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?
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.