Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop: Managing the Juxtaposition of Normal and Abnormal

Welcome back to Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop (Week 3)! For those who are visiting for the first time, I do these sessions every Wednesday, using 500 word excerpts generously provided by my readers. If you're interested in submitting, you can find the link on the left underneath my photo, or here (which will take you to that same page). I'd love to see what you're working on!

I had a question from someone on the forums regarding whether I should take submissions of descriptions of people's worlds, rather than excerpts from stories using those worlds. While I think I might have some things to say about a world description/outline, I think the story excerpts are what I can work with most effectively. I'm always looking for submissions, so please do pass the submission link on to your friends and neighbors!

This week's submission comes from David Marshall, who has worked with me on worldbuilding before - long ago when I was first doing worldbuilding workshops in a quite different format. Thanks for submitting, David! As in previous weeks, I've marked the worldbuilding words and phrases that I notice in color, but this week I'll be using two colors. I'll bet you can tell why; I'll discuss it below the excerpt.

***
The black marble slabs that paved the entrance hall cracked under my feet. This required a great deal of effort on my part, for my cloven hooves were sharp-edged and petite, and not really made for stomping on stone. And even though my batlike wings were still immature, more delicate fairy-gauze than leathery flight membrane, I was so angry that they kept slashing the air and lifting me off the ground.
Not very far off the ground, but far enough to spoil any chance of a good, hard, satisfying stomp.
I forced my wings to fold, and the sacred things promptly sprang open again! I lashed my barbed tail, snarled, and tried to keep my feet firmly on the ground. With limited success.
I tried stalking down the hall, but what I achieved could more accurately be described as bouncing. Wherever I grounded, I left cloven hoofprints with a halo of radiating cracks like stylised lightning bolts.
I had undergone the tortures of Inhuman Health & Hygiene classes, so I understood what the metabolic sparks shaking my body were supposed to do. Some day soon, those irritating sparks that bubbled through the ichor in my veins would become a raging inferno of potent alchemical reactions, ensuring my reaction to any given situation would be either Fight, Flight or Fornicate.
But how the heaven would an alchemical know which F-word was most appropriate in any given situation?
I had grown long-limbed and lean over the past year, but I hadn't filled out into anything like my mother's dangerous curves. And I still wasn't used to the way my body had changed. The way my body was still changing. I was always tripping over, or bumping into things.
Sometimes I felt like my body was a fallen empire that had fractured into a bunch of warring city-states. If this was puberty, you could keep it.
Mother said I would fill out soon enough. She said I would develop finer control over my muscles and limbs. You're too eager, too impatient, she said. Give it time, she said. You're just a late burner, she said.
She said other things, when she thought that I couldn't hear her. She said that I remind her of a stiletto, slender yet dangerous, but wielded by an untrained, clumsy hand.
Well, this stiletto had just been sheathed, after being ichor-stained once too often.
At least my mother was working late. Again. I had at least four hours to kill before I had to explain myself. Again.
Time enough to think of some excuse. Surely.
'Arriach!'
My wings collapsed, slamming so hard against my back that I feared that they were going to break my ribs, wrap themselves around my spine, and come to rest in my lungs. My tail whipped up under my skirt, in an attempt to find an even less dignified hiding place. Electric sparks crackled across my skin, raw magic earthing itself in my squirming embarrassment.
***

David is being ambitious - and deliberately humorous, I believe - by creating two worlds at once. One of these worlds, referenced by the purple words, is relatively normal to us. It's the world of the spoiled teen girl, using words like "petite" and "Health&Hygiene classes" as well as "puberty" and "F-word." The other one, referenced by the blue words, is not normal. It's a devil world with black marble floors, cloven hooves and magic. The total effect of the excerpt thus lies in the juxtaposition of one world with the other. I'll comment in the text below - please excuse all the crazy colors; it just worked out that way!

