And now, for the latest book I gave up on. This one was a fantasy and there were like five books in the series, so I figured it would be good. And it WAS very promising. But it was also very confusing. Set in a make-believe world, it was based on a unique and fantastical element, contained an involved political hierarchy, a main character who didn’t know who he was or where he’d come from, and two separate point-of-view characters whose stories seemed unrelated.
Now, because fantasy is by far my favorite genre to read, I’m used to magical elements and complicated caste systems and too many characters. But this one was just too much. As I read it, my brain was trying to figure out the political system, and where the hero fit into it, and who he really was, and how the magical element worked. And what was with the second narrator? Where did she fit in?
I see this problem sometimes with fantasy and sci-fi. I write mostly fantasy, and I have this problem myself. The author tries to make things so unique that the reader has to focus too much on assimilating new information and she can’t enjoy the story. But there are ways to introduce a whole new world—even one that needs explanation—in a way that won’t confuse readers.
City of a Thousand Dolls is a book that does this very well. In this story, there’s a rigid social/political caste system, a school for abandoned girls with its own separate hierarchy, talking cats, and shape-shifting characters who can turn into different animals. This story could easily be confusing. Instead, it’s deeply engaging with an incredibly strong sense of place. Here are some ways that Miriam Forster introduces her fantasy world without overwhelming readers:
1. Introduce new elements slowly. It takes awhile for readers to assimilate new information. If you throw too much at them at once, their brains can’t keep up and they either shut down and quit reading or they miss important information that will cause confusion later. Space out the introduction of new information so readers aren’t overwhelmed. Don’t try to jam it all into the first chapter.
2. When possible, show unique elements instead of telling them. Many fantasy writers make the mistake of stopping the story to explain some of the unknown bits. This kind of telling, especially at the beginning of a story, should be avoided because it a) drags the story to a halt while the author stops to explain stuff, and b) further slows the reader’s progress because she’ll have to pause later on to assimilate the given information into the current story. Instead of telling or explaining new elements, introduce them through the context of the current story.
One of the unique elements in City of a Thousand Dolls is something called an asar. To show what it is, Forster references it in context, and the reader is able to figure it out without even slowing down: Her satisfaction lasted only as along as it took for a group of girls to decide she was an easy target in her plain gray asar and untidy braid. And a few paragraphs later: She could imagine the House Mistress perfectly, her rust-brown asar wrapped so it came only to her knees, the short sword at her side. With these two context clues, the reader gets an idea of what an asar is without having to interrupt the story to figure it out. When it comes to fantastical elements, show whenever you can.
3. Don’t Reinvent the Wheel. As a fantasy author, I know our tendency to go a little crazy with the world building. We’re so into our new world and its uniqueness that we come up with new inventions and new names for everything. But too much of this becomes tiring for readers. If you have a unique element, make sure it’s necessary. Forster’s asars play an important part in the story because they designate which house each girl belongs to. Through this article of clothing, she avoids having to identify each girl’s house when the characters are introduced. So think carefully before coming up with a new form of lighting, time telling, transportation, or messenger service. Keep the unique components that add to your story and stick with what already works for the rest. (For more tips on creating a believable setting, see this post on World Building Rules and Elements).
4. Simplify. Sometimes it’s not just the cool elements that we tend to overdo. It’s the plot line, setting, family history, political structure, etc. In many cases, these things can be simplified without taking anything away from the story. To see if your overall story has got too much going on, summarize it. If you can do so succinctly and listeners aren’t confused, then you should be able to write it in a way that readers will understand. If you share your summary and listeners have to ask questions to clarify, you either haven’t summarized it well or you’ve got too much going on. See what can be removed or pared back so the amazingness of your story can shine through instead of being overwhelmed. An added benefit of summarizing your plot line or setting is that it shows you what’s important. Whatever’s included in your summary should be introduced and clarified first. Then you can move on to the other stuff.
So. Now that I’ve shared my ideas…have you read any other-worldly books that were fully believable? What techniques did the author use to make the whole thing work? And if you missed the first two posts in this series, you can find them here and here.
Lastly, I’m posting today at the Chapter Book Challenge blog, sharing some of the inspirations that got me through my own NaNo month. If you’ve got time, please stop by and cheer the ChaBookCha’ers on 🙂
Thumbs Down Image: Geralt @ Pixabay
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.
Cora Blu says
I’m fortunate my readers love the world I’ve created and speak favorably about it in reviews, but it was true labor to create a believable underwater world run by tiger sharks.
Again great post.
An underwater world run by tiger sharks?! OMGosh, I’m definitely checking that one out!
Traci Kenworth says
I’m actually editing one of my books now because I think there’s too many types of scary creatures. It’s hard work but it’ll be worth it in the end.
C. Lee McKenzie says
I’m not a big fantasy fan unless that fantasy’s for kids. However, I did succumb to helping out someone on an adult fantasy recently. I was so confused by the end of Chapter 1 (well, during, too) because of the complicated names and the heaps of demons or angels or whatever that I surrendered and bailed on the project.
