Terms of Involvement

How involved should you get in the worlds you create? I don’t mean cults, addictions, or video games. I’m speaking here as a writer. One of your tasks as a writer is to create a world that your reader can immerse him/herself in, and thoroughly enjoy without ever doubting its reality.  Depending on how thoroughly you describe it, this could involve social structures and mores, an economy, religion or lack thereof, magic, science, physical laws, etc.  You need to give the reader enough of any of these to be able to imagine a fully formed world around your story. Sometimes you can accomplish that with a few words. Sometimes it’s through piles and piles of background deftly inserted in the narrative.

So far, so good. But a comment from fellow author Zed Paul (watch out for his books; you’ll like them) got me thinking about how deeply the author should be immersed in the world. How much should you just put down on ‘paper’ the world you see all around you in your imagination, and how much should you describe it as an interested, but distant technician?

Which approach I use depends on the story, though it’s not usually a conscious choice. The immersive approach is definitely more fun to write; the distant approach can feel clinical, and that may show in the writing. But when you’re deeply immersed, you know the world already, in a way that your reader doesn’t. It’s easy to take things for granted, and either leave out basic details (of geography, say), or to flood your reader with new information (and terminology).

I can think of at least three approaches.

  1. Write with one approach, revise with the other. Easy to say, harder to do. Just recall the trouble we all have catching obvious typos, and you’ll see why that is. You know the story to well to spot everything.
  2. Use outside critiquers. This is the obvious solution to solution 1. And it works well, but it takes time (if you do it seriously), and each reader has his/her own level of preferred detail. Your readers have to be happy, but so do you.  And you have to be consistent in the level of detail you provide. We’ve all seen stories that are info-heavy in the first few pages, and then suddenly stop.  I’m not blaming this on critiques, of course. It’s just an example of inconsistency.
  3. My own preferred approach, to the extent I think about it consciously, is to write as a traveler. Yes, I know the generalities of the world, but I don’t know what the rules are in this town. So, if someone uses a new term, I rely on the context to make it clear. If they start talking about the neighbours, I want to know where those people live.

Whichever approach you use, travel safely.

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