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Earning/Maintaining a Reader’s Trust: World-building, Story Structure, & Consequential Plotting (part 2 of 3)


NOTE: This is the second installment in a three-part series on earning and maintaining a reader’s trust. The previous installment focuses on earning initial trust just at the start of a story, while this part focuses on how world-building, consequential plotting, and story structure/pacing affect the reader’s trust. The third and final installment dealing with character consistency/reliability will be was published on Tuesday, December 6th, 2011.

Early Days: The Importance of Accessibility

Getting the reader to turn past page one is only the start of the battle. Once we’ve got the reader reading along with us, the next step is to make sure that they stay engaged and gradually become more immersed in our fictional world. I think this rests on the concept of accessibility, and in speculative fiction that accessibility relates very closely to world-building.

When we read, we store all of the salient facts about the fictional world in our brains. We need them to put the story in context: they color how we imagine events unfolding, and they ensure that we understand what it means for the Dothraki to invade Westeros. Cramming all of that information into the reader’s head decreases the book’s accessibility, risks wearing the reader out, and gradually degrades the reader’s trust in the author’s skill. Which is why I believe that accessibility is a key virtue of maintaining reader trust: if the world-building, characterization, and plotting is presented in an accessible fashion at a rate that the reader can internalize without drowning in detail or florid prose (*cough* Umberto Eco), then the reader is far more likely to trust the author enough to keep reading.

Nevertheless, world-building and detail remain an intrinsic component of all fiction. Our job as writers is to strike an appropriate balance between our world-building and our story’s accessibility. If we throw in too much world-building, the detail might occlude the story (the literary equivalent of hiding a forest behind too many trees). On the other hand, if we withhold too many details then our story loses clarity. Both mistakes can lose the reader’s trust, which is why a balance must be struck between them.

Finding the Balance Between World-building, Detail, and Accessibility

We don’t read books for the setting, or for the characters, or for conflict. We read books for the underlying story, which we access through the characters, conflict, and setting. Just about any story can be told in a different environment or with completely different characters, and to maintain reader trust, we need to make sure that the details we offer don’t obscure the story that underlies them. The more details we load into the text, and the rate at which we pack those details into our paragraphs, the harder it will be spot the underlying story. But some detail is always needed, whether we’re writing a secondary world fantasy or a contemporary mainstream realistic novel.

As Charlie Stross points out in this excellent essay on world-building, every piece of fiction relies on a balance between what the author shows/tells the reader, and the reader’s shared experience of the world. If we’re writing a realistic piece of contemporary fiction set in New York City, our readers will open the book with preconceived ideas and experiences of what NYC is like. Even if they’ve never set foot in Manhattan and unless they’ve been living in a cave, they will have certain images and concepts taken (accurately or not) from movies, other books, and their own cultural background.

If we’re writing a piece of contemporary realist fiction, we can rely on their shared experiences and thus skimp (to some extent) on the details. We don’t need to define, explain, or depict a car or a traffic light for the reader to understand what’s going on. Since we can eschew detailed explanations, we can instead focus on how those objects act or are acted upon within our story. This shared experience establishes a certain baseline for reader trust.

Eric Flint, 1632, 2001

It is when our story diverges from the reader’s expectations (when we put the island of Manhattan on the Yangtze River, for example) that we risk that trust. Diverging from shared experiences makes it incumbent upon us to offer some sort of explanation for the new or unusual elements. It takes groundwork on our part to prepare the reader for that type of cognitive estrangement. This groundwork happens at many levels within the story, and it actually starts with the book’s marketing category and design. For example, the cover of Eric Flint’s 1632 immediately tells the reader that they’ll be dealing with some type of anachronistic story where armored knights on horseback encounter modern pick-up trucks. If the reader is expecting a completely realistic story, they know just from the cover to look elsewhere.