***
The black marble slabs that paved the entrance hall cracked under my feet. **[At this point there's no reason for me to believe that marble slabs in the entrance hall and feet are inconsistent, world-wise. I imagine a castle, perhaps an evil one, and a person there in trouble. A pretty quickly accessed setting, if not an elaborated one.] This required a great deal of effort on my part, for my cloven hooves were sharp-edged and petite**[this qualifier seems external to her. Does she wish to be seen as petite? Can you indicate that?], and not really made for stomping on stone. **[The great deal of effort comes as a surprise, which I think was your intent, since it appears to imply that the cracking of the slabs was accomplished by the feet. However, there is a direct contradiction between "feet" and "cloven hooves" as I see it.] And even though my batlike wings were still immature, more delicate fairy-gauze than leathery flight membrane, I was so angry **[this is the first phrase where we see the subject pronoun "I," and it tells us only that she is angry, which we already knew.] that they kept slashing the air and lifting me off the ground.
Not very far off the ground, but far enough to spoil any chance of a good, hard, satisfying stomp.
I forced my wings to fold, and the sacred **[This and "heaven" below fit well with humorous devilry as direct opposites of the words that would be used in the teen girl world.] things promptly sprang open again! I lashed my barbed tail, snarled, and tried to keep my feet firmly on the ground. With limited success.**[Is she trying to break the floor, or trying not to break the floor? It's not clear to me.]
I tried stalking down the hall, **[To accomplish what?] but what I achieved could more accurately be described as bouncing. Wherever I grounded, I left cloven hoofprints with a halo of radiating cracks like stylised lightning bolts.**[This makes it sound like she thinks they look cool, but I thought she was irritated with the bouncing.]
I had undergone the tortures of Inhuman Health & Hygiene classes, so I understood what the metabolic sparks shaking my body were supposed to do. Some day soon, those irritating sparks that bubbled through the ichor in my veins would become a raging inferno of potent alchemical reactions, ensuring my reaction to any given situation would be either Fight, Flight or Fornicate.
But how the heaven would an alchemical know which F-word was most appropriate in any given situation?**[This is commentary on her physical state. The juxtapositions here are amusing but I'm missing a sense of the meaning and drive of her current situation.]
I had grown long-limbed and lean over the past year, but I hadn't filled out into anything like my mother's dangerous curves. **[Interesting perspective on her mother.] And I still wasn't used to the way my body had changed. The way my body was still changing. I was always tripping over, or bumping into things.
Sometimes I felt like my body was a fallen empire that had fractured into a bunch of warring city-states. **[This makes me wonder where our devilish creature would come up with this idea.] If this was puberty, you could keep it.**[This whole phrasing fits in the teen girl world.]
Mother said I would fill out soon enough. She said I would develop finer control over my muscles and limbs. You're too eager, too impatient, she said. Give it time, she said. You're just a late burner, she said.**[This is a nice phrasing of juxtaposition]
She said other things, when she thought that I couldn't hear her. She said that I remind her of a stiletto, slender yet dangerous, but wielded by an untrained, clumsy hand.
Well, this stiletto had just been sheathed, after being ichor-stained once too often.**[makes me wonder what just happened. Should I be wondering what just happened, or what will happen now?]
At least my mother was working late. Again. I had at least four hours to kill before I had to explain myself. Again.
Time enough to think of some excuse. Surely.
'Arriach!'
My wings collapsed, slamming so hard against my back that I feared that they were going to break my ribs, wrap themselves around my spine, and come to rest in my lungs. **[I wonder if this kind of hyperbole is part of her personality!] My tail whipped up under my skirt, in an attempt to find an even less dignified hiding place. Electric sparks crackled across my skin, raw magic earthing itself in my squirming embarrassment.
***

Overall I think this piece has a lot of good juxtaposition points in it. A great deal of humor and interest can come from this kind of two-world management - though I'd be careful of all-out contradictions, which can come across as the writer having a joke on the reader. I'm seeing a missed opportunity for world-building, however, in the lack of drive from the protagonist. If she is our ambassador (to borrow a phrase from week 1), then I don't think she's doing all she could to help us understand her world, because she's not doing much acting, or choosing, or judging of her own actions.

The two worlds here are clearly drawn, but only in relation to one another and a situation, not a person with a problem. It's important to see this protagonist as the subject of sentences early on, to allow her to show us just what kind of problem a person bridging these two worlds would have - rather than focusing on body parts or development alone to draw the contrast (which creates distance despite the first person narration). I think this would add to the humor rather than detracting from it, and draw the world juxtaposition more clearly by giving us a more solid grounding in the protagonist's character. She is the reason that the juxtaposition exists, and it is her world, and her sense of that world that brings the two contrasting sides to unity.

The other thing that your protagonist can do, which she isn't doing to full effect here, is give us a sense of what is normal and what is not normal in her world. What is normal in one of the worlds presented here is not normal in the other - so what is normal to her? The things that someone considers normal will typically not be at the top of her mind, or indeed noticed at all, unless they have been called into question in a specific way. Revealing the nature of this young (ahem!) lady's problem may be just what you need to show us what about her normal life has been called into question. The myriad great juxtapositions here are inadvertently pulling us to greater distance from her because they don't allow for any sense of normality within the context of her judgment. However, if you give her a problem to solve and something to do, those things that are normal to her can fall into their proper background context (even if they are quite striking). And you probably won't need everything you have here for the first 500 words, so you can save a lot of this great stuff for later story action, when more directly relevant elements of her life are called into question.

Thanks for being our brave Week 3 submitter! I hope you find these comments helpful. The constructive discussion is open.