Five men stood on the scaffold. One of them, you would assume without even needing to see under the hood that covered his whole head, certainly did not want to be there. One of them betrayed no signs of discomfort; once he had placed the noose, he leaned back against the frame with almost indecent nonchalance, and watched the other three men with what could have been mild amusement. Or derision.
The other three did not want to be there, and their heels scraped on the deck, coat-tails flapped, hands wrung or clasped. Execution, they told themselves, was sometimes necessary.
Clue Me What To Imagine
There are a number of clues in this short passage as to what is going on, where, and when. The reader will, unconsciously and consciously, as you just have, pick up on them and form an impression of time and place.
This is the ideal of world building. To suggest a world, while telling the story. In contrast, the nightmare of world building is to have to describe the whole world of the story before you can even begin to tell it.
I call it a nightmare because in reality, it should never happen. But that doesn’t stop a lot of writers from trying.
However, there’s a very specific lesson that I want to draw from the passage above, a lesson that reveals the best techniques for world building while also revealing one of the drawbacks.
When I described the scaffold, what did you think it was made of?
Wood. I’m thinking wood.
So what if I told you that this story is set 1,000 years in the future. The world is in the grip of an ice age. Full snowball Earth. People live in cities under the ice, or on the slopes of active volcanoes whose cones pierce the unending ice fields.
There are no trees.
The scaffold is made from a sort of concrete, produced under high temperature and pressure. It’s uniformly black, and has a surface like seaworn glass. It’s used for almost everything that wood is used for, except that it doesn’t have to be cut or worked, but can be made directly in its final form.
All Story Worlds Have To Be Built
Remember, world building isn’t limited to SF or Fantasy. Laurens van der Post’s 1972 book A Story Like the Wind is set in the Kalahari region of South Africa in what can best be described as an uncertain period somewhere in the twentieth century.
NOTE: Story Like the Wind is one of over 100 titles that we’ve selected as Required Reading. They range from literary classics to contemporary bestsellers, and many are freely available. Get the entire list.
Few readers could possibly know the world of the Kalahari that van der Post builds, but it is essential not only to the nature of the story but to its action.
Similarly, the Barrytown of North Dublin that Roddy Doyle builds for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (which was on the short list for the 100 books, so you should probably read it too) is not a world known to many of the book’s readers, yet is real, vibrant and believable because of Roddy Doyle’s world building.
In all cases, the best world building is achieved the way that the passage at the start of this post works. If you’re American, you probably saw the kind of scaffold you see in Ted Post’s 1968 Eastward vehicle Hang Em High. If you’re European, you might be more likely to imagine a scaffold from an earlier period, like the ones in Jake Scott’s 1999 highwaymen romp Plunkett and Macleane. You might even have imagined the executioner’s hood, even though I only mentioned a hood on the head of the condemned man.
Between ourselves, public executions are an excellent way of setting location and period without even needing to get on with the story. The reader will stay with you, because a public execution has innate drama and spectacle, and there are so many possible consequences, both obvious and subtle, that can be worked into the story.
Stick to What You Know They Know
This technique works because it takes advantage of what the reader already knows. It appeals to the reader’s memory and associates strong visual images in order to provoke the reader into imagining the world that you are thinking of, so you don’t have to describe it. Not only does this get you off the hook, it means you won’t bore the reader with extensive infodumping.
Of course, you have to have your wits about you, even if it isn’t the treeless future I described. You have to know that most readers are going to imagine either the Old West of Hang Em High or the Swashbuckling Eighteenth Century London of Plunkett and Macleane (regardless of the fact that both are mythical – a topic for another time). Because you have to make sure that you do something to ensure that the reader knows which one it is. Hats are good. Hats are downright semiotic (eventually, you will have to read Mythologies by French writer and critic Roland Barthes, but probably not now).
Just use the word stetson and everyone will be in the Wild West (never mind that the bowler (derby) and the topper were much more commonly worn until Hollywood invented cowboys). Similarly, the tricorn is inextricably linked in Europe with highwaymen, but in the USA, it refers to the colonial period, so isn’t enough on its own. You could reinforce the sense of place by mentioning the reaction of the crowd, and through it, the fact that many people are watching from stone balconies – proof that we are in a well-established city. Mention that the sky is grey and the cobbles damp, and it starts to feel more and more European.
Mention that the in spite of the high, bright sun, people are wearing thick coats against a biting dry cold wind, and we’re back on the High Plains again, only this time directed by Eastward himself.
Stick with the details that are iconic of the setting. Mention a *cough* six-gun and it might be a little too obvious that this is the Wild West. However, mention a revolver and this could be an execution following a court martial almost anywhere in the world up to the mid twentieth century. Have some guards push back an excited crowd with their muskets or instead arm them with rifles or carbines.
Each type of firearm acts to place the scene slightly differently in time and place.
All this is how it ought to work.
But Sometimes Something Is Missing
What happens to this technique when you’re in a world that doesn’t correspond to the reader’s memory or cultural baggage. It might be something as simple as a realistic representation of the Old West – where, as I already implied, there was a lot more variation in hats, but also in clothing and firearms. No matter how much research you do into the authentic dress and décor of the time and place, as soon as you mention Tombstone or Dodge City, your readers are going to imagine cuban heels and poor horsemanship. Tom Mix has a lot to answer for!
In my future Ice Age world, any time I mention a table, a chair, a door swinging open, a chopping block, a knife handle – anything, in fact, that for centuries or much much longer has been made of wood, most of my readers are going to imagine wood, unless I go to the trouble of impressing on them very hard that there isn’t any wood. That it’s always something else. That the same material isn’t always substituted, too. Sometimes the best alternative may be metal, sometimes plastic, sometimes something else altogether.
It would drive me and my readers crazy if at every mention I had to remind them that it wasn’t wood. But if I don’t, how will I stop the reader from imagining wood? And later on, when the reader remembers that there isn’t any wood, breaking the immersion completely?
A Common Problem?
I’m not telling you all this because I think you’re going to encounter this problem often.
I’m telling you because I want you to see both descriptive writing and world building in a different way. I want you to see them as part of the process of storytelling, not something you do first, in order to be able to tell a story.
And, occasionally, there will be something like a woodless world, that you will have to work around. The best way is to avoid any mention of it at all. Remember, the people who live in this world will take for granted that the only things made of wood are rare, carefully preserved artifacts and treasured heirlooms – enriching world building stuff, in fact. So the people who live in this world aren’t going to be thinking very much about what chairs, tables, doors and whatnot are made of.
So you don’t really have to get hung up on making sure the reader knows.
Unless the purpose of this Ice Age world story was that the ice is melting, and that the people need to discover a new way to live in a thawing world. And maybe some intrepid explorer is going to discover a tropical zone where a combination of volcanic activity, latitude, and some microclimates, mean that trees and other vegetation have survived.
This will throw into relief any mention you have made earlier on of the rare and ancient wooden items that survive, as well as all the alternatives to wood that people have been using. The absence of wood becomes a motif which enhances the impact of the discovery of these surviving trees, and enables you to fold into the mix a sense of the precariousness of the world we live in today.
Why do we build alternate worlds?
Which, after all, goes to the purpose of books in the first place. In SF we write about invented worlds to reflect our present world. In fantasy to exaggerate our present world; in historical fiction to contrast our present world, and so on.
In conclusion, then, description works with what you know, or expect, about the reader, so you can use a minimum of detail to stimulate the reader’s memory and imagination into doing as much as possible of the work for you.