Unfortunately, we can’t rely on design and marketing category to do the heavy lifting for us (for one thing, traditionally published authors rarely have any control over either). The details we include in our text, the way we talk about our characters’ assumptions, the descriptions we offer of our setting, the words our characters use are the hammers, screws, and nails of our world-building. Consider what an innocent verb like “steamroll” implies about a world. Sure, it’s tempting in our contemporary context to describe an overbearing character as a “steamroller” or to say that character X “steamrolled” character Y. But if our story is set in a pre-industrial world, then “steamrollers” or even steam-rolling mechanisms for clothing likely wouldn’t (yet) exist. It is this kind of minor, precise detail of world-building which risks undermining a reader’s trust in the author and our world-building.

I suspect there are as many techniques for effective world-building as there are books. Regardless of what technique we apply, it is the consistency of that world-building which maintains the reader’s trust. In the previous installment, I quoted from the opening of Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons. Her first paragraph establishes that we are dealing with a secondary world (the fictional land of Linderwall, east of the fictional Mountains of Morning), that is quasi-medieval in nature (a feudal system with kings, queens, princes/ses, and knights), and magical (dragons and fairy godmothers included). This single paragraph establishes the entire context necessary for the rest of Wrede’s world to be imagined and understood. Were Wrede to introduce a new element into her story (witches, for example), it has to fit within that context. If her new element does not fit (e.g. airplanes), then without expanding the context to make it believable, it would create a dissonance that damaged the reader’s trust.

Because Wrede does an excellent job of concisely contextualizing the story’s environment in her first paragraph, she levels up and earns the ability to quickly introduce new elements into her world’s context. So long as she maintains consistency with that brief initial context, we won’t even blink at the introduction of characters transformed by witchcraft, or of magical forests. We are able to internalize them as rapidly as the author serves them up because of that consistency.

However, consistency does not give us carte blanche to infodump detail on our poor unsuspecting reader. Ultimately, it is the story that should determine the rate at which new details are introduced. In Dealing with Dragons, Wrede could have theoretically taken ten pages and written a description of her world’s geography, its politics, and the systems of magic that operate within it. But doing so would have halted the forward momentum of the underlying story, and given the reader too many details (however consistent they might be) to maintain the story’s accessibility. Story is key, and no amount of world-building detail should ever obscure it. When I think about this in my own writing, I think of it in terms of Hemingway’s iceberg theory: sometimes by consciously leaving details out of our text, we actually make both the world-building and the story more accessible.

The Use of Icebergs in World-building

As the creators of our worlds, we should know everything there is to know about them. Their historical background, their cultural environment, technology, idiosyncrasies, etc. In our heads, we should have a veritable encyclopedia of knowledge about our made up world. But that doesn’t mean the reader needs it.

An Iceberg in Profile

An Iceberg in Profile, via Wikimedia. Created by Uwe Kils (iceberg) and User:Wiska Bodo (sky).

If we’ve done our homework, and if we’ve fully imagined our world, then even if we don’t explicitly include details in our text we will still write consistently within our context. That’s because all of that detail – from the shoes our character might be wearing, all the way to their fraught childhood relationships with neighbors – sits in the back of our brain and trickles through onto the page. The reader doesn’t need to see that, because it becomes the underlying detail that exists between the lines on the page. It’s what Hemingway called the iceberg effect, where only the top 10% of the story is actually shown to the reader. The rest remains in the author’s head. Even if we never show the reader those details, readers will still have the palpable sense that the details exist somewhere: that the author knows what they are doing, and that they will include only the necessary details in the text.

This ties into the concept of including details as demanded to by the story. If, lacking a particular detail, the story won’t move forward, then by all means include what’s necessary. If your character needs to leave on a space ship, you’ll need to introduce the minor detail of the space ship itself. But if you only include the information the story needs, and you make sure that information is consistent with a more generally established context, then I think you’ll go a long way to maintaining reader trust. Our job is to give the reader the details they need to understand what happens, and enough context to imagine the rest. So long as our world has some logical underpinnings, and so long as we consistently depict the extrapolations of our world, the reader will have confidence that we know what we’re doing. At least, that’s my hope.