You’re right. Build the world carefully and slowly introduce the key concepts or risk losing your reader.
Debbie Erickson says
Great post, guys! I write fantasy for children and it can be challenging. Thanks for sharing.
Julie Musil says
Becca, spring break is the BEST! Ours is the week after Easter, and we’re planning a trip up the CA coast to do a college campus visit. OMG!!
I usually don’t read fantasy, but your ideas apply to contemporary as well. James Scott Bell calls it the “iceberg” technique. We should just write the tip of the iceberg at first, then get to the rest later. Not always easy to do, though, when we feel the reader needs to know everything right now!
BECCA PUGLISI says
Oh my gosh. College! I can’t even imagine. But then, five years ago, I couldn’t imagine a day when both of my kids would be in school, and that day’s coming in August. Enjoy your spring break! And I love the iceberg analogy. James Scott Bell is AWESOME, isn’t he? 🙂
Christina Hawthorne says
You’re exactly right! I still follow the same rule I was taught in college: ALWAYS think of your reader. When I open a fantasy and the first page starts with a character, Oupa’planema’reotemie IV, who’s the 17th cousin removed from the ousted king who isn’t a king, but a glittering mass of plasma with a sidekick named Ottowa’romie’turomie who’s… I’m done. I’m going to go study physics because that’s easier to understand.
Too, I think it’s important to create a world as big as the entire alphabet, but you only need to feed the reader a couple of letters to make it work. As long as they sense that alphabet exists, and as long as you’re consistent, then they’re content. If you do it right then at the end of the story they’re anxious for the next one and hoping to learn more about the world.
From what I’ve read of Carol Berg I like how she meshes the fantasy elements with a realistic society and characters. I adore Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker Trilogy for the same reasons, plus I like the more modern-esque setting. Her characters are superb and pull me through the stories, which is a good thing because the middles of her books can drag until they’re mind-numbing.
BECCA PUGLISI says
You know, this is an important thing to remember about fantasy, too—that even if you have a completely made-up element, you don’t have to explain the whole entire thing. Just give them enough to go on, enough to put a scaffold together, and they’ll be able to figure out the rest.
Diane Rinella says
This is a great article. I’ve had a paranormal romance in mind for years, but every time I start it’s either too complex or sounds like every other book. I keep stepping back for perspective. This may have inched it closer to reality.
BECCA PUGLISI says
Yay! I hope you’re able to make it work!
:Donna Marie says
I’ll say it again—you and Angela are FANTASTIC! 😀 OK, so…
I also write fantasy and are more drawn to fantastical things, so this is right up my alley 🙂 I love when craft is broken down like this and you do such a great job of it. Thank you!
And, Iola, I’m totally with you on the “sleep” thing. Sounds like something very key that really doesn’t work. I guess the readers just let it slide or don’t stop to think about when he sleeps! lol
BECCA PUGLISI says
Thanks so much, Donna! Openings are so hard to get right, and they really are critical to a story’s success. I figured, if I could figure out some things that didn’t work and share them with everyone else, maybe it would give us all a leg up. So glad you’re finding these posts useful 🙂
Robert Foster says
What if there are elements and things the MC’s don’t know? For example, in my series Into the Realm, my main character has no idea what the Walker of Worlds is, even though that’s him. The way I’m envisioning it, my MC meets the previous Walker who then fills him in via a series of tales. Would that be alright, or do you think it would be too much?
Christina Hawthorne says
I think your approach can work, Robert, depending upon how it’s handled. If it feels like the tales only exist as a clever way to impart backstory the reader might become impatient and/or annoyed. On the other hand, if they’re shared with a sense of mystery it might work. “Mystery,” I think is the key word, for your MC not knowing his true place in the world is a mystery and a great gift for you as a writer. There’s much that can be done with that and it’s a great hook for readers. Good luck.
Well said. It’s posts like me that make me realise perhaps I don’t dislike fantasy after all. Perhaps I’ve just had a run of bad fantasy—fantasy that breaks all these rules—and I’ve decided it’s too hard based on books that weren’t written well, or where there were little things that bugged me.
I read one fantasy where the hero moved between our world and another world every time he fell asleep. This bothered me: adult humans usually sleep for 6-8 hours each night, so why did no one ever comment (in either world) that he spent a lot more time asleep than normal? And when did he get to rest, if every time he fell asleep he woke in the other world?
I did enjoy the book, but every time he fell asleep and switched worlds I had this niggling “why hasn’t anyone NOTICED?!” in the back of my mind.
Christina Hawthorne says
Iola, your mention of awaking in a different world on a regular basis sure sounds familiar, or perhaps it’s just overdone. Either way, I completely agree. Too, when I read fantasies where the protagonist travels between worlds via sleep I always feel like I’m going to be sucker punched at the end when the narrator tells me “it was all a dream.” It cuts into my suspension of disbelief. To me it’s lazy world building (until someone figures out how to do it well, that is).