May 20 2008

Are you writing a story or an atlas?

Published by at 9:15 am under Writing Articles

When fantasy novelists begin a novel with a world-map, that scares me. It is too tempting then to begin the book with a lengthy list of the places in your world, such as the Plains of Woe or Agraria or the kingdom of Lucinel or the Mountains of Rockiness or wherever. Unfortunately, readers don’t really know much (if anything) about these locations and they aren’t very engaging. As a novelist, you have at most three sentences to make us want to keep reading and Lucinel is a word that means literally nothing to us.

When readers pick up a fantasy book, they do not want an atlas. They want a story. Places do matter, but they are most assuredly not the meat of your story. Instead of telling us Lucinel is west of the Plains of the Hobgoblins, tell us about a Lucinel resident who will interest us. “It was only slightly before he saw the elf’s face explode that the reporter had begun to regret signing up with The Lucinel Muckraker.” This immediately immerses us in a story and gets us asking questions. Who’s the elf and why did his face explode? Who’s the journalist? What’s wrong with the Muckraker?

By contrast, introducing a slew of locations raises no questions except for “why should I care about this location?” If readers have to ask themselves why they should care about your writing, they’re probably imminently about to stop reading. Don’t let this happen to you!

10 responses so far

10 Responses to “Are you writing a story or an atlas?”

  1. Malloryon 02 Jan 2011 at 10:54 am

    There was always trouble in Polista City. There were the normal everyday bad guys, like thugs, robbers, muggers, killers, and more. Then there were the villains who were powerful, cunning, and evil. Added to villains are the monsters and demons from the underworld making my city more deadly.

    Would this be an interesting first paragraph or should I change anything? By the way, this website is really helpful for writing.

  2. Malloryon 02 Jan 2011 at 10:55 am

    There was always trouble in Polista City. There were the normal everyday bad guys, like thugs, robbers, muggers, killers, and more. Then there were the villains who were powerful, cunning, and evil. Added to villains are the monsters and demons from the underworld making my city more deadly.

    Would this be an interesting first paragraph or should I change anything?

  3. Malloryon 02 Jan 2011 at 10:55 am

    Oh oops! I don’t know how it duplicated.

  4. B. Macon 02 Jan 2011 at 1:30 pm

    I’m not quite feeling it for an opening paragraph. It might be more distinct if you lead with a notable example of someone that sets the stage of Polista City. Maybe a villain or an everyday bad guy or demon or maybe a particular crime.

  5. ekimmakon 29 Apr 2011 at 4:10 am

    Ok, I’m not exactly sure where I should put this up, but this seems to be as good a place as any… How detailed should in-universe media be, and how should it be handled?

    B. Mac, I remember reading somewhere that in “The Taxman Must Die”, there’s a parody of Pokemon in it, as a violent game that kids play and obsess over (Forgive me if I described it wrong). What I’d like to know is how you use this sort of information in someworks work, and what for.

  6. B. Macon 29 Apr 2011 at 7:43 am

    Yeah, Ekimmak. I use Hegemon as a take on Pokemon–gotta kill ’em all! (In political science, “hegemon” means “superpower”–basically, who can kill the most). In Pokemon, characters act even more viciously than heads of state do. You usually go to war alongside your allies, but in Pokemon, you throw your slaves into gladiatorial battle and watch from the rear. And all for your career advancement, you prospective Pokemon Master, you!

    Perhaps the saddest thing about Pokemon is that Ash Ketchem really thinks of his battle-slaves as friends.

    At the moment, I introduce it as an element of conflict between Agent Orange and his nephew. On Saturday afternoon, AO wants to watch the Gators play and his nephew wants to see Hegemon. In the ensuing brawl, the TV gets damaged and they can’t change the channel from Oprah or some preposterously girly soap opera.

    Another way I may use Hegemon is if I need to explain why nobody (even kids) seems to find a mutant alligator particularly scary-looking. Well, he does sort of look like a Pokemon, even though he finds himself perfectly badass and dresses accordingly.

  7. JVKJRon 28 Nov 2012 at 5:09 pm

    I wrote the beginning of my book several years ago, and I started it out with this. I would change it if I think of anything better, but it takes place in another world, and there’s A LOT of traveling and exploration throughout the book. Plus, how can I just introduce character in a place without giving any information as to WHERE that place is?

    I also used it to introduce several of the main problems that are in the story. Can anyone give me any advice?

  8. Dr. Vo Spaderon 28 Nov 2012 at 7:07 pm

    I often flip to the map at the beginning of books to help.

  9. The Milky Wayon 28 Nov 2012 at 8:37 pm

    Hi! I’ve been reading around your wonderful website and my writing just skyrocketed. This is my first post, and I was wondering if you could answer for me… B. Mac is it?

    Okay, I’ve got a little problem. I’ve made an entire world, with features that are occasionally strikingly similar to the real world in eh.. about the 1700’s.

    The problem is that my story starts in one of those ” countries “, obviously. How would I slowly explain to the reader without bombarding them with exposition that it’s in my fictional country of ” ABC ” and still keep them interested in reading the novel?

  10. B. McKenzieon 29 Nov 2012 at 7:46 am

    1) As much as possible, introduce the world by having characters experience it. For example, instead of saying that Norweden is a fascist dictatorship, show Norwedes afraid to make eye contact with police officers or that teachers and TV shows ask kids to turn in parents for crimes against the state. Instead of telling us that Amerance has a more reserved approach to romance, have passersby snap things like “Get a room, hippie!” to people holding hands on the street or have parents freak out if a kid walked in on a kiss. Instead of telling us that Chungbukistan is more white-collar than blue, you could show kids going through a 16-hour school day (including homework, hagwon/private academy classes, and possibly tutoring in an extracurricular activity) and professional video gamers filling stadiums with fans and generally getting treated like rock stars, and actual rock stars that look like Psy.

    2) Please incorporate these details into what the characters are trying to accomplish and what obstacles they are trying to overcome. For example, merely writing a summary of Amerench romantic practices would not be very interesting, but we might be interested in how it presents challenges for someone with an urgent romantic goal. An overview of Chungbukistani academics would probably not be very interesting, but it might be interesting to see an international soccer scout try to accomplish difficult recruiting goals but struggle with students that are more interested in Harvard than Manchester United. Or, ahem, a foreign teacher struggling with a VERY different teaching environment than he/she was expecting.

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