The Accessibility of Story Structure

Just as a balance must be struck between world-building and the story’s accessibility, there exists a similar balance between story structure and its accessibility. Fiction is wonderful in that we can play many fun games with non-linear stories, jumps in time, jumps in perspective, etc. Our range of motion and range of structures are arguably limitless. But the more complicated we make our story structure, the more mental gymnastics our readers will have to perform to follow along.

Sometimes, we want a complex structure. Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler is multiply-recursive, extremely meta, and is half told in second person. It is a complicated puzzle-box of a novel. However, it remains a delightful (if challenging) book to read. Justine Larbalestier’s Liar jumps backwards and forwards in time, and wrestles with an unreliable narrator who at several points recants most of the preceding story. It too has a complicated structure, and challenges the reader to understand what is actually happening.

Both Calvino and Larbalestier employed complex structures because those structures helped accentuate the themes they wished to explore. They faced a trade-off between the degree of complexity (decreasing the story’s accessibility and risking reader trust) and the efficacy of their thematic goals. When it comes to story structure, I suspect the trade-offs are more numerous than that. Generally, I fall into the school of thought that says story structures should be simple unless their complication is thematically driven. But I know many others successfully complicate their structures for more tactical reasons: managing suspense, pacing, or side-plot resolution.

When working on story structure, I think every decision to complicate that structure needs to be carefully considered. If it detracts from the story’s accessibility, it should at the very least maintain the story’s forward momentum. Decreasing the story’s accessibility will gradually erode the reader’s trust, but losing that forward momentum is a much faster way of losing that trust. After all, they’re reading the story for the story. If your structure stops the story’s progress, then the reader is no longer getting what they’re looking for. And what readers want is a sequence of events where each event follows in some logical fashion from the events and choices that preceded it.

Consequential Plotting and Reader Trust

The very concept of story is predicated on events and choices having consequences. A description of unrelated events does not constitute a story: it is just a recitation of unrelated facts. When readers begin reading our story, they are investing effort to internalize our world and follow our structure because they want to see what happens. They make this effort because, if we’ve done our job right, they trust that we are giving them the salient facts and details which they need to maximize their enjoyment. If what they read on the first page has no bearing to what they read on the last page, then as writers we have betrayed that trust, and the reader is right to feel cheated.

This is why deus ex machina is so often deplored. It implies that everything the reader worked to get through is meaningless for the story’s conclusion. It makes the story a trick, misdirection, sleight of hand. If such misdirection is part of the book’s thematic purpose (as with Larbalestier’s Liar, for example) then groundwork needs to be laid throughout the story that makes it plausible within the story’s context. It’s the equivalent of setting up the prestige in a magic trick: all of the work that makes the trick functional happens before the trick itself.

In the movie Serenity, Joss Whedon killed off one of the series’ beloved characters to make an existential philosophical point. Many fans – myself included – felt betrayed by this event, because there was no groundwork within either the movie or the preceding television series to prepare the audience for it. Of course, Whedon’s point was that death can strike at any time and especially in situations of high danger. But at no point prior to this did he lay any groundwork for this thematic and tonal point. As a result, the atonal dissonance of the event struck many fans as an effect without a prior cause. This weakened (and in some cases broke) many viewers’ trust.

Compare this to the way that George R.R. Martin deals with the death of beloved characters in his Song of Ice and Fire series. At the end of Game of Thrones (the first book in the series), one of the principle characters gets killed. But unlike Whedon, Martin carefully laid the groundwork throughout the preceding pages for this event to be plausible within the context of his story. He put in the work to make the death consistent on a tonal, thematic, characterization, and plot level. Early in the book, one of Martin’s other characters – a young child – gets chucked out of a window by two other principle characters. If nothing else, chucking that kid out of the window established that this was a story where horrible acts occur to undeserving people. As the plot unfolded, Martin carefully made sure that his characters were put in varying degrees of real, consequential danger and discomfort. He balanced the motivations on all sides of the conflict. This stands in stark contrast to Whedon’s out-of-left-field “hand of Author as a Capricious God” moment in Serenity.

