World building: introducing a new world

World Building: How to Bring a Reader Down the Rabbit Hole

I both read and write fantasy fiction, and one of the aspects I love the most about the genre is the world-building. The author gets to create his or her own world—come up with everything from biology and astronomy to scientific laws and the government system. There are a few different ways to introduce a new world to the reader, and the method often determines whether or not I like the book. As I look at my own writing, I want to make sure I play a good narrator and make the proper introduction. Here are the main methods I’ve noticed and authors who use them well.

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The Obvious Method

In this method, a newbie enters the world from outside. As the character discovers the world, so does the reader. The Harry Potter series is a perfect example of this. One of my favorite scenes from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is when Harry truly enters the wizarding world for the first time.

Harry wished he had about eight more eyes. He turned his head in every direction as they walked up the street, trying to look at everything at once: the shops, the things outside them, the people doing their shopping. A plump woman outside an Apothecary was shaking her head as they passed, saying, “Dragon liver, sixteen Sickles an ounce, they’re mad…”

A low, soft hooting came from a dark shop with a sign saying Eeylops Owl Emporium—Tawny, Screech, Barn, Brown, and Snowy. Several boys of about Harry’s age had their noses pressed against a window with broomsticks in it. “Look,” Harry heard one of them say, “the new Nimbus Two Thousand—the fastest ever—” There were shops selling robes, shops selling telescopes and strange silver instruments Harry had never seen before, windows stacked with barrels of bat spleens and eels’ eyes, tottering piles of spell books, quills, and rolls of parchment, potion bottles, gloves of moon…

The scene is so full of vibrant life, and J.K. Rowling does an excellent job of inserting the reader into the wizarding world through small details such as the shop names and what the shoppers are wearing. As Harry experiences the world for the first time, it’s also a first for the reader, and the effect is entrancing—she’s got you hooked.

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The Subtle Method

In this method, the main characters are already firmly entrenched in the world when the book starts. The author throws the reader into the deep end and expects you to figure things out as they happen. This method is much more tricky, because the author has to be subtle about introducing the world bit by bit. One of my favorite series that does this well is Thursday Next. A literary fantasy, many details of the world are similar to our own. For example, in the first scene, the main character sits in a cafe in London drinking coffee before work, when she hears the news announcer on the TV:

“This is the midday news on Monday, May 6, 1985, and this is Alexandria Selfridge reading it. The Crimean Peninsula,” she announced, “has again come under scrutiny this week as the United Nations passed resolution PN17296, insisting that England and the Imperial Russian Government open negotiations concerning sovereignty. As the Crimean War enters its one hundredth and thirty first year, pressure groups both at home and abroad are pushing for a peaceful end to the hostilities.”

In our world, there was no 130-year-old war with Russia for the Crimean Peninsula. But when things start to branch off from reality, author Jasper Fforde treats them like they’re normal and doesn’t explain too much at once, which leaves the reader scratching his or her head, trying to figure out the rules of the new game.

Within both these methods, authors often teach the details of magic to the reader through a mentor or teacher. Examples include Harry at Hogwarts, Percy Jackson at Camp Half Blood, Eragon under Brom, and even Luke Skywalker learning under Obi-Wan and Yoda (scifi, I know, but the principle is the same). This can be a great way to explain the rules more in depth.

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I should also note that a few authors combine these methods for a unique story-telling experience. Tolkien’s introduction to Middle Earth, for example, doesn’t strictly fall into the obvious or subtle method—it combines the two. His writing is so excellent that he pulls it off and leaves us with a memorable introduction in chapter 1 of The Hobbit.

Overall, both these methods are valuable and can portray a beautiful introduction into a new world. However, I tend to like the subtle method better because I can view the new world as a mystery I get to solve as I continue to read.

What’s your favorite fantasy world, and how does the author introduce you to it? Post a comment!

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5 thoughts on “World Building: How to Bring a Reader Down the Rabbit Hole

  1. Great article! To answer your questions, I would have to say it all depends on the story! I love both methods. Brandon Sanderson does a great job in his Mistborn series using both methods. In the series I’m working on I use the obvious method.

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