Outlines and World Building

Back last year, I wrote a couple of outlines for new novels, one of which I started, very tentatively, in late November. I only got to work on it for a couple of days before I had to spend all of December working on the final, final edits on Survival Game, the sequel to Extinction Game. At the same time, I had some freelance editing/book doctoring to do, so it's only in the last week I've managed to get back to that novel.

It's been just about bang on two years since I last started work on a book. This one's got the working title of 'Field of Bones'. It might just turn out to be the single most hard-sf book I've done yet, in that it's a science fiction novel featuring space travel of the non-FTL variety. Which isn't to say, of course, that it doesn't have some pretty far-out speculative ideas tucked in there as well.

I say 'working title', by the way, since although I actually quite like 'Field of Bones', it's not a title that suggests a science fiction novel. If anything, it sounds like a horror novel. But for now it'll do.

As usual, I wrote an outline of the novel first, and that took me about a month last summer. It's seven thousand words long.  Now, the outline describes the plot. But it doesn't completely explain why these things happen.

That's the difference between a plot (a sequence of events) and a story (why those events happen, and why the characters do what they do). Major background events are described in the lightest of detail - events that took place before the time at which the story will start. These events, even though they're likely only to be hinted at in the finished novel itself, are important because they provide motivation for the characters.

So what I'm doing at the moment is working out all that background detail in considerably more depth than I had time to last year, which is why I've spent the past week researching corporate black-ops. environmental tragedies, and the potential for toxic algal blooms to threaten the existence of humanity. Needless to say, I'm the kind of writer who likes to have as much of the story nailed down before I even begin writing.

(In the middle of all this, I learned that somewhere between fifty and seventy per cent of the oxygen we breathe comes from phytoplankton in the Earth's oceans. Anything happens to that phytoplankton,  we are seriously screwed. Kind of wish I'd known that back when I wrote Extinction Game...)

All this work is necessary, because even if all this detail doesn't end up appearing on the pages of the book itself, it explains why certain characters do the things they do, both before we meet them and after. Further, these events, and their relationship to them, help define what kind of people they are.

I should probably give Aeon Timeline a shout-out here. It's timeline software (obviously), and very good for figuring out who does what, where, and when, with a very fine degree of control. Right now I'm loading all the story details into Aeon to make sure the order of events makes logical sense. Including all the stuff that happens before the story begins.

Most of which you will never see.

A lot of unpublished writers don't realise their world building should mainly stay off the page. When I've got my book doctoring hat on, I often find the manuscripts I'm sent are filled with page after page of intricate detail regarding the customs, language and history of cultures and places that don't exist. Don't get me wrong - that kind of intricate world building is fun, but it's usually only of interest to the person who came up with it. Show it to anyone else, they're going to fall asleep from sheer boredom after five minutes.

So if you're writing a novel for the first time and doing a lot of world building, take my advice. Leave about 95% of it out of the final book.

People don't care about the six thousand year history of your invented magical city state. They do (hopefully) care about whether or not the apprentice wizard will get to save the princess from being poisoned by the evil Queen before she can take the throne and prevent a war that no one can win.  They don't want a seventeen-page essay on the history of the city gardens plunk in the middle of the action, just because you mentioned the princess likes to take an occasional rose cutting.

Sure, you have to have some idea of the setting and the background. But you know, you can say a lot in just a few words, and beyond that the reader's imagination takes over. In fact, the reader's own interpretation of the action and setting counts for a lot more than you think. You don't need to explain literally everything, down to the significance of the sigils etched into the apprentice wizard's coat buttons.  Unless, that is, it directly and significantly impinges on either our understanding of the characters or contributes to the plot in some significant way.

But if you can cut it out without affecting the story, then out it goes. So do as I do, and come up with a story background that makes your story plausible - but leave it off the page unless it definitely contributes to the story.

(And no, that example isn't drawn from one of the unpublished novels I get to edit. But it could be.)


Ian Sales said...

And you should never have a glossary :-)

Roger Newton-Darby said...

Really interesting and useful as I've toyed with a teen scifi book for yrs + don't worry I'm sure you can sneak the phytoplankton in on another planet.
If you ever take an interest in the ocean on any subject? I'm a deep sea diver I'd be happy to help.