Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop: Defining foundation concepts

This week's entry for the Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop comes from Lxndr. Thanks so much for submitting! As usual, I'll begin by marking words in the text that give me clues to worldbuilding (with the color blue!). This excerpt is unusual because it seems the main character shares my name!

***
At first she thought it was just the shock of having a burning building fall on top of her. But when Juliette stopped to take a breath, she realized she wasn't feeling any pain - and while her clothing was damaged and torn beyond belief, her skin underneath remained unblemished, just porcelain smudged with ashes and dirt. Her bones were unbroken. Even her hair was untouched, no singed bits, not even any split ends. And that just wasn't normal.

Unlike Papa, she had no Gifts... and it was that Einstein fellow who'd said that there wouldn't be any more Awakenings unless something like the Rapture happened again - and the chances of anything else falling from the sky out of space were remote. Is that what happened at the warehouse? The rest of the City didn't seem in the kind of uproar another Rapture would have caused, so it must have been just her. That warehouse was a laboratory full of strange contraptions and devices - perhaps one of them repeated the Rapture, maybe in miniature? She had to ask Frankie, or Papa.

Papa... she glanced back down the alley at the burning wreckage of the warehouse. Memory started trickling into her foggy mind - an explosion, then the warehouse collapsing. It was probably too quick for Papa to have blinked out. She wanted to run back to the wreckage, see if she could find him - but then she heard the sirens of fire trucks. The police wouldn't be too far behind.

If Papa had survived, the old bastard would kill her if she'd let herself get caught. And if he hadn't survived, he wouldn't want her to waste time in mourning. She looked up at the almost-full moon and muttered a little invocation to Athena - a superstition she'd picked up from her father. She shook her head at the foolishness of it, wiped her eyes, and dashed off into the night.

She had to get home, and without her father's Gifts, home was a long way away. She looked down at the tattered, scorched remnants of what was once her favorite body-stocking. Now she was showing more skin than a burlesque dancer, and that would get her more attention than she wanted. Before anything else, she needed to get herself some clothes.

On the top of a nearby building, she saw a clothesline. A cotton frock was dangling, swaying in the wind. She felt a knot in her stomach, telling her she could get there, if only she just jumped. She remembered what Papa told her about his Awakening, when he'd learned what to do with his Gifts. It was almost an instinct, he said - it just felt natural. When an opportunity came up, he just knew what to do.
***

As far as world entry, we don't really get any big hints until the end of the first sentence where we hit burning building. I see this as a degree of evidence for a world like ours (though it could be elsewhere). The name Juliette confirms a human environment - clearly a different one from ours, since she wasn't feeling any pain. But she wears clothing (at least under normal circumstances) and thinks of her skin as unblemished and porcelain, both of which are real world attitudes that I associate with traditional girl appearance messages (marketing?). Similar to this is her concern with the lack of split ends in her hair. Ashes and dirt contribute to the sense of setting begun with the building.

In paragraph two, we start getting hints of what it is that's different from our own world. Papa fits in our world just fine, but there's the concept of Gifts, and that of Awakenings, both of which are new. These are set against the familiar real-world name Einstein and the concept of the Rapture, which readers will almost certainly be familiar with. Falling from the sky out of space says that we are on a planet and our main character is aware of this fact. The warehouse gets us back to setting, and the City suggests slightly more than we've seen previously. We get some technology ideas from the laboratory full of strange contraptions and devices, but alley, sirens of fire trucks, and police mean that most of our expectations stay with a modern real-world scenario. There's a gesture toward unusual beliefs with Juliette's response to the almost-full moon and her invocation to Athena, but then this is minimized by her referring to it as superstition. It will still keep me looking out for similar things going forward.

Now I'll go through the excerpt adding my think-aloud comments in brown.

