In this post we’ll talk about what New York Times bestselling novelist Brent Weeks has to say about world building and see if we can’t dig up a few examples from his books to help us understand his process. And to conclude, let’s try practicing his methods ourselves. A writing prompt will follow. So to begin, principle number one is this:
Principle 1: Introduce the setting early and on a need-to-know basis
The bulk of world building must be done in the first chapter and to keep readers interested it must be done very well. Brent, in a quote from his own site, had these words of wisdom to share
“You want to seed some of the world building early so it can pay off later, and you want to fill in enough of the details about the world so it doesn’t seem like your characters are wandering through a fog, disembodied, talking and fighting with each other.”
So to keep our readers from this disembodied fog, we’ve got to introduce as much as we can of the setting as quickly as possible – preferably in the first couple paragraphs of the story in my opinion.
Principle 2: Don’t use info dumps
This is really a variation of the “show, don’t tell” principle, but “info dumps” may be the fantasy writer’s worst nightmare when it comes to description, especially so when the author has written several hundred pages of backstory and setting before even putting a pen to paper. With so much material, it can become tempting to just shove as much information out upon the reader in the fastest way possible. However, this is awful and should be avoided. I have no examples of this from Brent Weeks, but let me show you an example of it in action, drawn from my own boundless, drivel spewing imagination.
“The planet of Thog was home to the Thogians, a humble desert dwelling race of humanoids who delighted in bloodshed and mayhem. On their borders lay the civilization of Tarta, a race made up of scaly lizard like creatures whose only desire was to eat flies, and bask in the sun.”
Do you see the problem? First off, this isn’t even a story. It’s an encyclopedia entry. And what’s worse, its boring. Really boring. You can communicate the same thing through action and carefully selected detail. Although this oftentimes will take up more words than the info dump, its far more enjoyable to read. Here’s my attempt:
“Leo the lizard bathed upon a rock, surrounded by waving palms. He wasn’t quite asleep yet, and he blamed this primarily upon the fly that kept buzzing around him. Opening one eyelid, the fly flew almost directly overhead. Leo caught it with a quick flick of his tongue, sighed contentedly, and began to drift off to sleep again.
Meanwhile, just over the giant sand dune which lay behind Leo’s sun bathing rock, a horde of Thogians had arrived at the outer reaches of the Tarta lizard city. Leo was first alerted to this when he woke to the the guttural howls of a frothing, frenzied bipedal creature with long thin strings of fur protruding from his head running down the sand dune towards him holding a strange, long, metallic implement. Puzzled but not alarmed, Leo didn’t know what to make of it. If it was an insect, it was the strangest one he had ever seen.”
This is much much better. It reads like a story and is a lot more entertaining. We still understand the basic idea that there’s a lizard race and a humanoid race from the desert who like to kill things. We also understand a little about the naïve psyche of these lizards because of Leo’s strange reaction to the frothing madman. And as a bonus, we also learn a little bit about the character Leo, not just his race in general. So conclusion: don’t use info dumps. Should you find yourself using them, immediately subtract two gold stars from your gold star account. And remember the overarching principle: Show, don’t tell!
Principle 3: Give the reader a basic frame of reference
The first step to good world building is cluing the reader into the culture, period or place in history that your world is basically modeled after. In other words, a frame of reference.
Here’s an example of how he “clues in” in the reader to the setting on the first page, first paragraph of his book The Way of Shadows. While you read, ask yourself, “what basic type of world immediately comes to mind while I’m reading this?” Hint: It may involve castles and knights.
“Most taverns in the city had dirt floors, but this part of the Warrens had been built over marshland…so the tavern had been raised a few inches on stilts and floored with stout bamboo poles.”
Even though there are taverns in the world around us, if the reader is at all familiar with the castles and knights setting the ‘dirt floors’ and ‘warrens’ are words that clue us into the setting without a large amount of exposition. True, the setting isn’t definite at this point, but in absence of other details that hint at an exotic location, this will be the reader’s first assumption. Lets keep going. Continuing to read beyond the selection, we soon meet a reference to “coppers”, the world’s monetary unit. For most fantasy readers, this is a dead giveaway to a castle & knights, D&D type world. Our confidence increases. In the paragraphs following this selection, we soon encounter other words like ‘assassin’ and ‘sword’, all but cementing the reader’s hypothesis that this story is taking place in a castle and knights type of world we’re all so familiar with.
Principle 4: Introduce unique additions to the world once the frame of reference is established
Contemporary readers won’t stand for a completely generic castle and knights type setting. They’ve read it a hundred times. So the next step is to introduce your own unique additions to the world, which we can see in the following selection also from the first chapter of The Way of Shadows. Once again, while reading, ask yourself what your first assumptions are about the setting and character.
“If he were braver, he would have looted the bodies in the tavern, but Azoth couldn’t believe Durzo Blint was dead. Maybe he was a demon, like the other guild rats said.”
