Photo by Brooke Shaden
This is one of the scariest topics for me to write about, and, frankly, it didn't even occur to me to write about it until I asked my followers on Twitter what they would like to see next on my blog, and this particular topic, suggested by Brad Ulreich, stuck. Because it's one of my biggest struggles, bigger than writing dialogue. Writing fantasy is hard. Writing good fantasy is harder still. When starting out on SIREN SUICIDES, I blithely charged forward, naive and oblivious to any kind of notion of how to create a fantastical world that is also believable. And it's only in Draft 4 that inconsistencies started bugging me, as they did my beta readers, so in Draft 5 I tried paying close attention to the world building. I'm saying, tried to, because I'm still learning. What follows is what I have glimpsed so far, and I'm by no means an expert. Proceed with caution and be careful not to get tangled in the notion that this might be the truth somehow. it is not, it's no more than ruminations of a rookie writer.
Establish clear rules. I'm guilty of not being very clear about my world, and now that I'm almost done, I see it, but it's too late to go back and change the story. By rules I mean very distinct things that can or cannot happen in your fantasy. Imagine your story being a play of chess. If you had to explain it to someone who never played it, how would you do it? Now, if you had to explain it to someone who merely hasn't played for a few years, you would say it differently, right? Here lies the catch. As a writer, you know certain things that your readers don't. But simply because you know them, it doesn't even occur to you to explain them in very specific detail to the reader. But the reader will thank you for it! The reader is like that person who never played chess. The reader has no idea. Everything needs to be painstakingly explained, and not all at once either, but gradually, as the world of your story unfolds. But before you can do that, you have to know yourself what works, how, when, why, etc. This is the reason Draft 5 of my book turned into 3 books, because I simply slowed down enough to explain things.
Consistency over plot. This is a tricky thing I noticed when reading books, and I haven't seen anyone talk about it in the same vein, so I'd be curious to hear your comments. What I mean here is this. Once the rules of your world are clearly established, as in, all people in Dreamlandia are purple, they eat green capybaras for dinner, sleep 2 weeks out of a year, and live on one big baobab tree... err, let's not get carried away here, so, once your rules are established, feel free to not feel the pressure for providing a logical explanation behind everything that happens. This explanation is different from the one I was talking above. What I meant above was telling people that people in your book are purple. What I mean here is explaining why those people are purple. Who cares? They just are. You're the writer, you get to come up with anything you want. The point here is to believe in it yourself, and then we will believe in it too. The perfect example for left-out plot loops is Murakami's 1Q84. Read it and see for yourself. Because you believe in his world, you don't care about how it all happened, you want to know how it all resolves.
Supply made-up facts. This is another trick I picked up from reading, and it goes along the lines of yourself believing in your world. Because you now established the rules, and you made us believe in it, make it real by giving us facts about it, as if we were to read about it not in your book, but in a newspaper. Be as specific as you can. For example, purple people have only 4 right toes but staggering 10 left toes. And they always dream of pink zebras on Tuesdays, and on the first day of summer they each burp up a butterfly with the speed of 30 cracacacs a minute (now, who cares what a cracacac is, the point is, it sounds credible). Stephen King does this in Carrie by writing up actual news articles. Yann Martel does it in Life of Pi, inventing a fictional novelist and a report for the sunken ship. And in Harry Potter there is a whole wizarding newspaper which creates a sense of added credibility for the whole thing. I can keep going with examples here, but you get the idea.
Minimize or maximize outside contact. Like in any fantasy, there is the other side of the coin. The non-fantasy. Not all books have it. Pure fantasy doesn't deal with the outside world, and that is great, it gives you the freedom to operate within the world you created. But if you happen to write a book that does throw characters in the real world, then you have to either, spectacularly describe those interactions, showing how it impacts both sides, or, if you are unsure, which is my case, minimize the contact with the outside world, to avoid situations where you might lose the reader completely, by not supplying enough information on what happens when both world collide. Of course, I'm using a very general simplistic example here, because there are countless books written on the subject. Again, I'm simply sharing with you what I've learned myself so far.
Above all, no matter how fantastic your world is, don't forget the purpose of any story. Your every sentence has to either develop the characters or move the action forward, so if you spend a whole page describing the beauty of the left pinky of one of the purple people after he has applied freshly made crimson coating on it in accordance with an aardvark season tradition of the west bough of the baobab... no matter how divinely it's written, we will yawn, put the book aside, and move on. I'm sure I have missed a gazillion other tricks, so feel free to share your insights in the comments, as always!