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Transcript for Episode 9.23

Writing Excuses 9.23: World Building without Breaking Viewpoint


Key points: How do you get across world building with a character who has a limited view? I.e., how can the fish tell you about water? There are a number of hacks, including the Watson character and a scientist who is studying it. But when you have a character who is completely immersed, how do you do this? First, make it a fun reveal with subtle clues that the reader puts together. Second, don’t make the setting the whole story. Third, put extra time into exposition. Making it a significant plot point allows the extra description. Or make it jarring and incidental. An oddity for those who don’t understand it, an Easter egg for those who get it. Accept that some of your readers will not get it. Another trick is putting characters in situations where something is new, so they describe it, and in the process, describe the background. Give your characters reasons to think about things that are related to the scene, the moment. Make sure you follow the motivation, the passions and inclinations of the characters, not the plot necessities. Align the character’s motives with getting the information to the reader in ways that are fun to read. Use emotions to mask information. Try writing it several different ways to discover what works best. Hacks: having someone from another culture, or a scientist or student investigating; analogies and idioms of the local culture; make the element plot or character important, to bring it to the forefront; curses and insults.

[Mary] Season nine, episode 23.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, world building without breaking viewpoint.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Brandon] We’re going to be talking about viewpoint. Now this came from a question from a fan, that they wanted to know specifically how you can use a character who has a very limited view of the world yet still get across all the powerful world building that we want to get in a fantasy novel. Dan, do you actually have that email? Were you going to read that to us?
[Dan] I do. I will read the specific part of it, but we had previously addressed the question “How do you make it clear that the weird aspects of your world are done on purpose rather than just being bad science?” Which came from this guy. His name is Adam Beis. We answered that, but we didn’t quite get as deep into it as he wanted. He was talking more along… He says, “I specifically wanted to deal with fantastic world building when dealing with a limited perspective, something along the lines of seasons being only a few weeks long in The Way of Kings, or the example of climate change discussed as an example of it being done too subtly.” Then he gives an example from his own writing, which we thought was interesting. He says, “I still have no idea how to write a story that has the visual range changes that come from taking place in a plane rather than a sphere as key plot points without taking readers that know about sphere-based visual range out of the story.”
[Howard] Which of course we then had to generalize because…
[Mary] None of us know…
[Howard] Well, but… I mean… But the operating principle here is that you have characters who… For whom the world they are in is the world that they are in. It’s asking the fish to tell you about water. Yeah. You’re writing about the trip downriver from the point of view of the fish, and you want to be able to describe water to the reader. How do you accomplish that?

[Brandon] This is really hard. Let’s just put that out there, saying… I’ve said before that getting across world building without breaking up your story and making it boring is the grand skill of the science fiction/fantasy writer. It is such an important skill that we have found all kinds of hacks to get around doing it, such as the Watson character or the scientist that’s studying this so we have an excuse to explain it. These all work really well. But for this podcast, we’re going to assume that none of those are available to you. You do not have a Watson character. You do not have your phone going off in the middle of… Oh…
[Dan] Of course not.
[Brandon] You do not have a Watson. You have a character who’s completely immersed in this bizarre world, and you need to get it across. So how do you do it?
[Mary] We all stare at each other.
[Dan] Oh, wow.

[Howard] No, one of the first things… One of the first things that I will do is I will treat the discovery of… The discovery on the reader’s part of key world building elements as a fun reveal, and I will try and build the character’s POV so that the reader is getting subtle clues about what it is that I want to teach, and then after a certain point, the reader will have enough information to know this one piece.
[Ring tone]
[Howard] Oh, I am a fish going downstream in a river. But that’s… That may not be the whole story I want to tell. The story I may want to tell is the fish’s relationship with the other fishes, not the fact that they’re fish in water.
[Mary] Yeah. I ran into this with… I can’t remember the name of my own story. But it’s the story with the tidally locked moon, which we talked about before. One of the things that I ran into over and over again was people wanting to know, “Well, why… It’s just… Why is the moon just hanging there? Why isn’t it rising and setting?” Attempting to explain through the point of view of a character for whom that was the natural order of the world, and the idea… It was just… So what I wound up having to do was actually spend way more exposition time on her observing the effects than I would have done normally. Just because I had to spend that much time going, “No, no, really. This thing is happening. And I’m aware that it’s strange, but this is the way it’s happening.”
[Dan] Well, another neat thing that you did in the later draft that we read was to have that character witness the eclipse that happens every day at noon. Which was a way of describing very evocatively something else that the tidally locked thing affects. So then we’re getting the sense of movement and we’re understanding, “Oh, I understand what’s going on now, it’s just very different from what I am familiar with.”
[Mary] Right. But that’s an example of where I had to spend way more time describing that then I would have for… Oh, it’s noon. I wouldn’t have to describe [noon on other?]
[Howard] Yes, but the way you did that in the story, it was a… It was story important, it was a plot point, it was a significant event, so the reader does not feel that you spent too much time explaining it.
[Dan] But…
[Howard] The reader is watching the story unfold.
[Mary] That goes back to POV. Which is how to do it without breaking POV.
[Dan] And in some ways, that was one of the hacks Brandon said we’re not allowed to talk about, because it was an outsider describing this new culture’s noon time ritual.