It is this consistency and consequence of story, plot, and character which maintains the implied contract between the reader and the author. And that consistency is equally important when dealing with the characters and narrators who tell the story, regardless of how reliable they may be.

NEXT: Come back on Tuesday for Check out the third and final installment on how character consistency and reliability contribute to managing reader trust.

Techniques in Writing Alternate History


For the past several months, I’ve been having a lot of fun reading recent alternate histories and historical fantasies (I’ve reviewed a couple in earlier posts). As a result, I’ve been thinking about how alternate history works, and what techniques apply to the sub-genre.

Divergence as the Elephant in the Room

At some point, all of us wonder about the road not taken. In our private lives, we wonder how life would have turned out if we’d gone to college B rather than college A, if we’d gotten (or kept) a particular job, etc. The same “what if” question gives rise to alternate history, where we try to imagine our world as made different. Whether the portrayal is fairly realistic (as in Harry Turtledove’s Timeline 191) or completely fantastical (e.g. Jonathon Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy), alternate history gives us the chance to consider what our world would be like in entirely different circumstances. And that’s fun, because it can give us insight into our own world, culture, and history today.

Because alternate history is so centrally concerned with what sets the imagined reality apart from our current reality, how the timeline diverges must be established very early on. Thinking about it, I’ve spotted a kind of spectrum of divergence in alternate history:

Spectrum of Divergence Techniques in Alternate History

Spectrum of Divergence Techniques in Alternate History

On the one hand, we have what I call fulcrum divergences. This method is most commonly found in “realistic” alternate histories, which lack magic, monsters, or really anything that could not exist in the real world. Some event is identified as a fulcrum on which history swings, and when creating the story we have things work out differently.

The best example I can think of for this type of alternate history has to be Harry Turtledove’s How Few Remain. In our real history, a Confederate messenger lost General Lee’s plans for the invasion of the North. The Union found the plans, and General McLellan was able to turn the Confederates back at the Battle of Antietam. Turtledove asks “what if the message never fell into Union hands?” and proceeds to create an excellent series of realistic novels that paint a Confederate victory and map out the consequences through World War II. Such “little differences” need not be so minor, however: Philip K. Dick posited a world where the Axis Powers won WWII in his classic The Man in the High Castle, nor need the resulting world be particularly realistic (consider Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series, where Darwin discovers DNA). Even fairly fantastical stories like Clay and Susan Griffith’s Vampire Empire series still rely on that one point where history changed. Universal within these stories is that the world’s history follows the familiar path we should all know up to that one key fulcrum moment when it skews Doc Brown-like into an alternate timeline.

The other end of the spectrum are foundational divergences. Typically used in more fantastical alternate histories, foundational divergence occurs so far back in the story’s timeline that its effects percolate through all aspects of the world. The place names, some of the personalities involved may be familiar to us, but they are already skewed relative to our timeline based on events that happened significantly prior to the events of the story.

In Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy, Patricia C. Wrede’s Frontier Magic series, or Michael A. Stackpole’s At the Queen’s Command magic has been known and applied within the world for centuries. There is no “point of divergence” with our known history, because instead the impacts of magic diffuse throughout all aspects of society, history, and cultural development. The key difference between such alternate histories and those relying on fulcrum divergence is that all recorded history has to be different from what is known. In these books, the foundational difference (e.g. the presence of magic) occurred or was discovered so far in antiquity that its consequences have percolated throughout the world. As a result, such books can often be enjoyed as secondary-world fantasies.

Between these two poles lie a variety of techniques that authors can use to establish that divergence. Often, authors use a time traveler from our timeline to introduce the divergence. Once in the past, the time traveler proceeds to change (or – sometimes not) the past as we know it.

