February 25

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The Woes and Wonder of World Building: guest post by Chris Holzworth

Here is a guest post from Chris Holzworth (a former student of mine), discussing that strange paradox which all writers face: much of the work of writing seems a blind slog through guess work and revision, constantly encountering unplanned detours, with characters and settings coming out perversely different from how you intended—and yet good writing, as a finished product, seems perfectly ordered and designed, perfectly sychronised from start to finish, each section leading unexpectedly but inevitably to the next, so much so that a casual reader might think the whole thing was composed and drafted in one care-free afternoon. How does a writer, and a writer of science fiction / fantasy in particular, try to cope with these two contradictory sides of writing and, at the end of it all, produce good work?

The Woes and Wonder of World Building

Chris Holzworth

An interesting question was raised by a peer of mine in Daniel’s Advanced Creative Writing Class: At what point does a writer know when to focus on prose and when to focus on plot? Well, this is a difficult question—one without a definitive answer. Neither, it would seem, is completely independent of the other. Both are intertwined and become a recursive process, and both need to be addressed during drafting. Now, this advice may seem geared toward the particular genres to which I gravitate—science fiction and “fantasy” (a term I hesitate to use, since it tends to evoke Tolkien High Fantasy—I am equally trepident about esoteric subgenre labels such as “New Weird”)—but as someone who stumbled into writing through video games, namely Japanese Role Playing Games, I’ve always placed particular emphasis on cohesive narrative plots. And since breaking into classic and sci-fi detective fiction through such works as Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon, Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, and Sara Paretsky’s Warshawski novels, the importance of a tightly woven narrative has been effectively hammered into my brain.

What isa “tightly woven narrative”? For me, it is a Rube Goldberg machine, where there are no major loose ends—every character, every event, every narrative moment, like the machine’s parts, may seem arbitrary, but, by the end, the pieces of a seemingly disparate puzzle become clear. The characters’ arrival through the denouement to the ending click, make sense. Everything that happens, every detail, serves a purpose and pushes the story, weaves it into a cohesive package. Even if the event involves, say, a character going to a coffee shop, the tightly woven story uses this scene as an opportunity to focus on some aspect of the character that will become relevant later and link to the overall story.

“Writing is very much like bricklaying,” stated Red Smith, as quoted in Plot & Structure. “You learn to put one brick on top of another and spread the mortar so thick.” Unfortunately, there is no trick or clever technique or genius (well, perhaps a little genius) behind creating a tightly woven narrative. Your best hope, your safest bet, is planning. Prewriting. Taking the time and effort—just as much time and effort as you would put into prose writing, perhaps—to construct characters, their backstories, the world, its inhabitants, its politics, its everything. Hell, the fact that there are so many damn books, like Plot & Structure, about the “techniques and exercises for crafting a plot that grips readers from start to finish” proves plot’s importance.

The thing is, in my relatively brief experience, I’ve found there are really only two approaches to fiction plot construction. The first is extensive prewriting—spending a year or so building up a world, its inhabitants, its texture, its culture, and damn near every minute detail. This no doubt is particularly relevant for the science fiction and fantasy writers, who have to create a living, breathing, thriving world out of thin air. But even for those whose writing is set in the real world, the complexities of a tightly woven narrative require extensive planning. The other option, and the one I find myself blending with prewriting, is to flesh out and tighten plot as I move from draft to draft. Part of the drafting process involves strengthening your prose, your dialogue, your narration—honing in on Point of View, on character values—but with each new draft, so too do you find new ways, better ways, to pull your plot strings more tightly together. Plot and prose are never mutually exclusive.

