the Witch, on Twitter, asked a very interesting question: At what point have you done enought showing? Or telling for that matter? When, for the love of all that’s holy, is it done?
Everyone knows the story is done when it’s done. It may not seem obvious in the beginning when a story will be finished, but as you progress down the road of writing it you’ll soon realize there’s a central conflict (renegade necromancer out to destroy everything because she’s pissed as hell) and perhaps some side issues (vampire with similar problems, but wanting to take over her people instead of wrecking the city) that the protagonist (gun-toting badass with a drinking problem who really just wants to be left alone) has to deal with. Once the primary conflict is wrapped up and the side conflict gets taken care of, the story is done. The denoument should tie all the parts together, slap a bow on it, and call it good. We don’t have to worry about what comes next; that’s stuff for the sequel.
The plot is a necessity, but it’s in the midst of the story is where the magic happens. That’s where you show all of the things that led us to this point and give readers insight into the why as well as the how. So, you could sum up my latest work in progress using the descriptions above and you’d have the basic plot of a book that still doesn’t have a freakin’ title because I can’t think of one even though it’s nearly half written. You could even summarize the ending by saying “Bullets with a side of throat ripping”, but four disconnected phrases does not a book make. Why and how are important. So is building the world the characters live in. Those are the places to spend your time. On the plus side, you could use those disconnected sentences to come up with a half-decent blurb.
In a city where life is cheap, someone is leaving corpses that won’t stay dead. There’s no rhyme or reason to what’s happening, but Ace Colton’s recently deceased on-again-off-again girlfriend just tried to introduce him to the business end of a knife. At her funeral, a vampire finds him and explains that she made a promise to protect him. While everything implodes around them, they’ll make their way through a city where vampires and magic are real, leaders are fighting to imprison every last magical thing, and regular humans are pawns in a deadly game that could decide the fate of a world.
Okay, so it’s not perfect. Sue me. It’s a first cut.
Anyway, back to the magic of the story. What makes a story engaging starts with the plot. If it’s a tale of some doof brushing his teeth, no ones going to care, unless it’s some avant-garde house movie where the audience can convince themselves they saw something that wasn’t there and look down their noses at everyone who missed it. Get a decent plot, make some memorable characters, throw in some sex with a vampire, and don’t be afraid to unleash a bunch of hot lead. That should be enough of a hook to get people interested.
It’s the world of the book that will keep people interested. I wrote a post a while back about why I thought writing urban fantasy was harder than regular fantasy because you have to make all the weird shit seem natural when it’s dropped into a mundane setting like Albuquerque, New Mexico or Tijuana, Regular Mexico. The world building requires more effort because you have to shoehorn in fantasy elements and make them seem like they belong there. And that requires description.
Which, finally, takes us back to The Witch’s original question: When have you shown enough? There’s actually an easy answer to that, but it’s not the easiest thing to understand. It’s done when it’s done. Let’s say I’m describing magazines on a coffee table in a weird sorcerer dude’s house:
The table was covered with half-formed rings of spilled coffee, the kind of thing you only see with people who either drink too much coffee or don’t give a shit about cleaning up anymore. In the middle, staring up from a leaning pile of crusty, dog-eared, and tattered “Big Butts” magazines, a girl in a bikini looked over her shoulder, shoving her ass into the camera. Someone had drawn an eye patch and a fake scar on her face with a cheap ballpoint pen and the ink was smeared from recent use. On the corner of the table, neatly aligned and staring at me with a smirk on its face, was a pristine copy of Jane’s Defense Weekly with a cover depicting the latest in the military application of magical weapons.
There’s a lot of information built into that paragraph, even if it’s not obvious. That’s what I like to call information density. You don’t have to have spell out every little thing to have the world building work, and you definitely don’t have to tell the reader what you want them to realize. That’s showing in a nutshell.
You’re trying to accomplish a few things with world building:
- Describing the world (duh)
- Laying out the important points
- Fleshing out a character
The trick to it is figuring out the important points and that’s the key to understanding The Witch’s question. What’s important? What does the reader need to know to understand where this madcap tale of guns and sorcery is heading? That is something only the author can answer. If your book is about a half-assed sorcerer who’s never done anything important with his life and is catching shit from his parents and the general world around him, the description of a coffee table shed a lot of light on both him and his world. We know:
- He’s probably an obsessive coffee drinker and that makes his hands shaky
- He likes to punch the bishop on the couch.
- The world not only has magic in it, but someone’s working to weaponize it.
- Our sorcerer has a thing for degrading women and possibly mutliating them.
- He likes big butts and he cannot lie.
While some other brothers might deny, our sorcerer dude is probably a messed up individual on track to get himself and everyone else in a lot of trouble. If that’s the description of the character you’re going for, you’re good to go. If not, replace the magazines or clean up the coffee table. Or whatever. Just realize when to stop. The table might also have a half-empty box of Kleenex, or a cold mug of coffee, or any number of other things. He might also have a half-empty box of ‘Nilla Wafers in the cabinet and some Chinese noodles in the trash, but you don’t need to say that. In the case of the Kleenex and the cold coffee, we already know he likes coffee and boxing the clown on the sofa, you don’t need to hammer the point home – no pun intended. In the case of the ‘Nilla Wafers and Chinese noodles, who cares? All we know is he likes vanilla wafers and Chinese food and everyone like vanilla wafers and Chinese food. It’s junk information just like saying he owns a pair of pants or breathes air.
All the information in our world building needs to have a valid reason for being there. It needs to describe a character and how they’re different or what their motivations might be, explain some aspect of a world that’s not what’s expected in our world, or leave clues and reasons for plot points that will happen later on. If it doesn’t fall into one of those categories or doesn’t help breath life into a world, let it go. And if you’ve already shown it, there’s not much reason to beat that dead horse some more (also no pun intended). Leave some space for the action that drives the story forward and don’t overload the reader with details that aren’t important. Bored readers put down books and that’s not what we’re shooting for here.
So, to answer The Witch’s question: The showing and telling are done when they’re done. And they’re done when the pertinent information has been presented. Everything else is icing and remember, while sitting on the couch with a jar of chocolate mocha icing and a spoon sounds like a good idea, it gets old pretty quickly.
One final thought on world building: Realize we learned an awful lot about a character from describing his coffee table. Not all character building is obvious.
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