Friday, 27 September 2013

The Stranger in the Room

...a post that intially appeared on the magical Author Allsorts website, and reproduced here for your reading pleasure.

I once dedicated a lot of time – more than was sensible or healthy for a grown man – building an imaginary city called Highlions. I visited it almost every night for years, walking up and down its streets, constructing it as I went; dropping a great island into the middle of a river here, putting up a theatre there, adding a district up by the church, clearing sections, repopulating them, adding wells and squares, stitching in lawns and gardens and a street of fountains. In the end, I knew it really well. I could tell which neighbourhood I was in by the sound of the river or the quality of the street slang.

Then I learnt something. It’s one thing building the world – it’s quite another introducing it to a reader. With this big sandbox of tricks at the ready, the temptation is to throw your traveller right into the middle of it; start with a riot of sights, sounds, smells; open chapter one on the busiest street during a coronation, for example -  parades, crowds, sweat and bustle – a firework display of bold and brilliant world building.

Here’s the thing. I couldn’t get it to work. It was too much crazy in far too big a helping; overwhelming for anyone who read it. They’d say, “What’s this?” or “Why’s this happening? What does this word mean? Who’s this guy?”

So I started scaling back. Maybe not the parade, I thought. Let’s start with market day. It still sucked. Oooh Kay. Maybe a quiet street…

Eventually I ended up with a room. And then it suddenly started making sense. One boy wakes in a room with no recollection of how he got there. Now I could build slowly. Corridor, balcony, roof, cellar, each contributing to our growing sense of the world in which the action operates. In the finished version of the book, the first hustle-and-bustle street scene takes place in Chapter Six. The scene I once tried opening with is now Chapter Thirty One.

It was long after I’d gone through this torturous process that I saw others had tried and failed where I had. Chris Wooding, discussing the troubles he endured whilst writing his novel The Fade, comments; I only cracked it when I rewrote it so Orna starts the book in prison. That way, I got to show the reader a tiny space in the world, and gradually expand it through flashback.” As soon as I saw Wooding – a damn fine writer – confess to having to start small, I was suddenly struck by what I’ve called here the ‘stranger in the room’ device. I swear I’d never noticed it before, rookie idiot that I am.

And as is often the way with these things, once you see it once, it’s suddenly everywhere: if you’re a gamer, the room in question is often a prison cell – three epic fantasy games from The Elder Scrolls series, Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim, all open with imprisoned characters before gradually introducing a new and unfamiliar world. So does Dishonored. Emma Pass does it beautifully in her wonderful dystopian debut Acid, and James Dashner, not to be outdone in the claustrophobia stakes, opens The Maze Runner in a lift. Atwood does it in The Handmaid’s Tale; Treasure Island does it; The Hobbit does it; The Count of Monte Cristo does it twice.

Makes me wonder how I never noticed, really.

So let’s imagine you’re a writer wanting to set a novel in a thrilling and original fantasy world. Not one that reshuffles a pack a familiar tropes; one that astonishes and delights with its freshness. One that lives and breathes and when struck with a tuning fork rings clear and true.

Go for it, brave writer. But start off with a stranger in a room, OK?

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