I am currently on the fourteenth draft of a short story I’ve been kicking around for two or three years. After the first year, I set it aside, knowing full well I had failed to textually execute that which possessed perfect clarity in my mind. Then Daniel’s class swung ‘round and I decided to dust off this particular story—“Nazca City Blues”—in an effort to raise its caliber. I adored the potential of my protagonist, I loved the idea of blending detective fiction with an unconventional fantasy setting. As my piece neared its workshopping, I vanished off the radar and spent nearly two weeks producing ten drafts. With each draft the story grew more cohesive, the prose stronger. I wrote outlines, mapped out the story’s progression and scene interrelations on index cards. Printed out hardcopies and studied the movement of the story. Questioned the relevance of dialogue, characters, and events. Fought through heartbreaking deletions of paragraphs and scenes. Even now, after fourteen arduous drafts, I still find myself blue-penning whole sentences and noting when and where the narrative dips. Even now, as I bounce ideas off of other writers, Daniel included, I find myself discovering new ways to tell a more effective detective story from what I’ve created thus far, better connecting the characters, plot arcs, and world building.

I was shocked to learn from Daniel that, often, creative writing teachers and published writers alike dismiss the importance of plot. Now, I am willing to bet these writers happen to have a knack for plotting and narrative pacing. For some people it really is an innate talent. But they are a rare breed. For others, particularly beginners, it’s not so obvious. More often than not, the sheer effort it takes to fill ten blank pages is a sufficient accomplishment for most. It’s why so many undergraduate fiction stories—mine included—are clunkily paced. The end fizzles. It’s easy to get swept up in filling the canvas, completing the sketch.

Ironically, despite those who dismiss plot’s importance, there remains a plethora of basic plotting and pacing techniques taught to writing students—Freytag’s Pyramid and Syd Field’s three-act structure, for instance. This screams the importance of plot, whether we choose to recognize it or not, and I think that, like the need for a functioning command over grammar, sentence structure, flow, and formatting, so too do early writers need to learn plotting structure to avoid having stories that meander about pointlessly (or, worse, not engagingly).

Honestly, as I see it, there’s no way to get where you’re going without a roadmap. For writers, the outline is the roadmap. There are countless outlining methods: some use traditional outlines, some outline in prose. Others break stories into scenes or acts, laying out brief descriptions on index cards. Methods vary, and no one way is necessarily better than another—go with whatever system works best for you. It’s highly personal and subjective. But one thing remains certain: attention to pacing and plot are paramount. If it weren’t, Writer’s Digest wouldn’t dedicate a whole book to plot and structure. And those of us not raised by talented intellectuals with a penchant for writing—as Mary Shelley was—need a grasp of the basics and a firm foundation before plunging into a ten thousand-word manuscript. Hell, we need this knowledge just to bang out a ten-page short story that locks readers’ interest from start to finish.

At the end of the day, plot is important regardless of the kind and length of the story you’re telling. And if you’re like me, aiming to construct elaborate worlds with complex sociopolitical dynamics and a rich, original history, well, you have only one option: to embrace the woes and wonder of world building.


Tags

Chris Holzworth, detective, fantasy, genre fiction, plot, sci fi, story structure, Syd Field in creative writing classes


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  • Cristina C. says:

    Lovely reflection Chris! I am interested in your ideas since we are presently encountering a variety of plots and pros in our fiction class.

    Just between you and me and every onlooker to this blog and post- the fiction of mine we workshopped today was inspired by a story I heard on the Discovery channel of an elderly woman who was living by herself in a house, in a wooded area, and had taken to feeding wild animals from her porch, so much so that bears came regularly around her property and eventually ate her. lol. But of course, as Zac professed, killing your characters is no way to deal with them. Fortunately, there was something more about the story that drew me to it. I was curious, about elderly people, living on their own, what do they do to pass the time? Especially when their grasp on reality starts to loosen. This information is all besides the point, but I thought it’d be fun to share.

    Now you might be able to imagine how dramatically my plot changed from what it initially started out as. My goal for the workshopped revision was for my readers to experience the failing of a loved one to Alzheimers for the first time. Of course I sought to bring this experience to them through Leanne’s narration, the daughter of the victim. What I find interesting about my approach to building plot in light of your reflection is that whereas you mention “laying bricks,” I designed the “scaffolding” upon which my story would be supported. This is a perspective I learned in playwriting.

