Research your story world deeply, but reveal only enough to keep your readers turning the pages.
Extensive research ensures your story world and its setting are totally consistent, but don’t reveal more than is needed to move the story forward.
Science fiction and fantasy are examples of genres where authors create a setting which is very different from our own reality. Often it is an entire story world with different laws of science or magic to govern it. Even if you write in your present time and place, you need to research details that will convince readers that your characters know their stuff.
Keep your readers happy
My sister is an avid reader of murder mysteries and she read one set in Sydney, Australia where we live. Finding mention of a character walking down the stairs to a platform on Strathfield railway station, she realised the author had never been there because there are ramps, not stairs. A trivial example, but one reader at least was left feeling a little disappointed.
A great story world still needs
memorable characters and a compelling plot
In the aftermath of NaNoWriMo last year, I read the manuscript of a friend who had written her novel in the setting of a post-apocalyptic future of our own world. She had created a great story world, very believable, with lots of convincing detail which was easily recognised as having its beginnings in the world we know today. I was excited to find out where it was going.
I soon realised there was too much story world revealed to the reader too soon. There was a risk that the plot and characters would take second place.
Learn from your favourite novels
That got me thinking about my favourite post-apocalyptic novels. “The Chrysalids” by
John Wyndham is one which has a similar theme to my friend’s story. People who don’t fit into the society in which they were born, and have to escape or die. So I happily dragged out the boxes from under the bed which hold my old sci-fi paperbacks, and enjoyed it one more time.
The story world is revealed in tiny pieces, just enough to explain a situation or an attitude as it arises. This keeps the reader turning the pages and feels natural when the narrator’s mind flickers in and out of such thoughts. For example, 0n the very first page there is a brief reference to the:
“… wonderful world that the Old People had lived in; as it had been before God sent Tribulation”.
From this we have reason to guess the main character lives in a place that follows some kind of fundamental Christianity. Just enough to give a little information and intrigue the reader, but moving on without further explanation. When we think about something familiar we don’t “explain” it to ourselves in our thoughts, so why would we make our characters do so?
Readers use their own experience to interpret your story
Even though the narrator is the older version of the main character, and he is telling the story with the hindsight and greater understanding that we all have when looking back over our lives, the author uses this extra knowledge to enhance the story without revealing everything he knows about the story world. He does his readers the compliment of letting them use their own experience to interpret the text.
Research much, write less
In “Writing Fiction for Dummies”, Randy Ingermanson suggests the author should research the story world in great depth, to make sure the world is internally consistent and believable. However he offers this warning:
“Whether you’re setting a story in your own world or in some foreign one, please, please, please remember the flip side of the rule: Don’t tell everything you know in one novel. Tell only one percent of what you know. If you take our advice to know 100 times more than what you need, you can write another 99 books without doing one more speck of research.”
Whether you create your own story world from scratch or use a historical or present day setting, research it thoroughly and your story will be totally consistent. Then put it aside and write with just enough background detail to move the story forward and keep your readers happy.
What is your favourite story world?
Leave a comment and tell us about it
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