World-building: Showing What Isn’t There.

I went to panels on world-building at conventions. I asked, “How do you show what isn’t there?” This caught panellists off guard, and the answers weren’t very satisfactory.

I wanted a world where girls flew gliders. Along the way, I had to create a planet and a society that made that plausible. Raisa’s world is low on metal. I know the reason, but Raisa doesn’t. I never explain, and I can’t have Raisa wandering around saying, “This would be so much easier if we had metal.” She’s never seen a steam engine, or electric wiring, or even a decent mirror.

I turned to books. An old favourite, Courtship Rite, by Donald Kingsbury, is revelatory. Warning: this book will strain your brain, but it’s worth it. By reverse engineering, and much gnashing of my mental teeth, I deduced that there are different ways to show what isn’t there.

  1. Show what is there.
  2. Create conspicuous work-arounds.
  3. Use scarce examples.
  4. Illustrate with myth.
  5. Avoid inappropriate metaphor.
  6. Substitute metaphor that fits.
  7. Write for the senses.

Kingsbury’s festival of the horse is a fabulous example of myth. The children make horse costumes that are not merely whimsical, they are so far-fetched that you know they’ve never seen the animal.

Here are some ways I applied these techniques:

  1. In early scenes, we have a horse drawn cart and urgent messages relayed by semaphore towers. There are stone and ceramic knives for sale in the marketplace.
  2. Raisa eats with chopsticks and an earthenware spoon, not a knife and fork. Her sewing needles are bone, and coins are glass.
  3. Raisa’s mother, Maria, has a metal ring. Not a gold ring, not a silver ring; a metal ring. It’s grey, and so precious it’s worn only for special occasions.
  4. Later, it is revealed that Maria’s ring is a platinum wedding band, brought by her ancestress at the time of the First Landing and handed down for generations.
  5. There are no steely gazes, leaden skies, or iron fists on Celadon. It would make no sense for the locals to have those words in their daily vocabulary.
  6. A flinty stare, or eyes that glitter like obsidian, can help immerse the reader in Raisa’s point of view. The expression  glass in pocket replaces brass in pocket.
  7. When Raisa visits the Converts, who do have metal, she is startled by the cold feel of a metal door, and the clanging of her feet on metal stairs.

These methods work well for other aspects of Raisa’s life. Chickens and ducks are real, but the bird names the girls take when they become Avians are more mythical. At quiet times, background sounds include distant farm noises, but never birdsong. A discussion of birds in the old Earth ecology touches on how some of them ate insects, and the young instructor can’t help but mention how dangerous to essential silkworms and bees this would be. Okay, that’s exposition, and I deliberately left it off my list because it’s not immersive.

Sometimes exposition provides necessary clarity, but I do it as artfully as I can. I try to make it fit in, not stick out. Editors and critique pals were adamant that I must spell out that the rings in the sky are planetary rings, not smoke rings or something. So the first time I mention them, I had to find an excuse for Raisa to think about them. Thereafter, they’re just the rings, and everybody takes them for granted. I was careful to make sure they never disappear, though. They’re always there, and people notice them when they’re thinking about what time of day it is.

Did I miss any? I’m not claiming to be an expert, I’m just gabbing about what I’ve learned so far. Do you have a technique or trick  that you’d like to share with writers who need to show what isn’t there?  Or do you have a book that you revere for its world-building prowess? Comments are welcome.



2 thoughts on “World-building: Showing What Isn’t There.

  1. These are awesome examples, Tim! I particularly like #5 – excellent point that I probably wouldn’t have thought of. My big thing is character attitude – what do they take for granted, what amazes them, etc, based on what exists in the world. And I’m very careful with colloquialisms and profanity, since a lot of what we use is based on culture. I’m wracking my brain trying to think of who’s the best at subtle worldbuilding – I’m gonna go with Abercrombie, since his books are so immersive that I’m sure he included some subtleties that I didn’t catch.

    • Yeah, #5 is a tricky one: an invisible way of showing what isn’t there! To my knowledge, no reader has ever picked up on it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t working for them in subtle ways.

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