Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop: Foregrounding and Backgrounding Information

Welcome back to the Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop! I can hardly believe we're now in week 6 already. Today's entry comes from Rachel Udin. Thanks for submitting, Rachel. As I generally do, I'll start by marking up this 500 word excerpt with blue to show the words that are giving me world entry information. Here we go:

***
The sound of footsteps echoed in the palace, almost distant to my ears. I realized that the sound of the footsteps were my own and the echo was the slap of my sandals against the marble floor of the open hallway to the men's quarters. The dream-vision still engulfed me, leaving me with the singular purpose of seeing my older brother, Hanuman.

I glanced up into the sky through the pillared pointed archways and saw that the moon was high so I knew the time to be the middle of the night.

I saw the guards in front of the men's chamber doorway, who were sleeping. I ducked their crossed spears and held my thick braid tight, so it would not swing into them. I continued running, letting my sandals slap until the hallway opened to a tall vaulted ceiling and then I reached the door of my older brother.

Servants caught me there and they held me back as I pound on the door. They were male servants--but they dare not touch me too much lest they soil my name and incur the wrath of my father, the King.

"Then you must call for him," I demanded.

"Princess, it is late."

"This urgent--I must see him now."

A servant slipped into Hanuman's quarters.

I neatened my black braid. My bangles jingled. I had not realized I had grabbed them. I saw now that I was still in my night clothes, but shrugged it off.

Hanuman came out in his night wear, tired and yawning.

"Older Brother, I must speak to you--because we must leave."

Hanuman held his forehead and then looked at me through his stupor. "Another dream vision? Must we follow this one, too?"

"You must come with me."

"Younger Sister Shakti--it is the middle of the night. The King will be furious to find that you've come to the men's quarters again."

I came a little to myself and realized that I had come to the men's quarters again, but the dream-vision was too strong and shook me. I could see the Gods beckoning me to action through their incarnated forms. The soft sounds of Sita's voice told me the message while Rama watched. I repeated the words. "Across the sea, my husband is waiting for me. He has been waiting a long time."

Hanuman rubbed his eyes. "Father will never agree. He will find you a husband. Don't fret--you are only fifteen."

He was rambling again. He yawned wide.

"You helped me last time--"

"And I regret it. Let it wait until morning. Why not bother me when the sun is well into the sky and the naan is just baked in the oven?"

He stretched again and shut the door behind him. I pound on it.

The soft click of sandals came down the corridor. I turned my head and saw the servants from my chamber--few as they were--headed by the mistress of the women's quarters.
***

This piece quickly places me in a human world with the phrase sound of footsteps. The word palace makes me think fantasy, but is somewhat less restrictive in sense than "castle." I'm going to be looking for more evidence of the type of palace as we go forward. We get some interesting information in slap of my sandals, because it suggests this climate is warm. Marble floor fits with "palace" but doesn't give us much more to narrow down the type of building we're in; open hallway to the men's quarters does more. "Open hallway" is an unusual phrase, and makes me think the writer is describing something specific. In addition, we're clearly in a culture that has men's and women's quarters in its palaces, which rules out any European-based models. I'm intrigued by the idea of the dream-vision, but the name Hanuman is the first unequivocal evidence that we're in an Indian-inspired setting. The second piece comes somewhat later, with the moment when her bangles jingled, and a third with her name, Shakti. It's interesting, because the environment sets up a mood before I can pinpoint the type of location; the names then put a specific name to this location.

At this point I'm going to go through this piece again, marking it with my comments. Those of you who have read previous entries to the Workshop will know that these are not corrections. They are my thoughts and reactions as I go through, which I'll then discuss below the excerpt.

***
The sound of footsteps echoed in the palace, [this phrasing suggests the protagonist is in the palace listening] almost distant to my ears. I realized that the sound of the footsteps were my own and the echo was the slap of my sandals against the marble floor of the open hallway to the men's quarters. [This sentence quickly puts us in the location, even though I don't have a clear picture of what an open hallway is.] The dream-vision still engulfed me,[this makes me suspect that the palace and the running are part of a dream-vision; in dream visions we often feel disoriented and realize where we are, and often feel a sense of purpose] leaving me with the singular purpose of seeing my older brother, Hanuman.[I wonder why she wants to see him]

I glanced up into the sky through the pillared pointed archways and saw that the moon was high so I knew the time to be the middle of the night.[This sentence establishes architecture and time, but I think you can do more with it. Perhaps also use it to drop hints about culture and Shakti's purpose... How does she measure time? Does she worry how Hanuman will react since it's the middle of the night?]

I saw [this filtering contributes to a dreamy quality, as if we were in a vision] the guards in front of the men's chamber doorway,[I pictured a closed door here, but this is clearly not the case] who were sleeping. I ducked their crossed spears and held my thick braid tight, so it would not swing into them. I continued running, letting my sandals slap [did the guards not hear this?] until the hallway opened to a tall vaulted ceiling and then I reached the door of my older brother.

Servants caught me there and they held me back as I pound on the door. They were male servants--but they dare not touch me too much lest they soil my name and incur the wrath of my father, the King.[This is very interesting world information, but I think you can do more. See if you can tie this piece back to Shakti and her purpose by having her draw a conclusion from it.]

"Then you must call for him," I demanded.

"Princess, it is late."[I'm glad to see this. This fits with her father being the king, but it's also new information, because kings can have more offspring than just princes and princesses. (She could conceivably have been a concubine's daughter.)]

