Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop: Macro- and micro-grounding

Welcome back to Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop! Today's entry comes from an anonymous poster. As usual, I'll start by coloring the words from which I pull worldbuilding information, and then after that I'll put in my comments.

Here are the worldbuilding words marked in blue:

***
Ben stepped onto the dark, gritty sand taking in a breath of the cool sea air. His next stop had to be the Casino; not that type of casino, more the main social venue in town, although some card playing was going on. An awful lot of noisy domino playing could be heard coming from the rear of the bar, where the few remaining fishermen and assorted locals gather for a mid-morning chinwag. It felt as though there was an uneasy peace between those on a short stay, those on a long-term sojourn and the more established residents. No doubt there was a pecking order, but Ben had neither the curiosity nor the patience to investigate such matters at the moment. He sat with the other tourists and day-trippers next to the window which looked out onto the esplanade. His coffee arrived quickly; but did nothing to calm his nerves. Eating was out of the question; luckily he’d managed to force down breakfast on the plane, more out of boredom than hunger.
The walk along the seafront was refreshingly pleasant, Ben felt as though he were on holiday. If only this stroll along the prom could be part of a relaxing break, rather than part of an elaborate plan, a web that dragged him in and dragged him down to depths he had never cared to inhabit. All through his grubby career he had worked on his own, a gun for hire, the lone wolf, a known quantity, just like a respected version of the unibomber without any links and not a killer who would send out half-crazed manifestos. In the beginning there had been a warped idealism, but now it was for money. This one had come out of a chance meeting with a crazy German in a backstreet bar in Girona.
He claimed his name was Hans, or did they all just get called Hans or Fritz when they fronted up on the Costa Brava. The chat started with the usual stuff about music rather than football. Two guys in their forties talking about the lamentable state of the tunes nowadays, they were both fans of krautrock, so what did they knows about tunes and melody. Hans was tall, but not gangly. He was good-looking, but not overtly, people might glance at him, but would then avert their gaze after a passing moment. This was good as the conversation next took a more complex and perhaps clandestine tone. This was no chance encounter. Hans had done his research, hints were made, a little job might be coming up – no formal interview would be required.
That meeting had taken place two months ago on a cool March evening, now the sun was shining and action was needed. Climbing up the narrow road that led to the campsite was an undemanding task. Two men in their forties, carrying medium-sized backpacks, wouldn’t look particularly out of place on a hill next too an already busy campsite. Hans was there according to plan, right on time.
***

The name Ben immediately makes me nearly certain that we're in a world of humans related to our own (sf is a possibility, fantasy relatively unlikely though not entirely impossible). We have dark gritty sand and sea air, which don't fall on either the reality or sf/f side but which put us on a beach. Casino is not going to be a fantasy term. It could be sf, but given that there are no other sf cues, this is the place where I feel certain we're in the real world.

This excerpt also has a lot of flavorful word choices that place the narrator socially. Chinwag stands out, as does pecking order and long-term sojourn. These give me a clear sense that he's working class.

Below, I'll be putting my comments in brown with brackets. Whenever I jump into this section, I always feel it's a good idea to clarify for new readers that these comments are not corrections. I'm giving my reaction in the moment and sharing my thoughts about the effects I see in the text.

