Friday, June 29, 2012

The Expanding World of Your Novel

My teenage self leaned against the counter in our kitchen, listening to my dad. I don't know remember what we were talking about, but the things he said were so eye-opening and revelatory to me that I can remember every detail of that moment--the dark wood of our 80s style cabinets, the dishwasher running, my mom sitting on a bar stool, correcting papers. Both of them in one room probably meant they were telling me I couldn't do something (and very rightfully so!) or maybe they were telling me I ought to be doing something. But I don't recall feeling upset. Instead, I just remember having this exciting a-ha! moment.
"When you are a baby," my dad said, "your world is very small. You don't do anything on your own, and if you are by yourself, all you can see is your crib or the ceiling. Then you learn how to sit on your own, and your world triples in size. When you learn to crawl, your world expands to encompass the whole room. As your ability to take care of yourself increases, your world continues to grow--eventually you've allowed into more spaces in the house, and then into the yard. One day you're world grows to include the street, or even the block. Bikes increase your world, and so does your driver's license; until one day you realize that your world includes most of the planet earth--and beyond, if you work hard and are really lucky."

You probably didn't just experience that same flash of inspiration that I had as a teenager. You might even think I'm pretty silly for not figuring all that out on my own. However, that concept gave me a bit more patience as I waited for my own world to expand. I even remember wondering if I'd tried to expand my world a little too soon when I was lying in the emergency room after I'd gotten in a car accident in an unfamiliar town.

But this concept can translate to writing advice too! In fact, some of my favorite authors use this concept in their books:

The Harry Potter series:

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the very first scene in the book sets up the magical world we've all come to know and love. A cat sits on the corner reading--no, looking at--a street sign. People in capes wander the streets and owls are flying everywhere. Slowly the world expands--Hagrid comes and tells Harry about a school. They go to Diagon Alley. Harry figures out how to board the Hogwart's Express and spends the rest of the year at school.

In book 2, we learn about house elves and meet the families of some of Harry's classmates, especially the Weasleys. We see the Burrow for the first time, and learn how life is different in a magical family. We get our first glimpse of the dark world of Knockturn Alley. In book 3, we learn about Azkaban and especially about Harry's parents and their friends. The world expands to include werewolves and dementors. By book 4, we know so much about the magical world that it doesn't seem like there is much left to know, but Rowling is just getting started. Harry gets to go to the Quidditch World Cup, where we learn that there is an entire world left to explore. We get to know schools in other parts of the world, and we learn a lot more about the Ministry of Magic, both good and bad.

In book 5, we actually get to see the Ministry of Magic and also spend time at St. Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries. In book 6, we delve more deeply into the rich history of Harry's world, and in book 7, we don't even make it to Hogwarts until nearly the end of the book.

When I want to reread a Harry Potter book, I'm not very tempted by book 1. It's not as rich a world as the others. But can you imagine if she'd tried to stuff all of the characters, their histories and the whole magical world into book 1? It would have been too much.

The Queen's Thief Series

I just finished reading The King of Attolia. Then I went back and reread my favorite parts. Then I gave up and started the whole book over again. It was that good. While I was reading the first book, The Thief, though, I couldn't imagine the author being able to get an interesting sequel out of the story. Although it was interesting, it seemed too simple. Without spoiling it though, I'll just say that she pulls off a twist at the end that proved that the whole story was more complicated then I'd originally thought.

Book 2, The Queen of Attolia is so much more intricate that it seems like a different story altogether, and so dark in the beginning that I had to keep reminding myself that loads of people loved this and I was going to find out why.

By the middle, I knew why. It's Eugenides. And the other characters. Their relationships with each other are dazzling. Megan Whalen Turner's series pulls in tightly on one aspect of her world. Then it expands out to show a dizzyingly complex world, and then pulls in tight to explore another part of the world, and then another. 

I haven't read book 4 yet, but from what I understand, a great deal of it centers around a character we haven't seen since book 1. I'm excited for that, as long as I still get my Eugenides time.

Expanding Your World

You can create a snapshot of your whole world by showing how magic/religion/history affects your character in one place at one time. As their world expands, so does your opportunity for storytelling.

This is not a hard and fast rule. I can't even tell you that it works every time. What I do know is that we are quickly becoming a society ruled by sequels. We like to get to know our characters and the worlds they live in very well. The Tortall Universe, by Tamora Pierce is a great example of this. She's written 5 sets of books set in the same world, with different heroines, but overlapping characters. People love it!

In the Tortall universe, there doesn't seem to be a great deal of planning from one series to another. I don't think Tamora Pierce had ever dreamed of Daine when she wrote about Allanna, or that she had Beka Cooper in mind when she first created George (ah George. He's right up there with Euginides on my list of favorite characters ever). However, I think she knows where she's going from book one of a series to the end of that series.

And we need to know where we are going too. Readers can magically tell if we don't really know our world, even if we're only showing one small piece of it at the moment.

Happy writing!


  1. Okay, this whole post is great. It's so hard not to want to spill the beans up front about this cool world you've created, but you're right that the slow unfolding of it is much more satisfying for the reader.

    My absolute favorite part of this post, though, is where you confess your love for Eugenides. Ha! He can steal anything - especially reader's hearts. (in all seriousness, I'm glad you stuck with the series and are enjoying it - only 3 more years till book 5! Now go check out

    1. I love him, love him, love him, Susan. It is the new goal of my life to create a character as complex and aggravating and lovable as he is. I don't know if I'm capable of bringing my characters that low though, and I think it was necessary. Thanks for making me give the series another try!

  2. I loved the way each Harry Potter book took us deeper and deeper into the wizard world. I think if Rowling had presented her entire wizard world up front, we would have been overloaded with weird and the book wouldn't have been as accessible. Easing a reader into the world works so much better.

    Great post!

    1. * wakes up groggy, pours himself a mug of coke and lights a cigarette. The scruffy protagonist proceeds to check teh intarwebz*

      Me: Whas' dis' Qween Fief seriez? (this is the my slurry, had-not-enough-sleep voice)

      Me: Aw, damn it, now I want to Google it.

      * reads the Amazon excerpt*

      Me: Holy, hopscotch jumping Jesus on a tricycle, this book looks awesome, maybe I should get it and read it.

      *Profound silence of contemplation*

      Me: Nah, man, I got a thesis to write.

      *Puff of smoke. Devil sits on my shoulder*

      Devil: Come on, brah. You LOVE books. Just a quick skim. You know you want it.

      Me: Where the hell is that other guy with the wings?

      Devil: Never mind him, man, come on just a few pages of sweet, sweet literary goodness.

      Me: Last time I listened to you I stayed up late and when I came to, I was lying on my bed covered in Dorito crumbs, books scattered around my place and I found a tattoo of questionable morale on my chest.

      Devil: You DID like it.

      Me: ...

      Me: You are an effin' enabler, man.

      Devil: Come on do you REALLY want to write your thesis now?

      Me: ... *grumbles and brings forth his Kindle*

      Prosers has always great book recommendations, especially for YA.
      Thanks for nourishing my novel addiction, peeps!

      Oh, and if you love world immersion try CROAK by Gina Damico, Melanie!

      Keep those delicious recommendations coming Prosers! :)

    2. Stefan, This is the guy with the halo talking. I just finished book 4, and I did so by leaving a family party and barricading myself in my in-laws family room while they played kick ball outside. Guess what? After I finished, the book was still there. And it will be when your thesis is finished too. (When I was writing my thesis, Ender's Game was the book I stayed up til dawn reading. I should say re-reading.)

  3. Good points Melanie. I too now need to read that series.

    Great Post!


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