Home    Workshops    Members Only    Contests    Join    Contact us                       RWA Chapter

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

World Building by CJ Lyons

Thanks to Sharon and everyone at FFandP for inviting me to join you today!

I know that you guys discuss world building quite often since people often associate world building with science fiction or fantasy. But I’d like to talk about a different way to world build, one that works for any genre by focusing on specific word choices and details.

In order to draw the reader into your story you need to create a universe where you both control the rules and where you make a promise to the reader to also follow those rules.

If the world you create is 1950's cold war Berlin, you'd better not have your hero pull out a cell phone. Seems obvious, but world building is much more than mere scenery. 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 an implicit promise is made by you as the author: 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.

I'm going to share with you my favorite first line of all the books I've read this year. 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 that he 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 pov character's emotions.

Here we have a first person pov and we immediately see that he's 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 by making you care enough to wonder about something. It's what I like to call emotional velcro and 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.

This is the next element in world building: evocative. Using your 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 pov 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!

Okay, most of us won't be able to pack that much oomph in one sentence. But remember, book buyers make their decision whether or not to read your book in less than 3 pages, 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. And what are those bricks made of? Details. The decisions your characters make.

In essence, that means that you're not building your world alone. By choosing the right visceral, evocative, and telling details to color your plot and character, you are inviting the reader to join you.

Once your reader is invested in your story, you've got them hooked!

Anyone who wants to play around with seeing the effect their opening lines have on an objective audience, feel free to post your FIRST sentence in the comments. Then, let’s all try to find the Visceral, Evocative, and Telling details in them, see whether they hook us or not—and why.

I do ask that if you post your opening, that you comment on at least two others

Have fun with it!



About CJ:

As a pediatric ER doctor, CJ Lyons has lived the life she writes about. In addition to being an award-winning medical suspense author, CJ is a nationally known presenter and keynote speaker.

Her first novel, LIFELINES (Berkley, March 2008), received praise as a "breathtakingly fast-paced medical thriller" from Publishers Weekly, was reviewed favorably by the Baltimore Sun and Newsday, named a Top Pick by Romantic Times Book Review Magazine, and became a National Bestseller. Her second novel, WARNING SIGNS, was released January, 2009 and the third, URGENT CARE, was released October, 2009. To learn more about CJ and her work, go to www.cjlyons.net


Jenna said...

Don't know that it does a whole lot of world-building, but the first sentence in my WIP is this:

"My daddy always said that if something looks too good to be true, get out."

I like it, but it really sort of needs the next sentence or two to work...

Barbara Edwards said...

Wonderfully useful information. Thanks for posting this. I made a few notes of things I want to remember

CJ Lyons said...

If the next sentence has some telling details (framing in the concrete details so the reader feels anchored) that definitely works for me.

It gives us a sense of the narrator's emotions (visceral) and evokes a reaction in the reader.

Nice job,

CJ Lyons said...

Glad you found it helpful, Barbara! Thanks for stopping by!

Annette said...

Hey, CJ! This is perfect timing for me as I've finished my first draft and am now struggling (mightily) to polish the first chapter, first paragraph, first sentence...

You've given me much to think about. Thanks.

See you at the Pennwriters Conference in May!

CJ Lyons said...

Glad to help, Annette! See you soon!

Marcy lynn said...

Thank you for the insight. It broke down world building in a way I could understand and made perfect sense to me.

CJ Lyons said...

Marcy, so glad that you enjoyed the post! Have fun playing around with these world building ideas!

Alli Sinclair said...

C.J. - what a great post, thank you! Like Jenny, I think my first sentence needs the next two sentences to completely paint the picture, but here goes:

"Bright sparks flared in front of her eyes as she sprinted from the dark depths of the cave, her panicked scream piercing the unnatural stillness of the Amazon".

BTW, Jennie, I liked the voice in your sentence - and especially changing the familiar saying from "it is" to "get out". Nice work!

CJ Lyons said...

Nice job!

Lots of visceral, evocative and telling details. We know her emotional state, you use some nice power words to evoke feeling in the reader, and the telling details (dark depths of the cave, Amazon) help to ground us.

Works for me!

Jenna said...

Alli, thanks for the feedback. Yeah, she's somewhere she isn't supposed to be...

