Tuesday, May 3, 2011
A few weeks ago I reviewed The Fourth Stall, then I had the chance to interview the author Chris Rylander, and now we have a great geust post from the author as well! So sit back and enjoy!
Creating a Believable World
One of the key elements to writing a successful book (and by successful, I simply mean one that most of its readers will enjoy as opposed to commercial success) is creating a believable world where the story takes place. This is often given the most importance for fantasy or science fiction novels, which often take place in a world or future that is drastically different than what we live in now. For those stories, making this imaginary world feel real and believable is obviously critical since the reader will essentially need to be told everything they will have to know about that world or they’ll feel disconnected or lost.
I mean, if I want to set my next story on Pancake Planet, I can’t just say it takes place there a few times and expect the reader to know what Pancake Planet is like. Pancake Planet needs to be constructed for the reader on the pages in a believable way. You’ll need to know what makes Pancake Planet what it is and how it’s different from or similar to what the reader can already relate to. Is it inhabited by pancake people who like to lather themselves in syrup every morning and wear pads of butter as hats? Or do regular humanoids live there, and the planet itself is made of pancakes and even the houses are pancakes which creates problems because some of the characters are eating their own homes and then there is a drastic housing shortage on Pancake Planet? Or maybe Pancake Planet has nothing to do with pancakes at all, but instead is a magical place where Bacon People lord over the sad, weak and repressed Leafy-Green Folk? It doesn’t really matter, but what does matter is that whichever of these happens to be true, it needs to be established firmly and in a way that makes sense and is somewhat logical to the reader. So that it feels like a real environment, a real setting, even though it’s not. (But probably there is a real Pancake Planet. I’m pretty sure it’s out there, just chock of full pancake houses which I will someday consume.)
Anyway, where I’m going with all of this is to say that this isn’t only true for fantasy or science fiction novels, as can sometimes be the misperception. It’s also true for realistic contemporary stories. Even ones set in middle school, which most of us survived and can probably remember well, and therefore already relate to. In fact, it’s that’s very reason that the believability of your setting or world is almost more important for a contemporary middle grade story than it would need to be for a fantasy or sci-fi novel. Because if it feels phony for even a second, then pretty much every single reader will be able to identify that right away.
So that brings me to this question: How do you create a believable middle school world? (Something I’ve been told that The Fourth Stall does well.)
This is where is gets tricky. There are probably many ways it can be done and, as with everything, it’s mostly subjective. So all I can do is speak for my own experience in creating the school-world in which The Fourth Stall takes place. Essentially, for me, it came down to memory above all else. Constantly I was putting myself back into my own shoes as a 6th-8th grader… what did I worry about most? What did I like and not like about school? What did my friends like or not like about it? Who was my favorite teacher and why? What was the layout? How did that affect me?
This is just a tiny sample of the questions that were constantly whizzing through my head as I wrote The Fourth Stall. And because I’m not a teacher and don’t have any kids, I had to rely solely on my own memories of middle school. Other writers may be able to use their experiences as a school teacher or being a parent in conjunction with their memories. And that’s okay, too, of course. But they key is to use some sort of real and concrete frame of reference.
And the secret ingredient, I think, the thing that separates an adequate fictional school-world from a great one, is that it needs to feel slightly off or unrealistic in some way. I’ll try to explain: it won’t be as successful if you merely copy down what you remember thought for thought. You need to use those real memories and experiences as a foundation and then build on it with fiction, with your own unique spin. Make it as real as you can, and then tilt it, so it’s just a little bit off. Oftentimes when I’m reading a book, the dialogue and events that stick out to me as feeling the most realistic and believable are the ones that feel totally unique to the book. Lines that I’ve never heard anywhere else and that probably couldn’t exist anywhere but in that story and still feel quite so real. For a good example of what I mean, check out the opening pages of the book Burger Wuss by M.T. Anderson: http://www.amazon.com/Burger-Wuss-M-T-Anderson/dp/0763615676, the first few pages contain one of my favorite conversations I’ve ever read in a book. It’s those slightly bizarre moments, occurring inside a world that was based on something real and concrete, that I think give a book or story an authentic feel. That bring the story to life in a unique but believable way.
More about the Author:
Goodreads Author Page