Building a World We Know

Building a World We Know, Guest post by Brett Armstrong

World building is important in writing.  The setting of a story can be as likable and alluring as any other element.  How many people line up to visit Hogwarts at Universal Studios or long to take a stroll with Mr. Tumnus in Narnia or to stand atop Minas Tirith and look out at the Pelennor Fields or take a ride in an X-Wing or speeder bike on Endor? Fiction really has to be immersive to be effective. Regardless of the genre, regardless of the story’s length; the reader has to be able to slip into the story and become captivated by what is to be found there. Some people call it suspension of disbelief, but I think it is more than that. A reader needs to feel swept up in a story, carried away from the real world, just far enough to relax inhibitions and apprehensions. It is at that point that the story can speak to the reader. If this sounds like reading as escapism, then I agree, it is escapism. Though my conviction is when fiction is escapism, then let the author write the story in such a way as to better equip the reader to face the real world by the story’s end. The what and why of this are clear enough, but the how is the trick for an author. So, I would like to share a little about how I approached world building in Day Moon.

Building a World We Know, Guest post by Brett Armstrong
For my writing, and Day Moon in particular, the first scene written is key. It sets the tone of the work for the writer as much as the reader. In Day Moon, the first scene I wrote is chapter one’s opening. I wrote it two years before any of the rest of the book.  This scene kept pulling me back into the world of Day Moon. As a writer, I need a stark, crisp image to hold onto and then everything else flows as an extension of trying to understand the backdrop I’m imagining. The scene I referred to has a teen looking out in the rain at the campus library, which led me to ask, why is he fixated on it? The one picture won’t tell you everything, but already there is a somberness present and sense of longing, but also a sense of reluctance, all implied just from that simple setup. It’s always best to choose setting details that complement the themes of passages and enhance the emotional content of the story.  Since that rainy day could have happened just about anywhere, next ask what kind of world fits the story? The answer will eventually led to a story that fits the world, which makes the world better fit the story in a kind of positive feedback loop. Day Moon is set in Appalachia to give it a sense of loss. Of the old being begrudgingly buried by the new, and Appalachia of today fits that same kind of background dynamic that adds to the story.  The story’s characters and plot have to live within that world and so the three work together. People sometimes ask what elements of a story are most important or should be given most attention by a writer, but I think it’s more complicated than that.  The world of the story, its themes, its characters, and the plot all need to work in concert, because they can change and develop each other as the story moves on and that kind of organic balance really benefits all aspects of the story.

     With sci-fi and fantasy, or anything outside a setting contemporaneous with the intended reader, it is important to ground the setting in something relatable, particularly an emotion or action, right away. Elliott checks the time, calls Lara—whom he wants to meet to check on when she’ll be getting there.  He’s clearly got a crush on Lara, but isn’t sure how she feels.  Simple actions and an emotion almost anyone can relate to.  Next, toss in some elements that are familiar, but unique to the world of the story.  For me it was the introduction of the mag-lev vehicles and their automated driving processes.  It’s similar to something most people relate to, driving, but also new and different, part of the technology of that world. This pattern of introducing bits of the normal with new twists gradually builds into the less relatable and completely foreign.  The key is a subtle transition from familiar to unfamiliar.

      It’s my advice to always leave some traces of the real world embedded in the world of the story as kind of way points for the reader. Islands of familiarity for the reader to find some refuge on when the unfamiliar is engulfing him or her.  If a writer wants a point to resonate with a reader, the reader has to be able to find the real world somewhere within the world of the story.  Whether its Mars or Medieval Spain or Minas Morgul, the reader has to relate to what is going on.  Those little nuggets of the real world serve that purpose and will help the reader carry the point of a passage through the landscape of the story to its end.

     Also, make sure the world is big enough to get lost, but focused in locality enough that the reader never does. This makes the story world interesting, and deep, and gives the reader the desire to explore, but the comfort of being guided through the story by the author. It is kind of like an image of a fog shrouded mountain range.  You see enough peaks to know there is more out there, but with much of the details hidden, you feel quite content in that moment to be on your peak.  Which is significant, because in that kind of situation, you feel like it is YOUR peak.  A reader having that sort of ownership of the world of a story, leads to a sense of ease and familiarity that will keep him or her coming back and gradually exploring new territory, exploring and claiming more of the world built by an author each time.  In practice this again requires a balancing act, just as everything in writing seems to be. Make the world deep and rich, but don’t drown the reader.  It’s really important to give a sense of something more being there to be discovered, but at the same time, very purposefully not addressing it. Though I have my beefs with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I have to give it credit for replicating that sense of enormity of the Star Wars galaxy while still keeping the story limited to what the viewer absolutely had to know. Enough questions in the story implied there was a depth to the world of Star Wars post-Return of the Jedi to merit a fans coming back for more installments. A quick mention of a person or place with the appearance of significance but no discussion of that character or location causes story world to enlarge, while the present story doesn’t have to pull in anything it doesn’t need.  A hinted at theme or unrealized symbol can have the same effect.  Though they must be more carefully handled, since things of that sort can leave a reader feeling like the story itself is incomplete rather than bigger than the present experience.

     In the final balance, when building a new world through writing, it has to be something grounded in this world so the reader can relate, be malleable enough that the story can shape it and it can shape the story, be immersive to pull the reader in and have clear view of everything, and be big enough to invite more visits while being most vivid in only those portions essential to the present action of the story.  The important thing for me is that when a reader is done, the reader can look at the real world and see the story’s points born out, because the world of the story and the real world were never quite as different as they seemed.

Building a World We Know, Guest post by Brett Armstrong
From an early age, Brett Armstrong had a love for literature and history. At age nine, he combined the two for his first time in a short story set in the last days of the Aztec Empire. After that, writing’s role in his life waxed and waned periodically, always a dream on the horizon, till he reached college. At West Virginia University, he entered the Computer Engineering program and spent two years pursuing that degree before an opportunity to take a creative writing class, for fun, came along. It was so enjoyable, he took another and in that course he discovered two things. The first was the plot for a short story called Destitutio Quod Remissio, which the others students really seemed to love. The second, he realized he absolutely loved writing. For him, it was like the proverbial light bulb coming on. In the years since, describing that epiphany has been difficult for him, but he found the words of 1924 Olympian Eric Liddell are the most eloquent expression for it: “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.” God gave Brett a passion for writing, and so feels His pleasure when writing.

After a few years passed, Brett got his Computer Engineering degree, but also completed a minor in each of his real passions: history and creative writing. In 2013, he began graduate school to earn an MA in Creative Writing. During that time he completed the novelization of Destitutio Quod Remissio and entered the 2013-2014 CrossBooks Writing Contest, which won the contest's grand prize. As of March 2015, Brett completed his MA and is presently employed in the West Virginia Division of Infectious Disease Epidemiology as a programmer analyst.

Brett lives in Saint Albans, West Virginia, with his beautiful wife, Shelly. In the summer the pair gardens together, and each day Brett continues writing his next novel.

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Building a World We Know, Guest post by Brett Armstrong


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