Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop: Managing Information and Surprises

Welcome to Week 10 of the Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop! Goodness, has it been that long already? Today's excerpt comes from Suzi McGowen. Thanks so much for submitting, Suzi! As I generally do, I'll start by marking up the excerpt with blue for the words that give me worldbuilding information.

***
I took stock of my injuries. I hadn't even been on the job a month and I had 14 bruises, a concussion, multiple cuts and abrasions, a broken arm, and now, a gunshot wound. Being a Tooth Fairy shouldn't be this hard.

It wasn't like I always wanted to be a Tooth Fairy. In fact, if I hadn't seen that poster, I probably would have lived my entire life without that thought ever crossing my mind. But sometimes Fate is like that. You're walking down the street in the early evening and you see something that changes your life.

For me, that fateful night had started out as a typical evening. Once the sun had set and it was safe for me to leave the library, I headed over to Shangri-La for my nightly cuppa tea.
I walked in and out of the pools of light from the streetlights, the silver charms on my pockets jingling softly with each step. Sometimes car headlights would pick me out of the darkness, but I wasn't concerned. My glamour was up and I could pass for human. Tall, but human.

The telephone pole on the street corner was littered with signs and posters. Ads for weight loss, garage sales, a local band. The normal dross of human society. But the scent of magic caught my attention.

My nose twitched and I stopped to give the posters a more thorough look. There was one that was dusted with glamour. Humans probably only saw a sign for a lost pet, or something. What I saw was the flier that changed my life. It said simply, "Job opening: Night Hours. Any fae may apply."

Matchmaking jobs had been slim lately, and while I wasn't hurting, I was always on the lookout for more work. But I didn't feel a burst of hope when I saw this poster. I felt a flash of anger. The last line got me, "any fae may apply". I snorted. Yeah, right. Because I know darn well my kind is not welcome in most situations. I knew the sign should have said, "Any elf or dwarf may apply, brownies, pookahs, and gnomes may be considered, but trolls are asked to please stay home."
***

The first cues we get to world here are in the voice, not in tangible setting elements. I get a feeling of the modern real world from the phrases "took stock" and "on the job." This is further supported by the way the injuries are described, with modern medical terms: "concussion," "abrasions," and "gunshot wound." We then take a quick sidestep from that real world when we hit "Being a Tooth Fairy." The tone of voice and modern world elements continue through the next paragraph, but so does the presence of the fairy existence. Then we hit the intriguing word "Fate." This word seems to link back to older mythologies. We first get a sense of physical setting with the flashback, seeing the sun set and the main character leave a library. The precise location is still unfixed, not much helped by Shangri-La which is mythological but quite commonly used by businesses; however, "cuppa" suggests a British or Australian location. The first explicit mention of technology comes with streetlights and car headlights, but these only fit with the terminology used for the injuries earlier. The word "glamour" evokes traditional fairy stories, as does "fae". So my conclusion is that this is a humorous urban fantasy setting (humorous because of the use of quick contrast between the injuries and the images associated with the tooth fairy).

Now I'll go back through the excerpt and insert my thoughts marked in brown. These comments are mostly a think-aloud for me, and are not intended to be corrections, but I will note any points at which I was confused.

***
I took stock of my injuries. **[Is this the beginning of the story, or the middle? I get a modern feeling from taking stock, which evokes stores for me.] I hadn't even been on the job **[more evidence of modern mindset] a month and I had 14 bruises, a concussion, multiple cuts and abrasions, a broken arm, and now, a gunshot wound. **[These fit, being very modern medical descriptions for the injuries.] Being a Tooth Fairy shouldn't be this hard.**[That's a surprise! Now I'm curious how in the world these injuries could have been sustained by a tooth fairy. They do seem awfully extreme given my gut feel for the tooth fairy lifestyle. Is there a missing connection?]

It wasn't like I always wanted to be a Tooth Fairy. **[This signals a shift in the narration and I'm expecting a flashback. It's less clear to me where we are flashing back from.] In fact, if I hadn't seen that poster,**[My mind gives me an image of a kiosk at a university, covered with papers, but I'm not sure if I'm right about this.] I probably would have lived my entire life without that thought ever crossing my mind. But sometimes Fate is like that. **[The existing juxtaposition of gritty real life with tooth fairy magic makes me wonder if this is referring to an intangible force, as it would be for a human, or an identifiable person, as it might be for a supernatural creature.] You're walking down the street in the early evening and you see something that changes your life.