    My main character had to have an objective/desire/need. Leanne is determined to take care of her mother. However, it is hazy whether her objective is driven more so by her compulsion to control and keep order than out of love for her mother. There must be obstacles to Leanne achieving her goal. Readers can sense Leanne is conflicted right away, as she predicts she will break down and everything will fall apart. Leanne overcomes this conflict, because she moves her mother in with her and begins to even enjoy caring for her. Minor obstacles occur, such as scheduling, because mentally failing Mom is an inconvenience. Although Leanne tries to view the situation through a positive light, the discussion with her daughter (Cara prompting the question to Leanne and her husband, “Will you get [ Alzheimers] too?”) was purposed to re-surface the conflict that Leanne has optimistically attempted to overcome. As the end of the story nears, Leanne’s determination to even care for her mother and keep her mother happy, let alone control and heal the situation so that “its not even a problem at all” is starkly defeated by the inevitability of Mom’s fading from the woman Leanne has always known to an angry, unreasonable, unreachable and even violent person.

    Mainly, Leanne initially overcomes the conflict by making various successful efforts to care for her mother , but ultimately succumbs to the conflict because the disease is beyond her power.

    I understand the necessity of scenery, dialogue, exposition, backstory, narration- of course- but as far as plot goes, these are the elements I’ve trusted as the scaffolding or bricks, for my story and appreciated, me being a beginner. This is an 11-step formula I learned for playwriting.
    1. A need that turns into a goal 2. Action begins as the main character pursues that goal 3. That pursuit is thwarted in some way 4. Main character sets out to pursue goal again 5. Conflicts arise that make goals more difficult to achieve 6. Main character achieves goal. Resolves conflict 7. Everything goes okay 8. Everything begins to fall apart 9. New crisis or addendum to the earlier crisis 10. Climax 11. Character achieves fulfillment or not. Resolution
    What do you think?

    I especially agree that you develop your prose through narration. Only by playing with dialogue between herself and her husband, did I realize that Leanne is lacking self-awareness and is naive. I feared my prose might be too simple, not literary enough, but obviously she wouldn’t be as realistic a character if she used prose like Edmund Burke.

    Glad I ran into this post here. Excuse me for my self indulgent response, I think I’m rather excited about having written my first fiction. I am already tip-toeing curiously into revision, but look forward to having free time over spring break to dive in. Will you entrust me and blog viewers here to know whether we’ll be getting another of Naphtalia’s adventures in fiction for the second workshop?

    An idea for another reflection is one regarding questions readers should ask when reading stories critically. I am often embarrassed of my written responses after we workshop the stories, because important elements are brought up that I do not detect. What do you generally ask while your reading a story, especially in your genre? I’d love to hear Daniel’s response to the same question! I feel silly, like I should know this, but I feel like its a conversation too important to ever be too old to have.

    • Cristina:

      Glad that you responded to and enjoyed my post. I am very flattered.

      If you ever care to discuss some of the questions you posed toward the end, or writing in general, shoot me an email at chrisholzworth@gmail.com and we can exchange contact information. As an aspiring creative writer myself, it’s a topic I can go on and on about and could recommend several really great books that cover every aspect of writing. There’s also a short chapter from a book I scanned from Daniel’s class that, as he agreed, is especially relevant to beginner writers.

      Hope to hear from you,

      Chris H

  • Sure you do. You might have to create as much as you would for fantasy or science fiction or any sort of alt-genres, but even with stable locations and culture in place in the real world, you’re still working with that material to create the characters, situations, backstories, and who knows what else–companies that are intertwined with the plot and characters, et cetera. My point is, I think world building is a technique applicable to all writing–especially beginning writers. It may not be as extensive if you’re working within a contemporary setting, but it’s still going to be necessary. Who is the protagonist? Where do they work? Do they work? What’s their relationship with their father? Mother? What was their childhood like? All these questions about characterization fall under the umbrella of world building, to me, because even if you’re working with ~our~ world, you still need to create a plethora of elements, events, et cetera that haven’t really happened or don’t exist. See: Indiana Jones. Or Blade. Or, hell, Gilmore Girls–the entire town of Stars Hollow and all its nuances are the byproduct of extensive world building.

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