgilen are involved somehow in some kind of meditative practice--something I could have explained, but didn't. We also realize from this paragraph that they live by the sea, they live humbly, there are about a dozen people living there. We know Shem has unkempt curly hair. We also learn some things about her relationship with the convent mother--it is a lot like a mother and daughter. We know something is about to happen, and that Shem has put it off, and therefore, must be nervous about it, and that it will happen tonight. I didn't have to explain any of this; I just had the characters act it out and pay attention to small, relevant details.

Subtext means you let the world come into focus for your reader through the everyday actions, dialog and (very small) observations of the main characters. (Too much observation is the same thing as over-explanation by the writer, only filtered through the main character.)

It is very tempting, when writing fantasy, to explain a whole bunch up front, sort of the way a playwright gives "Setting" at the beginning of a play, but you cannot do that as a storyteller. Those scene-setting descriptions are for professionals doing a job. The reader just wants to escape; they don't want to have to do all the work of imagining a bunch of things up front and then remembering those things for the rest of the story. And they will struggle to remember if these things aren't interwoven and significant to the plot.

Let's say you walk into a room. You could either:

a) pause in the doorway and categorize every detail in the room, then walk in and sit down.

b) walk into the room, gaining an overall impression as you enter it, then observe details as you walk: the ground under your feet, the chair as you sit in it, the table in front of you after you sit and it comes into view.

The first example is like info-dump--giving the reader every detail about something before things happen and details become relevant. In the second example, details come into focus *as* they become relevant. You notice a floor you're walking on because you don't want to trip. You notice a chair you're about to sit in because you need to make sure it's something you can sit in--not broken, or fragile or covered with valuable antique embroidery, for instance. You notice a table in front of you because it's right there.

In fact, maybe you choose between two different chairs in the room as you walk in, and that choice says something about you. If you write it that way, that's three birds you've killed: action, scene setting and character development.

Only someone like like Sherlock Holmes could walk in a doorway and make a bunch of detailed, random observations in rapid-fire succession, then file these away in his perfect memory-bank for future reference as action commences. Your reader is not Sherlock Holmes. Generally speaking, readers, like writers, are pretty much normal people with normal memories and average ability to focus. Most of us need details slow-fed to us, and we won't remember many of them unless they're made relevant through connecting them to something important--i.e. plot and character development.

Most of us need our details half-chewed for us through subtext. And it's a fun skill to develop. Think how tricky you are, fitting a dozen details into a paragraph, with the reader none the wiser they've just been info-dumped on. We're sly, skilled creatures, us fantasy writers.


Luisa Perkins said...

Well done!

Braden Bell said...

That was a very good explanation/meditation on a problem--and then the snippet you gave us was very intriguing. It made me want to read more!