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May
3
2014

Love the way we lie. -- by Tara Southwell

"World building" is a term we see bandied around quite a bit when it comes to the craft of writing. What it boils down to is whether or not the author has created an environment that feels "real." But how exactly is that accomplished? Is there some kind of formula, like a scientific equation, that will total up to a believable world? If that's so, why is there an almost mystical quality that evolves between the reader and the book when the world building works?

The answer is fairly simple, yet it's taken eons of human evolution to develop: the ability to lie. As Stephen King likes to say, "being a writer means I get paid to lie to people" and the best liars of all actually believe the lie they're telling while they're telling it. Lying is a skill that depends on the liar's ability to:

1.) Build a working model in their imagination of how their environment (including the people in it) works. (Initial state).
2.) Build a working model in their imagination of how their environment could work if things were different. (Potential state).
3.) Figure out which things need to change and how to change them in the initial state of the environment in order to make the potential state the new reality.
4.) Execute the changes and hopefully, if you thought about it hard enough and took all the variables into account, the changes happen the way you wanted them to.

This process is unique to humans and it's how we've survived this long with little in the way of physical adaptations to our environment. How is it, for example, that early humans managed to migrate from Africa to Western Europe and not freeze to death? Someone understood that their current environment was colder than the last one, imagined being warm, figured out what to do to get warm, and executed the plan by making clothes.

So how does making the first pair of underwear relate to the process of writing and world building? Because on some level the writer has to actually believe that the world they're writing about actually exists.

I'll give a personal example. When I sit down to write I can't have music playing, I can't have conversations going on in the background or the TV running because I have a very serious conversation to get down to: a conversation with me. I like to describe it as there being two of me. There's the me that's interacting with the outside world and then there's the "other" me, the one that actually lives in and builds the world I'm writing about. The two of us go along through life in the same body but our lives are completely separate unless we're writing. When we're writing that mystical thing happens when the me that lives in that imaginary world tells me a story about the people that live there and the me that lives in the here-and-now writes it down.

There is no formula for world building. You can't take a class or a seminar or read a For Dummies book and then write a story or a book of your own. You have to start with a world (no matter how similar or how different to the real world it may be) that's entirely in your own head, believe that it could be real, and then use the written word to make it real. It's lying, but it's really fun when people believe, for the liar and the lied to.

Posted by Tara Southwell 3 May 2014 at 03:51
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Responses to this blog

Linda5216 4 May 2014 at 07:30  
I've never heard this said better. Sometimes someone will tell me to do this instead of that. I'll try it just to see if it works. There are times when I report, I tried this, but that character wouldn't go for it.
Comeaux 6 May 2014 at 07:56  
What you have described is the very reason why I'm possessed with writing. I'm inside my head too much. I have a difficult time splitting the world of "make-believe" from real life. I'm always recreating my present world. If I didn't write, I'd have much difficulty. I find it wonderful that this has made it to print, but I also find it puzzling there was a need. What you've described is who we are as writers. It seems we should already know this, and because we "know" this, I'm astonished you haven't had much response to this post. Now, I think I'll go back to my crazy double life and recreate another world. Happy Writing!
Tls_6669 7 May 2014 at 05:46  
I tend to live in my own head a lot, too, I think all writers do (and most of our significant others/children/friends/colleagues get sick of it lol). I was actually trying to explain this to my husband when I sat down to write the post because, DA DA DA DAAAA!, I think better in print. Coincidence? Of course not My chief hope putting up this blog post is to encourage people to just find that switch in their head where the internal world can come across into the real world and just write that, and leave the great technique for revision. Sometimes I find it's harder to finish something if I'm obsessed with the "rules" while I'm writing it. Best wishes to all
Blandcorp 7 May 2014 at 06:09  
The way we "lie": I prefer Alan Moore?s words here:

Quote by: Alan Moore
In my work as an author, I traffic in fiction. I do not traffic in lies. Although I?ll admit that the distinction is a nice one, and perhaps not easy for the layman to make. With fiction, with art and writing, it?s important that even if you?re dealing with areas of complete outrageous fantasy, that there is an emotional resonance. It is important that a story ring true upon a human level, even if it never happened.


Excerpt from his Mindscape, which is well worth the 90 minutes, if you find the time.

My point here being, there's some difference between lying and planning Knowing what is, and imagining how it could be otherwise, is not lying.

Cheers.

Comeaux 7 May 2014 at 09:15  
Seems to me the word "lying" is evoking a lot of emotion. I think the author of this post was merely getting down to the marrow of the bone—a black and white take on the subject rather than dabbling in the grey area. If you can read the post without it offending your moral character, or good church upbringing, you can see her point. Ask yourself: is what we write truth or lies? Fantasy is a nice expression of those lies. And there's not a thing wrong with it. It's what books are all about—taking you from your real world and planting you in an imaginary place of, hopefully, bliss and peace—if only for a moment. So stretch yourself. Broaden your definition of "lies" and translate it into "fantasy" if that makes you feel any better. Fantasy isn't real. But so what? Isn't that the purpose of writing in the first place? With a little element of truth. Where else can our minds go for rest if we can't plant our wild ideas on paper? I understand the black and white of it, but I'm not forgetful how fun the grey areas are too. So call it "lies" or call it "fantasy." We're all headed in the same direction. I just hope we're learning and growing and having lots of fun! Boy, I am!!!

My two cents . . .

Happy Writing! And don't forget to Enjoy the Journey!
__________________
Blandcorp 8 May 2014 at 03:00  
Whatever happened to choosing the right word for the right purpose, eh
Spaulding 8 May 2014 at 09:31  

There is no formula for world building. You can't take a class or a seminar or read a For Dummies book and then write a story or a book of your own.

Why can't you? In a quick search, I found four books, and a couple of websites teaching the art of world-building. Aren't you doing the same thing? So why, all of a suddenly, can't "you" learn how to build a world by others teaching you?
Tls_6669 8 May 2014 at 10:43  
@ Spaulding: I guess I spoke imprecisely. I have a core belief that actually having that "world" be something real in your head isn't something an outsider can teach you to do. IMO, you can learn a lot from taking courses and reading online, but if you haven't tapped into that other universe there's no amount of extra fun details that will convince the reader that it's real. That's just one lady's opinion, though lol. Btw, I love your teddy bears
Spaulding 9 May 2014 at 09:11  
Quote by: Tls_6669
@ Spaulding: I guess I spoke imprecisely. I have a core belief that actually having that "world" be something real in your head isn't something an outsider can teach you to do. IMO, you can learn a lot from taking courses and reading online, but if you haven't tapped into that other universe there's no amount of extra fun details that will convince the reader that it's real. That's just one lady's opinion, though lol. Btw, I love your teddy bears

Ohhh, okay. I see learning how to write like a bridge for my characters to get out of my head (ha! If only ) and seen by others. If I don't know how to write it, how do they escape into the real world?

(Is that too much in my head? )
__________________
Lynn

New Goal: Get novel right before publication.

Tls_6669 9 May 2014 at 17:17  
Lol, I know what you mean, it's so hard to put your finger on those fine distinctions between learning more about our craft vs. talent. Which is probably a whole separate blog post (or three) for someone else to write cuz I'm not qualified to say anymore on the subject
Spaulding 9 May 2014 at 21:10  
I will be...after I learn everything. (Don't hold your breath. lol)
__________________
Lynn

New Goal: Get novel right before publication.

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