1. johnjames
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    johnjames Member

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    Describing new worlds to the reader

    Discussion in 'Setting Development' started by johnjames, Sep 13, 2010.

    To my mind, there are - in science fiction and fantasy at least - three primary methods to introduce the reader to the world you make.

    1. The ignorant child method. Used in David Eddings' Belgariad, with the character Garion, or Tad Williams Memory, Sorrow and Thorn character Simon.
    Each are ignorant of the world around them, but as they find out - so, too, does the reader.

    2. Knowledgable character method. The character in the scene already knows much, and does not waste time on descriptions of what he sees, information is instead gradual, and the image you may have in your mind early on is not necessarily the image you will have when you finish Reading. Raymond E. Feist is skilled at this.

    3. Reflective character method. The character may be ignorant or knowledgable, but recalls details or descriptions he may have missed the first time through, for example.

    Personally, I use a combination of the second and third styles.

    What do you use, and what are your thoughts on the methods?
     
  2. John Cleeves
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    John Cleeves Member

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    I hate when story stops in order for the world, the magic, or the technology to be described. I prefer when such things are taken for granted, as they should be, and I'm given as little direct telling as possible. Some people will say they just love describing their worlds because they took so long inventing them, and that's fine, but I'll buy a map when I want to look at far away forests and unimportant mountain ranges.

    There are always exceptions, though; I loved LoTR.

    There's never need for a character to describe how his car works from day to day, so why his hover car?
     
  3. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    To be honest my world is secondary to the story, it depends on the story which method I use, My world is a slave to the story not the other way round.
     
  4. Melzaar the Almighty
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    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

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    Ironically, I think I spend more time explaining how the real world works compared to fantasy. :p When I write things set hereabouts, I always do end up taking concepts that I'm not sure the whole world understands and giving them an explanation. I guess because I've spent too long talking to Americans online. :p

    With fantasy I do tend to take the world for granted, and since it runs on universal themes, I find a lot less I need to explain. A tree is a tree and everyone knows what that is, but in the real world if I have to mention trees, there's got to be a reason because trees are, well... they always mean something different, and specific, to the people who live near them.

    Edit: Of course they do to the fantasy people too, but unless it's part of the plot, you can't SAY that, or people will think it's part of the plot, and be like, "so why did you spend so long talking about trees then?"

    "Er, elves like trees?"
     
  5. johnjames
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    johnjames Member

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    John, good point about the car - that's why I prefer no. 2.
    Method 3 is mostly useful when a plot element is introduced early on, but the character doesn't know what it means - yet.

    Melzaar - elves like trees. Good one. I get what you mean.

    Though, just as much as an overextensive description can break the flow of the story, there are scenes and story moments where a lacking description can ruin the majesty of the world you've made.

    For example, travelling through an icy mountain.

    "It was snowing." - gets across the point that it was snowing. That's about it - nothing on how harsh, violent or heavy. Nothing on the character's brooding mind as he tries to soldier on through the sleet. It may as well be one of those American Christmas movies.
     
  6. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    One of my main characters encounters snow for the first time I get to describe it more in depth it's fun he is so excited and rambling:) oh and drunk.
     
  7. johnjames
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    johnjames Member

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    Drunk characters are actually surprisingly hard to write!

    Which is strange, as I am very familiar with that state.
     
  8. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    lol I posted and asked to advice but realised the other day actually I can probably do a better job because I don't drink and I am usually an observer:)
     
  9. Islander
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    Islander Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yeah, but how easy is it to write it when you don't remember it afterwards? :p
     
  10. Thanshin
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    Thanshin Active Member

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    I like this one if it's well done and doesn't feel artificial.

    I like this better. Doing it well, for me, is not recalling images until they're known by the reader.

    No, thank you. This one can make me stop reading. I'm yet to find a case where it didn't feel artificial.

    I'd stick to the second method whenever possible and use the first one when the character really has no way of knowing something.


    P.S.: AFAIK, it's "knowledgeable"
     
  11. johnjames
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    johnjames Member

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    Afterwards? I'm drunk while I'm writing!

    ...actually, I'm not making that up. Fun fact: interesting way to obtain a new novel that seems strangely familiar, but one that you cannot recall having ever read...

    Thanshin - both knowledgable and knowledgeable are correct, depending on which country you are in.
     
  12. HeinleinFan
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    HeinleinFan Banned

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    I don't disagree with your definitions as such, although I think they should be expanded.

    It seems to me that the third method would fit situations where a character, having seen or experienced something, would then go over it again afterwards and possibly realize the additional significance of some event or detail -- this happens a fair amount in stories with an element of mystery. Adding new details is less common than adding new meaning to already familiar details.