***
At first she thought it was just the shock of having a burning building fall on top of her. **[A nicely startling first sentence, and opens up unusual possibilities, like that of someone surviving being landed on by a burning building.] But when Juliette stopped to take a breath, **[this "stopped" has me wondering what she was doing before she stopped. Running from the scene? I had been imagining her lying under the building.] she realized she wasn't feeling any pain **[interesting; the place is human enough that pain would be our expectation] - and while her clothing was damaged and torn beyond belief,**[at this point I'm imagining her in shirt and pants, which is my default setting for clothes] her skin underneath remained unblemished,**[this word might just be artistic for "unhurt" but on some level I associate it with a concern about skin care] just porcelain **[this sounds like it's out of a fairy-tale, and seems odd as a judgment of her own skin; more external-observer] smudged with ashes and dirt. Her bones were unbroken.**[I can assume pretty easily that she's checking, but it would be interesting to know if she's actually giving herself the physical once-over.] Even her hair was untouched, no singed bits, not even any split ends.**[Here's another one that makes me think of modern marketing for girls.] And that just wasn't normal. **[Certainly not normal for someone who's had a building landed on them. But normal in general? It would be interesting to know whether she feels that she herself has changed and that something must have happened to cause this.]

Unlike Papa, she had no Gifts... **[The capitalization points this out as something unusual that the reader must pay attention to, but there's no hint here of what Gifts might be. My default guess would be something like psychic powers.] and it was that Einstein fellow **[Which one? The actual Einstein, or someone named after him? It seems like this should be referring to the real Einstein.] who'd said that there wouldn't be any more Awakenings **[I'm confused at this point, because you're telling me Awakenings are also important, but there is no evidence yet of any link between Awakenings and Gifts, and no indication of what Awakenings are independently of Gifts either.] unless something like the Rapture **[I know what the Rapture is supposed to be. Second comings, heaven, etc. Interesting that it might have happened already but I can't see the connection with her situation.] happened again - and the chances of anything else falling from the sky out of space were remote.**[This seems to say that the Rapture occurred when something fell from the sky. Jesus falling out of the sky is an extreme image, but that was what I got, and then "out of space" made it only more bizarre. This was the point where I started thinking maybe the Rapture referred to here might not be the one I'm familiar with. But by this time I'm extremely confused.] Is that what happened at the warehouse? **[Does this mean some kind of Rapture must have happened at a warehouse? Is the warehouse the burning building? You never referred to it as a warehouse before.] The rest of the City **[Ah, she's in a city. I wonder if it's a real city I might know; no indication of that here.] didn't seem in the kind of uproar another Rapture would have caused, so it must have been just her. That warehouse was a laboratory full of strange contraptions and devices **[begs the question of why she was there. Did these things belong to her father? Was he doing something with them that might have caused the event - say, trying to find the causes of recent events?]- perhaps one of them repeated the Rapture, maybe in miniature? She had to ask Frankie, or Papa.

Papa... she glanced back down the alley at the burning wreckage of the warehouse.**[I didn't realize she was in an alley. My sense of her immediate location is a bit minimal at this point.] Memory started trickling into her foggy mind **[her mind hasn't seemed foggy so far. If it were, I'd expect the internalized narrative to be much more disjointed.]- an explosion, then the warehouse collapsing. It was probably too quick for Papa to have blinked out. **[Not sure what this means in this context. Disappeared, yes, but if it's connected to his Gifts, then there's no indication at this point.] She wanted to run back to the wreckage, see if she could find him - but then she heard the sirens of fire trucks. The police wouldn't be too far behind.**[Something about this makes me think she doesn't want to see the authorities, but there's no indication of why that might not be a good thing, or who she is that this would be a problem. What is her motivation here?]

