Exercise in World Building

Exercise in World Building

I’m working my way through Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft. In chapter 9, Indirect Narration, or What Tells, she warns against the info dump style of telling the reader about the world their are entering. If you’ve read fantasy or sci fi, you know what she’s referring to. That scene early in the book where your MC, who is new to the place, gets the run down from someone who has been there a while. Or the long paragraphs of description about the physical, political and spiritual structures and systems the characters will have to navigate in order to accomplish their goals. While ‘expository lumps’ can be delivered creatively, I have always enjoyed the gradual build up of information delivered as we get to know the characters inhabiting the story, as they live their lives. That’s a fun exercise – as you’re reading fiction, examine the ways the author is delivering information. Which feel natural and which feel like chunks of exposition wedged into the narrative.

The first exercise of this chapter is in ‘invisible exposition’ – write a brief scene about two characters with only dialog. Nothing more than A said, B said, if that. No adverbs, adjectives, or explanations. This is what I wrote for that exercise:

A: I knew this was going to happen.

B: What do you mean ‘you knew’?

A: As soon as you said ‘We’ll be fine, we still have a few gallons to get home on’ as we passed that last gas station, I knew. Because you always do this.”

B: I always do what?

A: You always go with your gut instead of doing the work of figuring out the actual answer.

B: Stop being so negative. We’re fine. Someone will come along soon. We can flag them down and go get some gas.

A: You are so naïve. Why would anyone stop way out here, in the middle of nowhere in the dark to help total strangers? There are bulletins out about this very thing. Everyone knows not to stop. You need to call someone.

B: Oh, uh, I… my phone’s dead. I grabbed the wrong charge cord.

A: Do you mean to tell me you were playing music on your phone knowing you couldn’t charge it? I can’t believe you.

B: Why is everything always my fault? Where’s your phone, huh? Oh let me guess – you didn’t bring it. You assumed I’d have mine. If I’m irresponsible, you are, too.

A: Shhhhh!

B: You just don’t like hearing the truth!

A: No, just stop for a second and listen.

B: What? I don’t hear… what was that?

A: That’s what I mean! I don’t know but it doesn’t sound friendly.

B: Shit! Get back in the car! Lock the doors!

A: What are we going to do?

B: Ok, let me think. You go into the back seat. There’s a blanket. Get as far into the footwell as you can and cover yourself up in the blanket.

A: What are you going to do?

B: I’m going to get into your seat and cover myself up with… Um, give me the heavy coats from the back seat. If we stay quiet and still, maybe it’ll think we abandoned the car.

A: What do you think it is?

B: I don’t know. I’m just glad the moon is waning and not full. Are you covered up?

A: Yes. Oh god, there it goes again. It’s closer, isn’t it? I can feel the ground shaking. It must be huge.

B: Hey, I love you. I’m sorry I’m such an idiot. This is all my fault.

A: Look I was just venting on you. I love you, too.

A: Now what?

B: Shhhh, we stay quiet and wait for it to go away.

A: oh god, what is it doing? Sounds like it’s trying to scratch it’s way inside!

B: Just stay still, don’t say anything else.

A: Are you awake?

B: mmm, not really. What time is it?

A: 4:30, the sun’s coming up. Do you think it’s safe? I’ve lost the feeling in my legs.

B: I don’t hear anything, yeah, we should be ok.

A: I don’t see anything.

B: I’m going to get out. You stay inside.

B: I can hear something.

A: Oh god, what now?

B: No, no, it’s a car or something, coming this way, I’m going to put on the hazards and flag them down.

A: oh my god!

B: What?

A: That sound, the scratching. It left us a message.

B:What? That thing left a message?

A: See? I think it says… ‘Next Time’

What do you think? What did you learn about the characters and their world through the dialog? Do you have guesses about their gender? I think this is an amazing exercise. It really encourages me as a writer to come up with ways to ration out the world building cues and character information. And it reminds me how much we learn about a character by their dialog. If you’re a writer, try this exercise sometime. I’d love to hear how it went for you.

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