Friday, August 24, 2018

Sneaking in Character and Worldbuilding When Your Reader Isn't Looking

Posted by: Shawna Reppert

One of the hardest tasks that any writer faces is laying out enough details of his or her character and setting so that the reader is fully immersed without resorting to pages of boring exposition that will cause the reader to put the book down entirely. This is doubly true for authors of science fiction and fantasy, as we often have to introduce readers to wholly unfamiliar settings and to characters whose situations may be vastly different from the reader's workaday world. The author has to make every sentence count, and one of the best ways to accomplish this is by making descriptions, dialogue, and interior monologues do double or even triple duty, giving the reader insights in the character and/or the world while advancing the plot.
By using dialogue, I am absolutely not talking about “As you know, Bob. . .” ( For those of you not familiar, ‘as you know, Bob, is the common phrase for when a writer awkwardly inserts exposition into dialogue. “As you know, Bob, the two-headed green aliens invaded three years ago and we’ve been living in these caves ever since.”)  Trust me, there’s a better way.
Think about the last time you eavesdropped on a conversation in your local coffee shop. (Oh, come on, you know you did.) How much did you learn about the people at the next table and their lives just by those few lines that weren’t directed at you. (Sometimes waaaay too much!)
So, let’s take a quick look at the opening from my medieval fantasy, Brother to the Wolf.
Worth’s normally placid dun mare snorted in alarm and pulled back, wrenching his shoulder and nearly jerking the leather lead from his hand.
“Stag damn it.” Alf Smithson dropped the hoof rasp as he jumped back from the suddenly panicked animal. Alf’s face was red with anger and exertion, clashing with the rust of his beard. “Thought you were holding her, m’lord.”
Alf only called Worth m’lord when he was upset with him.
“Alf, look.” Worth pointed to the east, over the gray stone walls of his father’s manor.
. A bit of action, a bit of description, a snipped off dialogue. But what have you learned, probably quite subconsciously? You know that we are in a medieval setting.  Although there are still farriers in modern times, the surname ‘Smithson’ tells us that we’re in an earlier period when a person’s last name told you something about them, their occupation, or where they came from. And also when trades tended to be passed down from father to son. We can tell that Alf tends to be a bit hot-tempered and that Worth, though of higher rank, allows a degree of familiarity from those of lesser rank and does not think it beneath him to perform tasks like holding a horse to be shod. We know that Worth is the son of the lord of manor.
Let’s move a little bit further down in the same section.
The mare broke into a reluctant, but obedient canter—Yes, thank you—and then a lumbering gallop. She was a good Seax horse, bred as much for farm work as for riding. Please, just this once, find some speed. The ground was uneven. The mare stumbled, and Worth slipped. He grabbed mane, and righted himself. He was a decent enough rider, but nothing like a Vainqueur knight who was born to ride—and to kill.
Here, in the midst of a tense moment where my protagonist is riding toward danger heralded by distant smoke, we get hints of a division in our world. We have the agrarian Seax, the protagonist’s people, and the war-like Vainqueur.
Go back and look at some of your favorite works.  See how sneakily the author slips you information when you’re not looking.  And then go and try the same thing in your own work.

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