For me, that fateful night had started out as a typical evening. **[Since I don't know who she is, I'm not sure what "typical" will mean.] Once the sun had set and it was safe for me to leave the library, **[I'm seeing she's nocturnal, which brings many supernatural types to mind - vampires first, though I somewhat doubt that is where you're going. I don't quite understand how the library could be her home.] I headed over to Shangri-La **[is this a fae place or a human business?] for my nightly cuppa tea. **[Maybe we're in England or Australia?]
I walked in and out of the pools of light from the streetlights,**[I think we're in a city] the silver charms on my pockets **[not sure if these are a fashion statement or something fae] jingling softly with each step. Sometimes car headlights would pick me out of the darkness, but I wasn't concerned. My glamour was up **[interesting: we're working with classic fairy mythology too] and I could pass for human. Tall, but human.**[I like "tall" as a hint of her actual identity. She's obviously not microscopic; makes the tooth fairy connection more intriguing.]

The telephone pole on the street corner was littered with signs and posters.**[We've returned to the poster and this revises what I previously imagined.] Ads for weight loss,**[weight loss gives me both a modern feeling and a pop-culture feeling] garage sales,**[maybe we're in a suburb rather than a city] a local band. The normal dross of human society.**[If she is fae, how much does she know about "normal" in human society? How does she know it? Dross suggests she feels negatively about it - how does this play into a tooth fairy role?] But the scent of magic caught my attention.**[Interesting that magic has a scent - and that she would use smell to recognize it. A hint of her identity?]

My nose twitched and I stopped to give the posters a more thorough look. There was one that was dusted with glamour. **[This image of dust contrasts a little with how I'd conceived of glamour when it first appeared.] Humans probably only saw a sign for a lost pet, or something. What I saw was the flier that changed my life. It said simply, "Job opening: Night Hours. Any fae may apply."**[Now we see that there is a larger fae world involved.]

Matchmaking jobs **[I'm not sure what this means in this context.] had been slim lately, and while I wasn't hurting, I was always on the lookout for more work. But I didn't feel a burst of hope when I saw this poster. I felt a flash of anger.**[Not sure you need to lay out the hope/anger contrast explicitly since you're already showing that she wants work.] The last line got me, "any fae may apply". I snorted. Yeah, right. Because I know darn well my kind**[I like this; I always enjoy a sense that individuals have social self-identification] is not welcome in most situations. I knew the sign should have said, "Any elf or dwarf may apply, brownies, pookahs, and gnomes may be considered, but trolls are asked to please stay home."**[This list gives us some options of whom we might meet on the street, and also a social hierarchy.]
***

This is an interesting excerpt, with quite a bit going on in it. I do find that I'm having a lot of "maybe" assessments, not always knowing where I am and having to revise my vision as I go. I suspect that the worldbuilding in this piece may be more difficult because of the fact that there are two surprises built in: first, the idea that we're dealing with a tooth fairy in a gritty world, and second, the idea that our protagonist is a female troll.

Surprises are often difficult to manage, because they tend to give us very specific ideas about the kind of information we will need to hide from readers. However, in order for a surprise to work, we actually need to provide a lot of key information. Think about it in terms of grounding: if you want to make your reader jump, they first have to be standing somewhere they can jump from. My personal recommendation in these cases is to put in a lot of evidence that points to the conclusion I want, but keep the touch light enough that the conclusion isn't given away. In this particular excerpt, the opening doesn't give us enough specific grounding to allow us to leap easily, and we've got the "tooth fairy surprise" and the "flashback jump" coming in very close succession.

We don't need a big place to stand at first, as I discussed in my post last week. The voice suggests modern world, which is good, so I would expect to find a progression of world information that leads more or less directly to the current physical location of the protagonist. Since more of the actual location information is in the flashback section, I wonder if that might not be the better place to start. Sliding forward from there would be easier than it currently is to slide back, and I don't think the tooth fairy surprise would be at all diminished.

When managing worldbuilding information, I often find it's good to visualize worldbuilding as taking a fan-shape. There's no point in doing too much too early. We need one point where we can rest a foot (as it were) while building our curiosity; the next point needs to connect to that point, and as we go each piece of information should push our sense outward bit by bit. If the world expands slowly then any quick change will strike readers as a surprise. Don't try to hold back too much. In the case of our troll protagonist, I'd love to know more about the details of her life and how she got her job. Maybe something about the library to suggest how it is she is safe there, and what that means. The stronger sense we get of her identity without having it explicitly revealed, the more tension there will be, and the release we feel when the surprise is divulged will be more intense. I think in fact that there is an enormous potential for tension in the idea of a troll becoming a tooth fairy, because trolls are traditionally menacing to children and not the other way around. The surprise of how difficult the job is might become stronger if you were to set up that tension - would a troll tooth fairy be a risk to children? - and then break it with "shoot, how did I get all these injuries?"

Keep in mind that I don't know much about where the story is going, and that may influence how you choose to manage it. In any case, I hope these comments are helpful to you. Thanks so much for submitting!

I welcome any constructive discussion.