Let’s dissect the quote a little bit. First, it shows the youth, inexperience, and naivete of our boy hero Azoth. He’s unsure of himself, not very brave, and relying on second hand information from unreliable sources. Secondly it firmly alludes to the idea that there are actually demons in this world. And then, finally, it creates a very powerful aura of danger and supernatural power around the Blint character. All of that in two sentences. Kind of impressive.
So that’s the process. To summarize, as soon as possible clue the reader onto the books socio-historical frame of reference and unique additions to that world through careful use of sparsely added details.
Okay, let’s practice these concepts in action, transforming some wretched piece of my kid brother’s writing, which although it may bear strange resemblances to some of my own attempts at writing, I assure you has no connection of the sort.
Before diving in though, lets figure out what essential worldbuilding elements we want to communicate: the basic setting (which is an essentially Star Wars-esque type universe), demons who have conquered much of the galaxy, the main character Marya who is very emotional, the love interest between her and a man named Leo, a magic system that allows special “phase agents” to instantly teleport themselves anywhere in the universe, and finally the job of the phase agents (which is to rescue civilians who live in worlds occupied by the demons). Okay, so that’s the list. Let’s see how successful my attempts are at communicating all of that.
The first attempt:
“In all of intergalactic space, the empire held sway. And then the demons came.”
Okay, this actually isn’t awful. It establishes quickly the idea that this is taking place in a futuristic “intergalactic” setting, which, with the reference to “empire”, we assume is probably somewhat similar to Star Wars or any number of space operas. And then it gives us the author’s unique twist: demons have now entered intergalactic space. But while this selection isn’t awful, it’s way too much tell rather than show, at least for my taste. Let’s “tells” like this book side fold, and fill the inside of our book with actual character driven narrative.
The second attempt:
Knife pressed firmly against his throat, hands white and shaking, Marya decided she really, really hoped she wasn’t going to have to kill Leo.
Leo cleared his throat, “What I’m trying to decide Marya, is whether or not I should be worried.” His voice rang through the lifeless corridors of the Intergalactic Citadel, sounding too loud for the unnaturally still and near endless metallic structure.
Marya barely heard his question. She felt her entire body shaking, unable to restrain the hot perspiration which had begun to cling to her skin, her hands, her neck. Almost surreally, she felt the insane urge to pull at the stiff collar of her academy issued cadet uniform. Why had it suddenly gotten so hot?
“And after I’ve decided whether or not I should be worried,” Leo hesitatingly continued, “I think I’d like to know why you’ve decided to put a knife to my throat.” He made as if to move, but Marya desperately pressed the knife even deeper into his neck, drawing a thin line of blood. He stopped.
Okay, this isn’t bad either but although it clues us into the intergalactic setting with the references to the “academy” and “intergalactic” and it tells us Marya is a very emotional character, it says nothing about demons, phase agents, or the love interest. This could be a perfectly fine opener I think, but lets see if we can do even more, pack more world building into an even smaller space.
Marya and her fellow cadets looked down at the twisting maelstron of blackness in the containment chamber. Leo playfully edged her in the ribs, his blue eyes twinkling, as he whispered “Demon flesh, it doesn’t look too bad. I say we use it as a hockey puck this next leave day.”
Just looking down at it though, Marya felt a twisting sickness in her gut and she found herself unable to laugh.
Their instructor continued. “In all the intergalactic empire, this is the only known piece of demon flesh – if one can indeed call this material “flesh” – that has been recovered from the darkened zones. Although easy to enter these zones due to the capability of well trained phase agent – as you will all be one day – can travel to a darkened planetary system in mere seconds, the demons themselves are… less easily dealt with…”
He trailed off before continuing, “An entire squadron of agents save one was lost when this was obtained. Along with them were consumed the 20,000 thousand civilians they were sent to rescue.”
Okay better. Although it is fairly expository, the exposition takes place via instruction from a professor as dialogue, so its much more interesting than plain ol’ info dumps. The first clue that we’re in the generic Star Wars sci-fi universe is the mention of cadets. Later on, this suspicion is all but confirmed when the instructor references the “intergalactic empire”. The reference to “demon flesh” and the sick feeling it gives Marya, indicates pretty clearly both the demons and Marya’s emotional nature. The friendly elbowing from Leo at least hints at a love interest. The instructor discusses the “darkened zones” and it becomes fairly obvious that these are worlds under the control of the demons. The mere seconds comment from the instructor hints that the “phase agents” have some sort of teleportation ability or something akin to it. And it seems pretty clear what the purpose of the agents is: to rescue civilians in the demon controlled zones.
So not perfect, but not bad either in my estimation. I wonder if Brent would be proud…
To get you practicing on your own, the writing prompt for this post will be to find a crappy beginning from one of your past novels, or even someone else’s, and perform the same rewrite process I just barely did on my demon, phase agent story. Good luck!
I welcome comments and amendations to my ideas if any of you have some.
-Dan & Scott