Here is a book about a girl called Veronika who has been kept in ignorance all her life, and when her circumstances change, she is only pretty vaguely enlightened. So are we. I prefer to be more enlightened.
Veronika lives on an island with three other girls: Caroline, Isabel, and Eleanor. They are all the same exact girl, except that their hair is different colors. Their parents died in a plane crash. They live with their guardians, Robbert and Irene, who educate them and test them and try to understand them. One day, a girl called May washes up on their shore. She looks different to Veronika and the others, and she seems frightened of them. Her coming heralds the end of the life Veronika has always known.
The problem is this: I like books that work more by implication than by description. I do! I loved The Haunting of Hill House, for example, a book that does not spend much time spelling things out for the reader. However, my liking of implication-heavy books depends on trusting that the author knows how to steer the ship. In The Different Girl, there are heavy implications of Unrest back in the real world, but it’s super dull because Dahlquist doesn’t give any good details. One or two really good details, strategically and creepily dropped at intervals, would have counterbalanced a lot of the vagueness about world-building. As it was, the world outside Veronika’s island felt mad generic. Blah blah people are scared of science blah blah destroy the robots blah blah blah.
I am a reasonable woman. I do not demand that every author be Laini Taylor and N. K. Jemisin, with their flawlessly realized worlds. All I ask is some dribs and drabs of information to say what this world is about, and what its dangers are, and what the point of these girls is. Absent that, the book hasn’t got any stakes. I truly couldn’t have cared less about the fate of these characters.
I hereby propose the following guidelines for authors who are not natively gifted at world-building:
- Introduce a fig leaf to explain why you are not explaining more. This can be that all the characters are steeped in their normal, thus not fussed about describing it; but if a stranger washes up on shore, you really cannot keep up the non-explaining without a plausible reason.
- The number of details you must drop about the world is inversely proportional to their specificity, by which I mean, their ability to imply a lot while saying a little. For instance, early on in Crux, there is talk of how parents of non-neurotypical children are suspects for use of / sympathy for users of the mind-altering drug Nexus. That says a ton about the drug and the political atmosphere that surrounds it. A small number of details with that kind of specificity can go a long way.
Okay. Grumbly post over.
Do you have any guidelines you’d like authors to adhere to in their world-building?