[Brandon] Let’s move on from this point, though, and talk about some other ways that we do it. Not… So we don’t get too mired. One of the things that the person brought up is that in the Stormlight Archives, we have a planet without axial tilt and seasons don’t happen the way that we imagine them on our planet. To them, when the… A season happens is oh, it got cold for a little while. It’s winter now for a few weeks. Then when it’s not cold anymore, it is not winter and now we’re calling it spring. This is a translation effect that I put… That I said, “How am I going to get this across?” Well, to a person speaking English, they would call winter the cold time. So I’m going to translate what they say as the cold patch as winter. I did this to make it jarring, to… Then I made it incidental. These are the two things. It’s mentioned incidentally, I did not make it a plot point. I made it just something that they talk about so when they say, “Oh, it looks like winter is going to be here for a few weeks. I hope that spring comes again in a couple of weeks.” When it does, they’re like, “Oh, good.” When it lapses back in the winter, people who are paying attention are like, “This is bizarre. I don’t understand this. But this is how it works.” That worked really well in the Stormlight Archives because those people who really know about seasons and weather and things like this say, “oh, I know the astronomy of what’s happening with this world. That is cool.” For everyone else, is just a bizarre aspect of the world. It doesn’t influence the plot in a major way, and you just accept it for what it is.
[Mary] Yeah, George RR Martin does this. Like with the incredibly long winters. One of the things actually that I love about his books that people don’t actually talk about is that it is a moonless planet. One of the ways that he deals with it… It falls into the category of at no point does anyone ever say, “There’s no moon in the sky.” But he demonstrates it by having dark nights all the time, and if you’re paying attention, he never describes a moon and there’s nothing lunar related in the language at any point in the world building. That’s one of those things that… A lot of times you have to accept that your readers… Some readers don’t notice that it’s a moonless planet. You kind of have to accept that.
[Brandon] That’s what I would say is a big part of this, is accepting that for a lot of these things… It can’t happen for your story, because your story, this is a major plot point. So I guess a decision is, is this a major plot point or not? If it isn’t, you can make it incidental in these ways.

[Brandon] We’re going to go ahead and stop for the book of the week, which is going to be Howard.
[Howard] I do. In a… I don’t want to say rare, it’s a currently unprecedented turn of events, I have the opportunity to promote an audiobook of my own stuff.
[Howard] This is amazing fun for me. Extraordinary Zoology: Tales from the Monsternomicon Volume 1 is a… It’s a novella that I wrote for Privateer Press and they’ve done an audiobook for it. I’m really excited about this. The story itself is adventure fiction set in the Iron Kingdoms. It’s a steam punkish sort of setting. It’s the story of a young, I guess graduate student in the Department of Extraordinary Zoology, who is following a legendary professor out into the woods to look at something new. It’s… They’re hoping it’s something new, because if it’s not, then it’s something very, very old and they’re in over their heads. Lots… Lots and lots of fun to write. When I originally wrote it, I… It was going to be three 10,000 word novelettes, but they’re all bundled together as one story. You can get it at, start a 30 day free trial membership, and get Extraordinary Zoology absolutely free, by me, and narrated by Scott Aeillo.
[Brandon] This is really fun, because if you guys have been following the podcast for the last… Oh, eight years or whatever it is, or seven years we’ve been doing this…
[Howard] Six years.
[Brandon] Six years we’ve been doing this podcast, Howard has never been able to promote a book in audio form because he hasn’t had things published in prose that ended up in audio. So this is your first chance.
[Howard] A thing that I have planned, at risk of stretching the ad out even further, the thing that I have planned is to listen to this audiobook while painting Privateer Press models.
[Howard] So that I get to have somebody read my own fiction to me while I further embed myself in this universe.
[Mary] I was so hoping that what you were going to say was that the thing you have planned is a Schlock Mercenary audio play, but…
[Dan] Someday.
[Brandon] Okay. Let’s get back…
[Howard] That’s… That should also happen.
[Mary] How do they get it, Howard?
[Howard] I already told them.
[Mary] Okay.