    Also, while ignorant children in a new environment fit your first method, so too do ignorant adults -- or any other ignorant person who has to have the world explained to her.

    I haven't figured out how to use the third method in a way that feels right. I have used and continue to use the first and second methods; an ignorant or unfamiliar character comes into a new environment, and looks around at everything so the reader can become familiar with the setting. Or a character who is already intimately familiar with her world will get involved in whatever problem or situation drives the plot, and describes her world to the readers when details become relevant.

    As with most writing techniques, quality of writing makes a huge difference. I wouldn't decline to read a book just because it used one of these methods. I would, however, get annoyed with an author if they used one of these methods clumsily or obnoxiously, for the same reasons that I would get annoyed at a furniture maker if I sat down in a chair I'd purchased from her and found myself besplintered.
     
  13. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think I am using two and three with my second story - the MC has the best knowledge and ability to use the powers of anyone living, but he doesn't understand that - he just knows he and his partner spent hours practicing together as teenagers to release sexual tension lol The hours they put in together taught them things people hundreds of years older than themelves have not achieved. It is revealed unto to him throughout the story who he really is, where the powers he has related to the universe etc

    He certainly isn't ignorant of the magic. His ignorance is about who he is and where he fits in. Doesn't really fit into any of the descriptions lol
     
  14. johnjames
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    johnjames Member

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    I try and avoid the "who he really is" bit. It's a tricky thing - sone authors manage it really well, most churn it out as a cliche.

    "We need the super-legendary hero to defeat evil and save the day!"

    "But where will we find such a one?"

    "Well, I'm not sure..."

    "Ah, but wait! He's been here all along. See that kid in the corner who we inexplicably brought with us and, for some reason, hangs around with kings and princes despite only being a peasant?"

    "...yeah? What about him?"

    "Legendary hero."
     
  15. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    In my story the character is certainly not a peasant he was the Crown Prince until he abdicated:) He should now be King. He is now deputy headmaster at a prestigious school and is living with the head of the secret service.

    He is leading the journey etc His discovery is when the abuse his parents heaped upon him childhood finally makes sense his mother had an affair and got pregnant with him. She told her husband she was raped. He looks just like his birth father.
     
  16. w176
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    w176 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I prefer when things isn't explain. Neil Gailman is a fantastic example of a writer that can do this beautifully, and so is GRR Martin.

    Just keep things consistent, give a feel of how things works and let the intelligent reader connect the dots and fill in the blanks with thir own imagination. If you built a solid feel of the word in you own head, you just need to show it in an consistent way bit by bit it will paint a vivid picture.
     
  17. wavodavo
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    wavodavo Member

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    johnjames, I use methods 2 and 3 because I write action stories. My characters are moving through their world, interacting with it...basically, dealing in passing with their world. So, I describe as I go--a sentence or two--as part of the action on the moment.

    World building has to be handled carefully, without ego. There are U.S. authors--names I won't mention--who have made millions in the 1970s by inventing whole scifi and/or fantasy worlds. I had to abandon their stories because they just couldn't get over sharing their fantastic worlds with the reader. The description went on and on and ON. The subtext was "See what a brilliant imagination I have?". I remember tossing a female author's book away because I had entered the third chapter where our MC was still sitting alone in a room still reflecting in infinite detail about the alien planet he was on. "Great God Almighty! MOVE!" I thought, "At least get a drink of water or something!"

    So, anyway, I avoid stopping the action to describe--unless the character is confronted with something completely unexpected or alien. In my mind, most people would stop dead in their tracks and stare if a mountain floated by.

    Most of my world building involves a slightly ignorant but otherwise competent character being guided (sometimes) by a slightly more worldly one: "That ain't a bear, Pol! Shoot it and thirty of her brothers will sue you and your entire family into the poorhouse. Come on. I'll introduce you."
     
  18. johnjames
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    johnjames Member

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    wavodavo - I think I know which 70's authors you mean...

    Ultimately, it's about balance - with whichever method is preferred. Too descriptive and, like you said, you just want the author to get on with it. Not descriptive at all, and the MC may as well be floating in a void.
     
  19. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    Personally, I think I'd run like hell.
     
  20. Islander
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    Islander Contributing Member Contributor

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    Or stare a little and say, "Man, that stuff must have been GOOD."
     
  21. Nalix
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    Nalix Member

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    I guess any of those methods can be good if its appropriate for the story. The whole "fish out of water" thing is helpful for introducing readers to an unfamiliar world, and it also gives at least one of the characters an experience of discovery parallel to the readers. The others can work too, if there's a reason for a character to meditate on some aspect of the world or talk about it. Otherwise, a lot can be accomplished with simple description. Even if something is commonplace it can still be an appropriate part of a narrative description. The only danger there is in having the description distract from the action.
     

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