***
Ben
stepped onto the dark, gritty sand taking in a breath of the cool sea air. [This is effective in placing me on the beach - I assume at night, since black sand isn't usual!] His next stop had to be the Casino[okay, this is pretty sure to be real-world]; not that type of casino, more the main social venue in town, although some card playing was going on.[when? now?] An awful lot of noisy domino playing could be heard coming from the rear of the bar, where the few remaining fishermen and assorted locals gather for a mid-morning chinwag.[this is great, but I can't help wondering: is he perceiving this from his place on the beach?] It felt as though there was an uneasy peace between those on a short stay, those on a long-term sojourn and the more established residents. No doubt there was a pecking order, but Ben had neither the curiosity nor the patience to investigate such matters at the moment.[why? He doesn't seem particularly rushed.] He sat with the other tourists and day-trippers [I deduce that we're in an era post-Beatles] next to the window which looked out onto the esplanade.[So he is in the Casino.] His coffee arrived quickly; but did nothing to calm his nerves. Eating was out of the question; luckily he’d managed to force down breakfast on the plane,[at this point I feel pretty sure of a modern-day setting] more out of boredom than hunger.[He went from bored to nervous?]
The walk along the seafront was refreshingly pleasant,[is he walking again?] Ben felt as though he were on holiday. [this is a very distinct British expression, so that means we're not in the US; this is the first hint of that.] If only this stroll along the prom [this word also must be British. I can deduce its meaning but it's not going to be familiar to a lot of US readers] could be part of a relaxing break, rather than part of an elaborate plan, a web that dragged him in and dragged him down to depths he had never cared to inhabit. All through his grubby career he had worked on his own, a gun for hire, the lone wolf, a known quantity, just like a respected version of the unibomber without any links and not a killer who would send out half-crazed manifestos.[these words are chronologically placing him as well.] In the beginning there had been a warped [to whom is it warped? to Ben? to us?] idealism, but now it was for money. This one had come out of a chance meeting with a crazy German in a backstreet bar in Girona.
He claimed his name was Hans, or did they all just get called Hans or Fritz[interesting way of showing that Ben doubts his name] when they fronted up on the Costa Brava.[so this is the location of the previous meeting?] The chat started with the usual stuff about music rather than football.[I'm assuming this must mean soccer in this context.] Two guys in their forties [who are the two guys?] talking about the lamentable state of the tunes nowadays, they were both fans of krautrock, so what did they knows about tunes and melody. Hans was tall, but not gangly. He was good-looking, but not overtly, people might glance at him, but would then avert their gaze after a passing moment. This was good as the conversation next took a more complex and perhaps clandestine tone. [I didn't realize they were speaking. I think it's the word "next" that makes me feel like I went suddenly from a reported memory to an ongoing flashback scene (though one with no direct dialogue)] This was no chance encounter. Hans had done his research, hints were made, a little job might be coming up – no formal interview would be required.
That meeting had taken place two months ago on a cool March evening, now [this brings me back from the flashback to the current time period] the sun was shining [all right, so here we have the season] and action was needed. Climbing up the narrow road that led to the campsite was an undemanding task. [where is this narrow road? Is it near the beach? Where are we now?] Two men in their forties, carrying medium-sized backpacks, wouldn’t look particularly out of place on a hill next too an already busy campsite. Hans was there according to plan, right on time.
***

When I read this excerpt, I find it very easy to establish the general nature of the world: real world, modern time period, etc. I think perhaps the piece could benefit from a bit more specificity in the local setting, because I don't think British expressions should be our first clue that we're not in the US ("on holiday" could be Britain or Australia, while "prom" is more exclusively British). My biggest concern is that I find myself getting lost - not on the macro-level of world or time period, but on the micro-level of where precisely the character is and what he's doing. First I see him on the beach; then he seems to be in the Casino; then he's strolling along the promenade; then there's the flashback; then he's on a narrow road to a campsite. It's hard for me to tell how he got there.

One of the things I notice as I read this relates back to my Monday post about the superpowers of the grammatical subject. The character of our narrator is critical to our understanding of his world. The worldbuilding words create that world, but the character grounds us in it. In the excerpt above, Ben doesn't spend much time in the grammatical subject position. I list what he does as subject below:

Ben stepped/Ben had/he sat/Ben felt/he had worked

The total effect of this is that we don't see Ben do, and we don't see him move. This world is solid and has lots of dimension and detail. But in order for it to have its full impact, readers need to be oriented within it. For that we need to see how Ben orients himself, and how he acts in order to drive the story.

Thank you very much to our anonymous poster for contributing this piece to us. Commenters, please remember that this is meant to be a constructive and supportive discussion. The discussion is open.