Excellent examples of this kind of alternate history include books like Eric Flint’s 1632, Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man and Mary Gentle’s First History sequence. In many respects, these books are similar to those that use a fulcrum divergence: in this case, the time traveler becomes the fulcrum. However, they differ significantly in that typically the protagonist (the time traveler) is aware of the divergence or its possibility. This changes the dynamic of the story and significantly alters the reader’s relationship with the hero.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, one can have an “alternate history” that completely recasts our known reality, which does not take place in any kind of recognizable version of our history. Here, the events of the book are modeled on actual events in our history, but they are depicted in a completely secondary world.

Turtledove’s World at War series employs this technique, depicting the events of WWII in a completely secondary world. Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World (see my earlier review) similarly (though less historically) models aspects of his world on the American frontier.

Maintaining Suspension of Disbelief in Alternate Histories

The key to constructing an effective alternate history is to keep the reader locked in what Gardner calls the “dream” of the novel. This task is particularly challenging in alternate histories, where the reader knows they are reading something inimical to their pre-existing knowledge of the world. As a result, readers are likely to quickly pounce on perceived flaws, places where the author’s research or techniques fell short. There are several tools that can be used to maintain the reader’s acceptance of the alternate history.

The perspective that the book is written from, and the narrative voice that is employed, are both essential tools to maintain the reader’s disbelief. This is doubly-so if the book is written in first-person, but even when written in third the speech patterns, word choices, and value systems that our narrator employs contribute to the milieu of the era we are depicting. Recently, I read two alternate histories that execute on this aspect perfectly: Cherie Priest’s Dreadnought and Michael A. Stackpole’s At the Queen’s Command (see my earlier reviews here and here, respectively).

In both books, the narrative voice and the dialog employed by the characters rings (at least to my ear) true to the period when the books are set. The words key characters employ, the value systems inherent in their views, the differences in how different characters speak, in both books the quality of voice and dialog help to lock the reader into the alternate history. In At the Queen’s Command, the dialog is strongly reminiscent of other accounts of the late 18th century. As a result, I am able to believe that while there may be magic, I am still reading a story set in the 18th century I am familiar with. The same applies to Dreadnought, which follows a southern Confederate nurse across the frontier.

Nailing the voice like this is partly a question of the writer’s natural ear, but it is also heavily influenced by research. Reading books written in and written about the time period can help provide the “feel” of that time period. And solid research on word use and etymology can help make sure that the dialog is period-appropriate (as Mary Robinette Kowal pointed out recently, people swore differently even one hundred years ago). Research and extensive reading are the keys to nailing this aspect of an alternate history.

But there is a flip side to this coin: When we write alternate histories (or even historical fantasies) there is an understandable temptation to shoe-horn massive amounts of research into the text. After all, not everyone is as familiar with the time period as the author. But this natural tendency has to be handled very delicately because people who enjoy alternate histories are likely those who enjoy history. As a result, they are likely to already have substantial knowledge about history, and thus overloading them with historical information may weaken their engagement with the story.

In historical fantasy, this is a danger that I recently observed in Jasper Kent’s otherwise excellent Twelve. Kent clearly knows the history of 19th century Russia, however in many places he assumes that his readers do not. For some readers, this is likely not a problem. But for those of us who are familiar with that time period, the extensive expository background that Kent provides detracts from the rising action of the story. Striking a balance between that need for background and the forward motion of the story is key to writing any story based in history. When I think about the authors who do this well, they apply the rule of “less is more” and leave the reader to infer whatever background they do not already know. If we have to pick between momentum and background, I say always go for momentum.

Imagining a Different Today

If futuristic science fiction is about imagining a possible tomorrow, then alternate histories are about imagining a possible present. This at once constrains our world-building (to a greater or lesser degree, we have to conform to known history) while providing the opportunity for very focused imagination. When I read excellent alternate histories, I often think that it is much harder to paint a maserpiece by coloring within the lines. But the best authors of alternate history manage to do exactly that.

If you’re looking for fun alternate histories, below is a list of the authors and books that I’ve mentioned in this post. I strongly recommend you pick up a copy, from your local bookstore or your library and enjoy:

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