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This is a guest post from author CJ Lyons. I also interviewed CJ about writing thrillers with heart a few months back – she has a lot to teach us!
People often associate world building with science fiction or fantasy. But I’d like to talk about a different way to build a world, one that works for any genre.
It involves you, the writer, stepping back. In fact, stop trying to world build on your own. Instead, let someone else build your world for you.
Your characters. Specifically, your point of view characters.
Talk their talk, walk their walk. Live their world through their eyes and your reader will feel transported. Every choice your characters make, from what clothes they wear to the car they drive, helps to create this alternative universe for your readers. When a reader begins your book, you make them an implicit promise: You will entertain without boring or insulting their intelligence.
This translates to the only two rules I follow when writing: Never Bore and Never Confuse.
You start building your world with the very first sentence. Which is why so many books begin with descriptions of setting or weather. But there are other more dramatic ways to pull your reader into your world.
Here's one of my favorite first lines. It's from Evan McNamara's FAIR GAME.
Ever since we shot half of the Mineral County sheriff's department, my deputy and I have been a little shorthanded.
With that one line, McNamara creates an entire world and invites the reader to enter. And with a hook like that, what reader would refuse?
How does McNamara do it? He made sure his opening had three elements: it is visceral, evocative, and telling.
Visceral: as in revealing the point of view character's emotions.
Here we have a first person point of view. We immediately see that the narrator is laconic, that he's a man of action (shot half the department), and there's no remorse here, is there? Makes you wonder if maybe he's gonna get his comeuppance for those past actions during the course of the story.
Read that last sentence again. “Makes you wonder.” You as in the reader.
McNamara creates immediate tension in the reader and involvement by the reader. How? By making you care enough to wonder about something.
This is what I like to call Emotional Velcro. It is a great technique for any hook, whether it's an opening line, a pitch to an agent or editor, back cover copy, or a query letter.
Emotional Velcro works by evoking emotion in your audience.
That's the next element in world building: Evocative details. Using word choices to elicit emotion in your reader.
We already discussed how McNamara created curiosity, but what other emotions did you experience in reading this one sentence?
A feeling of kinship or empathy at a lawman forced to kill half his department? A sense of bravado? How about anticipation of what might happen next?
And lastly, to successfully world build, you need telling details.
Every single detail you choose must do the work of creating your universe for the reader.
McNamara uses several telling details: half the department was shot (telling the reader that some survived). They were shot by we (telling the reader that it wasn't only the point of view character doing the shooting). Where are we? Mineral County. Telling us the book will take place in a small town, rural setting. And who is the main character? The sheriff who's been overworked and shorthanded but still has at least one loyal deputy to help out.
Wow! Look at everything that one sentence achieved!
Most of us won't be able to pack that much oomph into one sentence. But remember, book buyers make their decision whether or not to read your book in less than 30 seconds, so you need to get those telling, evocative and visceral details up front.
Should you stop there with the first page? Heck no. Once you make that promise to your audience, you need to keep delivering, building that world brick by brick.
What are those bricks made of? Details. The decisions your characters make.
You're not building your world alone. By choosing the right visceral, evocative, and telling details as experienced through your point of view character, you invite the reader to join you.
Once your reader is invested in your story, you've got them hooked!
Give these visceral, evocative, and telling details a try with your own world building. And don't forget, have fun with it!
PS: Want more info on how to let your character do the driving while world building or plotting? Check out No Rules, Just Write! Crafting the Character Driven Novel at http://www.NoRulesJustWrite.com
As a pediatric ER doctor, CJ Lyons has lived the life she writes about in her cutting edge thrillers. In addition to being an award-winning, bestselling author, CJ is a nationally known presenter and keynote speaker.
CJ has been called a “master within the genre” (Pittsburgh Magazine) and her work has been praised as “breathtakingly fast-paced” and “riveting” (Publishers Weekly) with “characters with beating hearts and three dimensions” (Newsday).
Her award-winning, critically acclaimed Angels of Mercy series is available now. Her newest project is as co-author of a new suspense series with Erin Brockovich. You can learn more about her fiction at http://www.cjlyons.net and explore her craft of writing books at http://www.NoRulesJustWrite.com
Image: Flickr CC William Cho
Do you have any tips for world-building?