If Papa had survived, the old bastard**[doesn't like her dad?] would kill her if she'd let herself get caught.**[Ah, so she doesn't want to meet authorities.] And if he hadn't survived, he wouldn't want her to waste time in mourning. She looked up at the almost-full moon and muttered a little invocation to Athena - a superstition she'd picked up from her father. **[This is interesting but another thing out of the blue. I don't have a sense of the cultural context that would make this meaningful. It's specified as a superstition, but superstitions can be good or bad, important or unimportant.] She shook her head at the foolishness of it, wiped her eyes, and dashed off into the night.

She had to get home, and without her father's Gifts, home was a long way away. **[It's a long way because he's not here? Or because she can't teleport? I'm not even quite sure if he could teleport...] She looked down at the tattered, scorched remnants of what was once her favorite body-stocking.**[Really? that is what she was wearing?] Now she was showing more skin than a burlesque dancer, **[this makes me wonder about her age, and her social context, that she knows about burlesque dancers and that would be the first thing she thinks to compare herself to.] and that would get her more attention than she wanted. Before anything else, she needed to get herself some clothes.

On the top of a nearby building, she saw a clothesline. A cotton frock **[a British expression. Interesting; we havent' had a sense of actual location previously.] was dangling, swaying in the wind. She felt a knot in her stomach, telling her she could get there, if only she just jumped. She remembered what Papa told her about his Awakening, when he'd learned what to do with his Gifts. It was almost an instinct, he said - it just felt natural. When an opportunity came up, he just knew what to do.**[If she's suddenly feeling this, and has never had Gifts before, wouldn't she be surprised?]
***

Thanks again to Lxndr for submitting. There are a lot of interesting mixed real-world and fantastical elements in this piece. It does give me the opportunity, though, to talk about defining foundation concepts in worldbuilding. Part of the reason for my confusion as I read was that there were several concepts underlying the piece that I needed to understand. One of these was Gifts; another was Awakenings; the third was an alternate meaning for the Rapture. All three were introduced within the same paragraph, and in large part were dependent on one another for their understanding. If I didn't understand Gifts, I wasn't going to understand Awakenings, and the Rapture as a cause for both didn't compute. Major concepts like this need to be marked as important, but also given surrounding contextual support. Occasionally I find instances where it was the author's choice not to give the contextual support, in the interest of creating mystery, but it usually does more harm than good. Supplying capital letters to make a word stand out is something I do a lot (and have had to tone down before); it's effective at drawing reader attention, but then we need just a little more. If Gifts are too normal to be explained, then you can always give the protagonist a chance to muse on the relevance of a particular Gift to a given situation - for example, be specific and say that if she'd had her father's Gifts, she could have teleported right out of there before the building (warehouse) fell on her. When a conceptual explanation would be too clunky, providing a relevant example can go a long way. Awakenings could have been supported by phrasing it as "there hadn't been any more people Awakening to their Gifts since..." As far as the Rapture is concerned, it really needs support so that readers don't choose the default understanding of Rapture. My choice would be to explain the event that occurred, and then indicate that it had changed everything and everyone so much (creating chosen ones?) that people had started calling it the Rapture.

I'm not sure if right here in the narrative is the best place to do this. The Rapture requires enough support that it might take away from what is going on right now - grounding the location, her identity and her attitude toward police, the activities going on in the warehouse, for example. You could slow way down with the distribution of these main concepts and start her off mostly dealing with the strange aftermath of the explosion, not really knowing why she's okay, and thinking it's odd, but mostly concentrating on getting out of there. Gifts could come up in the context of whether her father is all right, and Awakenings could happen after she discovers she is able to jump to fetch the hanging frock. Then once she realizes she suddenly has Gifts, and is safer, she can muse on how it might have happened.

Very often we'll have a set of core concepts or beliefs that underlie a story, ones which require some explanation because the story can't work without them. They deserve the time it takes to set them up with support so that readers won't be confused. The trick is searching through the narrative, and what you're trying to achieve, to find the place where the concept has most relevance, and where the protagonist has time to pause and think things through.

Lxndr, I hope you find these comments helpful. Any constructive discussion is welcome.