Yours definitely sets the scene in a great way. We know the where, the who (sort of; 'she') and that there's something she's running from.

If I may make a suggestion, and not about the world building, I'd leave off a couple of the adjectives if I were you. Dark depths, panicked scream, and unnatural stillness gets to be a little too much. The sentence actually works quite well without all of them - in a spare sort of way - so you can definitely do without one or two. Hope you don't mind the suggestion!

Jenna said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alli Sinclair said...

Jennie, thanks for the suggestions. I'm always open to people's opinions - sometimes we get too close to our work and can't see things others can. Thank you!

Jenna said...

you're very welcome, and definitely we all get too close to our work from time to time to see it clearly. Glad you're not taking the suggestions amiss!

Alli Sinclair said...

"Glad you're not taking the suggestions amiss!"

I learnt a long time ago the only way to improve my craft is to listen to other people, weigh it up and then decide. And that's why I love the writing community so much - most people are willing to share their opinions/ideas to help the other person improve. Very cool, I say. :-)

Alli Sinclair said...

And C.J. I also wanted to say how much I've loved reading your books and very much look forward to new ones coming out!

CJ Lyons said...

Thanks, Alli! That made my day!!!

Book #4, ISOLATION, will be out later this year.

Thanks again,

Jenna said...

"And that's why I love the writing community so much - most people are willing to share their opinions/ideas to help the other person improve."

Amen, sister!

Unknown said...

Here's mine.
(It's first draft...so it's rough)

Before the aeroship even touched earth, Thomas had jumped off, rolled onto the ground, and started sprinting towards the cave from which emanated a cacophony of fear.

(I notice someone else has a cave in the first line...)

But that's the prologue. I actually like the first line of Chap 1 better:
On most mornings, Prudencia Stratton hated the stench of cow.

I think the first one is just a whiz-bang opening ala James Bond.
But for some reason the second one is more interesting. What do you all think?

CJ Lyons said...

Iapetus999, I think your instincts are right on. The opening of your first chapter has a strong point of view, it reveals the character's emotion (visceral), evokes emotion in the reader because of the specific telling detail you use: stench of cow. Also her very specific name adds to the telling details.

On most mornings, Prudencia Stratton hated the stench of cow.

Even though we have no idea when or where we are, can't you "see" Prudencia wrinkling her nose in disgust????

Compare that to your first sentence of the prologue. While you feel it is action-packed, it's really not for a reader. Instead they're reading it to figure out where they are and what specifically is going on.

This is always the tightrope a thriller author must walk: balancing our adrenalin-rushed pacing with not allowing readers to be confused (remember my only two rules: never bore, never confuse).

I'd try infusing some specific, telling details as well as a touch of visceral details into that sentence. Even a James Bond opening may have us wondering WHAT he's doing (which is usually the hook right before the credits come in) we're right there with him knowing Where he is (skiing down a mountain, jumping out of a plane, etc) and we SEE what he's feeling--usually a mix of grim determination, exuberance, and a touch of haughty superiority.

So, as a thriller writer, you want to give your reader that same experience. The most important first step is to connect them with the character. So, instead of giving us a sentence with three separate actions strung together and no time for any of the three to be visceral, telling or evocative, try using a movie technique and zoom in.

Maybe it's the moment before he jumps and he's leaning out of the airplane door, measuring speed, distance to the ground, making a life and death decision as to when to leap so that he won't be mowed down by the propellers....is he experienced enough that this complex calculation is second nature, only takes a second and gives him no anxiety at all?

Or is he inexperienced and double checks every calculation even as he's fighting his fear of messing up because that would mean not only he'd be injured but someone else might die, there are high stakes involved here....

See how focusing on that one instant can allow you to build character, create a setting, and connect to the reader thru use of those specific visceral, evocative and telling details?

Have fun!

JayBee said...

Hi CJ, great blog about world building and very helpful as I work on editing my WIP. Here's my opening sentence:

"That's what I want."

Sparse, I know, but I fell in love with it when it popped out of my brain :)

Jeannie B.

Marquita Valentine said...

This my first choice for my opening line for my first ever novel:

The six most important facts that Mason knew about the Outlander sitting across from him was that she was over 300 years old, his wife in a past life, could go out in the sun, had no fangs or nanites and he would kill anyone or anything to protect her.

I'm not sure if this kind of "listing" works?