"This urgent--I must see him now."

A servant slipped into Hanuman's quarters.

I neatened my black braid. My bangles jingled. I had not realized I had grabbed them. I saw now that I was still in my night clothes, but shrugged it off.[Interesting that she is concerned with her appearance here. I wonder why - can you relate it to her intent?]

Hanuman came out in his night wear, tired and yawning.

"Older Brother [we're in a culture where people call one another by family relation names; I like this], I must speak to you--because we must leave."

Hanuman held his forehead and then looked at me through his stupor. "Another dream vision? [This was the first place where I realized the action couldn't be taking place in her dream vision.] Must we follow this one, too?"

"You must come with me."

"Younger Sister Shakti [this seems a very formal appellation, especially considering how sleepy he is. It may be culturally accurate, but it stands out and might be interpreted as deliberate feeding of the name information. Any way you could split this up?]--it is the middle of the night. The King [isn't he their father? Interesting that they must refer to him so formally.] will be furious to find that you've come to the men's quarters again."

I came a little to myself and realized that I had come to the men's quarters again,[yes, that's clear. What does it mean?] but the dream-vision was too strong and shook me. I could see the Gods beckoning me to action through their incarnated forms.[I'm not clear what incarnated forms means here. Does it mean she can see them physically right now?] The soft sounds of Sita's voice told me the message while Rama watched. I repeated the words. "Across the sea, my husband is waiting for me. He has been waiting a long time."

Hanuman rubbed his eyes. "Father [oh, so they can call him Father] will never agree. He will find you a husband. Don't fret--you are only fifteen."[Hanuman here seems to be giving us information: Father has to approve marriage; he has to find the husband; she is fifteen. While this is all valuable, I wonder if you can do more. What exactly does Hanuman guess that Shakti is worrying about? He would probably think she's having the usual worries of fifteen-year-old unmarried girls...and what are those? There would be a particular way of assuaging such fears.]

He was rambling again.[she thinks he's rambling?] He yawned wide.

"You helped me last time--"

"And I regret it. Let it wait until morning. Why not bother me when the sun is well into the sky and the naan is just baked in the oven?"[this is a cute expression and very flavorful (mmm, naan!)]

He stretched again and shut the door behind him. I pound on it.

The soft click of sandals came down the corridor. I turned my head and saw the servants from my chamber--few as they were--headed by the mistress of the women's quarters.[From this I deduce she's about to be in trouble. Can we see not just what she sees, but also feel her reaction?]
***

I really enjoyed this piece. Throughout, I felt the presence of small very specific details. Because of these details, I never doubted that the writer had a very specific location in mind, so I was ready to wait and look for evidence of what that location was. I didn't have any trouble with jumping to unwarranted conclusions (like, say, concluding that I had to be in a medieval European palace). I saw a couple of places where more cultural information was asking to be inserted (like how these people measure time), but in general I felt a sensation of trust for the writer knowing what environment she was describing. So this is very awesome.

You may notice that I've put in several places above the words "you can do more." I'm asking that you consider taking a next step in creating really thorough worldbuilding: shifting the information from foreground to background. You have an entire separate paragraph dedicated to Shakti determining the time of night - but if she's motivated by a singular purpose, she wouldn't give so much attention to the time of night. It appears to be there especially to carry world information in the form of the window architecture. That's what I mean by foregrounding the worldbuilding information. But the solution is not taking out the information (because I love the information!). What I suggest you do is take Shakti's motives and purpose - the main thrust of the story - and put them into the foreground, while shifting the architecture into the background. Think about why she's checking the time of night. Give her a purpose in doing that, and have her draw conclusions from what she sees. She looks out - it's midnight, so... what? Her brother will be mad (again)? If you do this, her worries and purpose will be in the foreground driving the story, and the worldbuilding information will sit back in a very comfortable and unobtrusive place.

I'd like to see you do the same thing with the information about the servants. Have her behave bravely and scornfully with them, and justify her behavior with the fact that they can't really hurt her without incurring the king's wrath. The same thing can also be done with the details of her hair and clothes. Why would she be concerned about her appearance? Is it her brother's reaction that concerns her?

Each place you see worldbuilding information inserted for its own sake, it takes the foreground - but it's actually not that hard to slip it into the background, provided that you let it serve as a foundation for some action or motivation of the protagonist.

The last instance that I want to draw attention to is what Hanuman says. I've seen a lot of lines like this, and they're not at all bad, and they carry some good information (protagonist's age, social rules/details). But they can be given more dimension, if you can think through precisely what it is that Hanuman thinks she's worrying about. Right now he's telling her she shouldn't worry, and telling the reader she's fifteen and her father will choose her husband. Okay. But does he think she's worried because she thinks she's too old to marry/becoming a spinster at age 15? That is much more emotionally fraught. Let him try to reassure her and imply what it is that someone in this society would be worrying about. It will really give this line added dimension.

Rachel, I'm so glad you submitted this piece, because I really enjoyed it - and because the question of foregrounding and backgrounding is one that I've spent a lot of time working on in my own writing. Especially when you have a detailed world, it's easy for information to try to sit on its own and pull attention off the main conflict. If you can add in the judgment and motivations of the characters as the primary foregrounded thing, though, then you can keep all the fabulous information and have it serve your story purpose (it serves you) rather than having to take time off from advancing the story to get world information (you serve it). The sense of realism will be greatly enhanced.

The constructive discussion is open!