Thursday, June 12, 2008

World Building

Last evening one of the writers in my fiction group talked about world building and logic, big deals for all of writers, whether we know it or not, whether we write speculative stories or the most traditional. We still need to set the scene in such a way that the reader knows the landscape, one room or a thousand acres. However, in sci-fi, fantasy, magical realism, we have a greater responsibility to create logical rules of the local reality. If turtles talk, they talk. Under what circumstances though? Are they understood by other creatures? Can they understand human beings? Do they care to communicate with us? It's writer's choice, but if they can and do, then we accept that skill and read with that condition in place. Turtle talk is, for the length of what John Gardner calls the fictive dream, acceptable, expected, an element that moves the story along. The problem comes when we don't know fairly early on that our turtles speak and all of a sudden we turn a page, come around a corner and there's a turtle on a soap box orating.

A kindly reader will perhaps shake her head and keep going. A less patient one will close the book and go out for coffee, feeling that the writer broke the contract. The book was purring along on the track of a serial killer with a contagious disease, and suddenly we're in another world. Not good. I'm reading, again, Watership Down. The rabbits talk to each other and in a pidgin form to other creatures. Okay, I'm good. But Adams keeps poking his head into the room to tell me in his own voice about Lapine culture. He puts footnotes on many pages explaining the rabbitry vocabulary, but the notes are not neutral. They too are in his voice. Yet no human being is part of the world he has built. So he continually pulls me out of the dream. I'm ignoring him as best I can, but I have to work harder to stick with the story than if he had just built the world according to Hazel (protag) and let me sink into it. Writers cannot always be, as Joyce described it, like God paring his nails and ignoring the story unfolding on the page. We are there, building the world in a lot more than seven days. We have a responsibility to build well and true.

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