[Brandon] Let’s get back to not breaking viewpoint as we world build. All right?
[Howard] Well… Let me talk a little bit about Extraordinary Zoology because when I asked them about this book, I said, “Who are the readers? Are the readers people who are already embedded in this setting, or do I have to spend a portion of my 30,000 words getting people into the Iron Kingdoms setting?” What they told me was, “Well, try and strike a balance so that new readers won’t be put off and existing readers won’t feel like they’re being lectured to.” That was really, really hard work. Most of what it involved was taking a character and putting them in a situation where something that they observed was new and they could describe it. They are observing a new thing, new to them, and there were enough characters in the story that we could pick up enough pieces that you could tell you were in a steam punk setting with monsters.
[Mary] Yeah. One of the tricks that I use that is similar… Because I run into this problem because I’m trying to write the Glamorous Histories so that you can step into the book at any point is that if it is a plot point that is going to be important from a previous book that’s going to be important with this one, then I will give my character a reason to think about it that’s related to that scene, that moment.
[Brandon] This gets into… What I wanted to say is the number one thing I find with young writers in my class, when their language gets stilted, and this world building’s the same problem, it’s because they are not properly following or expressing the motives of the characters. Usually they’re not following the motives. The dialogue becomes controlled by the plot necessities rather than the characters’ own passions and natural inclinations. So if you want to world build and have it not feel stilted, not breaking viewpoint, then you want to ask yourself, “How can the character’s motives align with getting the information across to the reader in such a way that it’ll be a fun read?” If you can do this you’re going to be able to get these things across.
[Mary] One of the specific questions that I ask is, “What emotion does my character feel about this piece of information that I’m about to convey?” Because if I can… Honestly, frankly mask it with emotion, people won’t notice that I’m slipping them world building information.
[Brandon] Right. Exactly.

[Dan] When we talked about pre-writing, there’s a lot of pre-writing techniques that can be used for this. If you’re trying to find that right balance of how much information to convey and how far can this character push it, try three or four different ways and see what works. Say, “I’m going to write this scene describing nothing, assuming that the reader knows everything even though I know that they don’t,” and then see if it works. Then when that totally doesn’t work, then alter your parameters a little bit. Just try different things and see what feels right.
[Brandon] Now, of course, when Dan mentions pre-writing, he means of course the episode we will do in the future, because as a time traveler, he’s already listened to it.
[Dan] Yes.
[Brandon] That will be coming in a few months.
[Howard] We will have done that episode in June.
[Dan] Hey, guys, that episode’s going to be awesome.
[Mary] I cannot wait.
[Brandon] Mary, you were going to say something?
[Mary] In the future, I was. Boy, I completely…
[Dan] Do you want me to tell you what it was, because…
[Mary] Because you’ve already listened to this episode?
[Howard] Oh, man. They loved that joke.
[Mary] Thank heavens.
[Brandon] [inaudible]
[Dan] I would tell you, but no spoilers.

[Brandon] All right. So this is… Now we should probably talk about a few of the hacks that you can use. Since I mentioned… I said you can’t, but they are good hacks. Having someone from another culture interact with this thing works beautifully for doing this. Having a character who has a scientific or some sort of knowledge about this thing that they want to investigate is another beautiful way to accomplish this. Do you have any others?
[Mary] I do. Analogies and idioms of the local culture.
[Brandon] Yes. Those are like gold.
[Mary] They’re so good. Like I needed to have… It was a fuzzy worm. I said something along the lines of, “The scarf was as red as a fuzzy worm in winter.” Then immediately tells you… Or a fuzzy worm that’s molted for… Something. I can’t remember exactly what it was. But it tells you about what the fuzzy worm is, so that when the fuzzy worm turns up later, you’re like, “Oh, this is a creature that turns red.” I don’t have to do quite as much work.
[Brandon] You can also construct your story in such a way that this element is plot central or central to a character, so that it becomes the… It comes to the forefront.
[Howard] That was one of the moments that the Avengers movie did absolutely wrong. It was the point at which Thor said, “Oh, you’re fighting like Bilgesnipes.” “What are Bilgesnipe?” “Oh, they’re…” And then he describes what they are. I remember that moment of dialogue being a moment that felt like it was completely wasted, because Thor could have used a different metaphor and actually told us something…
[Dan] Well, and then you got the Star Wars method, where they will drop lines like that and then never explain them at all.
[Brandon] Both of those are little bit missed opportunities. Granted, you will have some of those that you want to use, but… Yeah.
[Mary] Although the fighting Bilgesnipes builds… In a certain context can say…
[Howard] That could have been a wonderful.
[Mary] Because it could say, “Oh, bilgesnipes are people who fight like that.” Actually, curses and insults are another really fantastic way…
[Brandon] Insults are not used enough in this method.
[Mary] One of the great ones actually is all of McCoy’s insults to Spock tell you about how Vulcans are perceived, they tell you about Vulcan physiognomy and biology, and it’s like all world building that they’re sneaking in as character.

[Brandon] All right. Let’s go ahead and do a writing prompt. Howard, do you have a writing prompt?
[Howard] I do. Come up with a really, really nifty high-tech sort of setting with some sense of wonder and some cool bits that you would love to describe to a modern reader, and then have point of view characters be… I don’t want to say cavemen type folk, but people who don’t understand this stuff and have to… Happen to be living among it and try to explain it to us from the perspective of somebody who will have no idea how it works, but takes it for granted.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.