By: Brett Armstrong
Writing is all about balance. Exposition to dialogue. Telling and showing. Action and introspection. A key point of balance in world-building is between the familiar and the unfamiliar. It’s that tension between the ease of what we know of the world with the wonder of something marvelous and new that captivates us as readers. It keeps us reading page-to-page, chapter-to-chapter.
Last month, I got a number of comments about how world-building fits into the writing of novels where there aren’t fantastic elements. Even historical fiction is itself another world. Consider the near past had cultural trends, norms, and conventions which no longer fit the present. I graduated high school in 2006 and were one to set a story then, there wouldn’t be nearly as many people, particularly students, with cell phones. Details like that create a sense of novelty and nostalgia that works in the author’s favor. Long past stories are nearly as “unfamiliar” as sci-fi and fantasy.
Contemporary stories can’t leverage those notes of the unfamiliar. So, how does it accomplish the aforementioned balance? I contend it is in taking things that are familiar, but imbuing them with such character and nuancing that though they are “every day” they will also be one of a kind. My first go to example of this is Gilmore Girls. My wife is a huge fan of the series and convinced me to watch it with her. I found it fascinating. Gilmore Girls is a contemporary story, or was when it was first filmed. When I watch that show, I can feel a difference in that world from ours. It’s distinct and fantastical—in a quaint, New England sort of way.
I believe the key to emulating the kind of world-building success Gilmore Girls displays is to create a pocket dimension. Not quite the Flerken sort ala Captain Marvel or the Orion’s belt one in Men In Black. Speaking of which, does anyone know why cats tend to carry these super-tiny realities around with them? Sorry for the aside.
What I mean by a pocket dimension is a bubble of reality specific to the story where the real world exists around it, but is a bit indistinct. Blurred like backgrounds in high art photography. In the foreground you have your pocket dimension. It looks like the real world, but inside your story a different sort of world takes shape. How it works, what the people are like, and what can happen.
As with any story, it’s an exercise in what you see around the characters and inside them. Stars Hollow is an over-the-top quirky, little New England town. It has its own set of rules and seems to operate independent of reality. TV series are particularly adept at doing this, because they’re storytelling tends to be limited by the sets they have available. It forces them to zoom in and really develop a selection of locations. In the crime comedy Psych, for instance, we get Psych-Barbara rather than the real thing. Goofiness that wouldn’t be acceptable in the real Santa Barbara goes on in the show. The characters in both example series craft the world from within. Who they are, their actions and eccentricities, begin to shape the world’s tone and atmosphere. And because of the atmosphere in this pocket dimension, we accept it, enjoy it, and wish we could visit it. That is the key to creating a fantastic world set in the present.
Another method to help build the unfamiliar/fantastic into a contemporary story is to choose a setting that few people see. Nicholas Sparks has made a career of writing romances set on remote stretches of the Carolina coast. Lots of people have been to or seen pictures of popular, travel-destination beaches. Few if any have seen natural, untouched ones. Estuaries with their dense plant growth, starry nights by the surf so far from the lights of town that you begin understand why our galaxy is called the Milky Way. Those settings, coupled with the strong character focus, build that very personal world for the reader and characters to share. The result of the intimacy is the balance point stories need.
In short, to make the build the fantastic into the familiar is to carve out a niche, a pocket dimension. Fill the space with the characters and let them lend a unique quality to the world around them. Set against the indistinct backdrop of normalcy, that world will suddenly feel different. Fantastic. If you can set it in a real-life place that has an allure and uniqueness of its own, all the better.
As I’ve acknowledged before, contemporary fiction isn’t my first choice. Of all the posts in the series this is my most theoretical in nature. So, if you disagree, please share. And if you agree let me know what contemporary stories you’ve read that take you into a little pocket dimension within our world. Next time I’m going to explore the corollary to this, how one goes about grounding a fantastical setting in the familiar.
For more from Brett:
Captain Marvel © Marvel Studios| Men in Black and Psych © Universal Studios| Gilmore Girls © Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc.