“Not A Monster”/”A Formal Handshake”: Rules and Tools for World-Building


When I say “world-building,” what do you think of? Most likely creating a world that doesn’t exist. But any world that you create on the page doesn’t exist in a technical sense. Whenever you write, you are world-building. World-building is the creation of a convincing setting. Though the term does have the connotations of creating worlds that could not exist in the “real” world as we know it: “world-building” = otherworldly. It’s arguably more difficult to convince the reader a world exists that couldn’t in the real world, but actually not that much. It all depends on the use of physical detail.

The next question is, then, why do we write about other worlds, ostensibly not our own? George Saunders says:

The goal of a work of fiction is, in my view, to say something, about how life is for us, not at any particular historical moment (past or present or future) but at every single moment.

This is important to remember when you’re writing aliens–you’re really writing about what it means to be human. You’re trying to capture human realities via the compare/contrast of non-human entities.

A passage from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale aptly captures this idea:

She did not believe he was a monster. He was not a monster, to her. Probably he had some endearing trait: he whistled, off key, in the shower, he had a yen for truffles, he called his dog Liebchen and made it sit up for little pieces of raw steak. How easy it is to invent a humanity, for anyone at all. What an available temptation.

Seeing the humanity in your monsters is possibly the main difference between literary world-building and genre world-building.

There are different types of otherworldly worlds that one can create, which will affect the decisions you make when you’re building one. Two major categories to consider: Did your otherworldly world originate due to something that occurred in what is ostensibly our “real” world (whether this origination is actually dramatized in the course of the narrative or not), or is it a completely different world that’s always been otherworldly, always existed on its own terms? Or, as HP Lovecraft puts it in his “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,” the worlds will either be:

…those in which the marvel or horror concerns some condition or phenomenon, and those in which it concerns some action of persons in connexion with a bizarre condition or phenomenon.

Did the otherworldly conditions always exist? Or did we, people, create them? This also relates to Margaret Atwood’s distinction between “science fiction” and “speculative fiction” from her book In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination:

What I mean by “science fiction” is those books that descend from H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, which treats of an invasion by tentacled, blood-sucking Martians shot to Earth in metal canisters—things that could not possibly happen—whereas, for me, “speculative fiction” means plots that descend from Jules Verne’s books about submarines and balloon travel and such—things that really could happen but just hadn’t completely happened when the authors wrote the books.

Writing about the enduring influence of the show Star Trek, New Yorker writer Manu Saadia observes this distinction under the umbrella of the term “science fiction” itself:

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of science fiction. The first uses the trappings of the future to explore the present, suggesting to its audience that the existence of starships, aliens, and (to stray into that other sci-fi franchise) lightsabres doesn’t meaningfully change the experience of the human condition. The second uses the same sorts of artifice for the opposite purpose—to imagine foreign, even utopian, futures.

There are also degrees of “otherworldliness” to consider–for either of the above options, the “marvel” can either be something that is within the realm of possibility of literally/physically occurring (think 1984), or something that could never happen, at least according to our current understanding of the universe (think Lord of the Rings), or somewhere in between (Margaret Atwood notes that anything she’s written in her fiction has some basis in reality–speculative). But for any of these variations, you need to provide the reader with particular physical cues/clues to let them know which type of variation we’re actually dealing with.

Picking any random line from some of the most successfully executed worlds-that-aren’t-(quite)-our-world can help one start to get an idea of the tricks of the trade. You can also start to see how any random line with some world-specific cues could have ostensibly been the entry point into the world, the first line. (What ultimately dictates the first line is what needs to happen for the plot.) Take this line from Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box”:

A formal handshake between your new host and your Designated Mate implies that this is their first meeting.

What can we tell about the world from this line? The indirectness of the language raises questions about the narrator’s need to be so indirect and seemingly formal herself. There’s the weirdness of the capitalized “Designated Mate,” which almost singlehandedly lets us know this isn’t a world that we’re familiar with. Such a cue, whenever it’s initially encountered, whether in the very first line or not, serves as a “formal handshake” for the reader, officially introducing them to this potentially unfamiliar world.

Although much is owed to H.G. Wells’ 1897 War of the Worlds, in some respects, it seems antiquated now. Take the opening:

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.

There are obviously many interesting things going on here–which is the problem: there are too many. This opening is a tad exposition-heavy. Which was the style then, when people took the time to sit down and write out letters in longhand, and then mail them. Nowadays, starting in scene is a better impulse. Our brains have changed a bit since 1897. Our attention spans our shorter; we have less patience. We need something to look forward to to keep us reading. So don’t give away the whole ball of wax up front.

There are obviously exceptions/variations to this rule; the opening of The Handmaid’s Tale is not technically in scene, but it piques our curiosity, describing a general situation (women sleeping on cots in a gym) that seems strange and makes us wonder what exactly is going on here, how did this come to pass?

And so, the rules:

Justin Cronin:

I always work from a very strict plan, and I adhere to the plan. I wouldn’t be able to finish my books unless I did. But at the end of the day, to be an organic living thing, it has to breathe, it has to have a life of its own. You have to let it make some of the rules.

George Saunders:

There’s a heavy element of world-building — figuring out the internal rules of the place and so on.

Basically there’s one main rule for world-building: your world must adhere to the logic of its own internal rules. So in following the one main rule, you follow many rules…

And, as HP Lovecraft lays them out:

Each weird story—to speak more particularly of the horror type—seems to involve five definite elements: (a) some basic, underlying horror or abnormality—condition, entity, etc.—, (b) the general effects or bearings of the horror, (c) the mode of manifestation—object embodying the horror and phenomena observed—, (d) the types of fear-reaction pertaining to the horror, and (e) the specific effects of the horror in relation to the given set of conditions.

Even though he’s speaking “particularly” of horror, these are good ground rules for anything that might qualify as otherworldly/supernatural: 1) Abnormality, 2) General Effects of Abnormality, 3) Manifestation of Abnormality (Object), 4) Reactions to (Effects of) Abnormality, 5) Specific Effects of Abnormality on Character.

But you need your tools to create the world that will follow these rules…

Names. In this clip George R.R. Martin discusses how he comes up with his, which convey clues to the reader about the larger world in a few different, subtle ways. Margaret Atwood uses names-as-world-building in both The Handmaid’s Tale, where characters are forced to adopt new names (like Offred and Ofglen) and in Oryx and Crake, in which the two titular characters are named for extinct animals.

Withholding/Integration of Detail. This is probably the most complex and the most critical–knowing what not to say. You cannot firehose your reader with expositional info about the novel mechanics of how your world works. These details have to emerge organically in scene (thus we get not only the details but reactions to them). The weirdness of your weird thing can be highlighted/emphasized by the realism of those things surrounding it, to heighten the contrast, as per Lovecraft:

Inconceivable events and conditions have a special handicap to overcome, and this can be accomplished only through the maintenance of a careful realism in every phase of the story except that touching on the one given marvel.

Atwood proves in both The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake that the slow reveal of a world can be part of what keeps the reader in suspense. Don’t spend all your details up front.

Objects. These provide the concrete manifestation of whatever otherworldly weird thing you’re trying to build into your world. If your narrative is about a new world that came out of our “real” world, it’s even better if the object is originally a “real-world” object that’s now being used differently in the otherworldly world–it’s defamiliarized, making us consider its function anew in the present, the latent possibilities for its uses we haven’t considered…yet…. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the handmaids have to wear a particular garb, a habit-like red dress with wing-like extensions that blocks most of their faces, so that the narrator frequently only sees the tip of a nose or a chin. The dress comes to be a powerful symbol of how the regime that put the handmaid’s in place obscures individuality and humanity. 

Contrast/Metaphor. This is again especially effective for those otherworldly worlds that emerged from our real world, though can also be used for those that were always otherworldly: how do the otherworldly elements resemble elements we’re more familiar with, so we can understand them via a basis of comparison? How do the way things are now contrast with the way things used to be? What do the characters miss? How are their human longings exacerbated by the otherworldly conditions in which they find themselves?   

So those are the tools, but where/how do you actually start? As per Saunders, an inveterate otherworldly world-builder himself (worlds deemed “futuristic” in their otherworldliness), one way to start is with the language. He expounds on the process of language leading into worlds in his conversation with Jennifer Egan over, ostensibly, how to “envision the future”:

I’ve always had, since I was a little kid first starting to read, an aversion to language that felt flat, or too “normal.” I remember having that response to some of our reading books: “David, a kindly stout boy, walked up his street, past trees and houses.” And I just felt like, first, “Kill me,” and second, “That is a lie.” That flat language is not doing justice to reality. I just have no interest in writing in a style that complies too closely with what I’ve heard called “consensus reality.” This is maybe a bit of a neurosis of mine. So as you try through revision to depart from that flatness, what you’re really doing, ritually, is destabilizing your lazy habitual perceptions.

If you write (God forbid): “Jim, a successful insurance executive, walked into the Holiday Inn lobby in a happy, cheerful spirit,” and read what you’ve written, and almost throw up, well, what you’ll want to do in revision is purge the prose of whatever it was that sickened you: “Jim (happy, cheerful Jim) once again dragged himself into the freaking Holiday Inn.” So now Jim’s happy cheerfulness reads as something he’s tired of, and faking. Which is, to my ear, at least, a little better. And if you feel, as I would, an aversion to now having to laboriously try to describe a Holiday Inn, you might shake things up by invention: As in: “Jim (happy, cheerful Jim) once again dragged his tired, divorced ass into the freaking Macomb, Ill., Holiday Inn, MindGetting (out of sheer boredom) ‘April 1, 1865/this geog/pretty girl,’ and then, thankfully (for the 10-second window allowed by his ‘Premier TimeTravel’ pass), was transformed into Maggie O’Doole, who stood looking down at her hoop skirt, then up at the lobby, which now was a Midwestern meadow, one lone hawk circling overhead.”

What the hell does all of that (which just now came out in a spontaneous language lurch, away from banality) even mean? Well, it would appear that Jim has a computer in his head, and that he “MindGets” (a verb, seems like) a subroutine designed to transform him into a PRETTY GIRL, on APRIL 1, 1865, in THIS GEOGRAPHY (i.e., the meadow in which the Holiday Inn now stands). This is what I heard a young writer recently describe as “revising via contempt.” My unhappiness with what I’d written led to that lurch, which led to: the future, or something that sounds as if it’s meant to be the future.

Let’s try it ourselves then: Write the most boring sentence you can think of. Or just, write a boring sentence, in the vein of the Sanders’ two aforementioned examples:  

David, a kindly stout boy, walked up his street, past trees and houses.

Jim, a successful insurance executive, walked into the Holiday Inn lobby in a happy, cheerful spirit.

My example:

Ashby, a board member of OCX, strolled into the Houston Galleria, whistling as the doors slid open.

Now, take what makes you “almost throw up” about the sentence you’ve written and revise to make it more interesting:

Ashby jerked to a stop in his Board-reserved parking spot, which spit his booze-sluggish ass out thankfully close to the Galleria’s doors. He pressed the end piece of his optic enhancers, aiming at the card reader until his red laser beam turned green and the doors parted with a welcoming, “Good evening, Mr. Highrise.”

Now, revise again, trying to amp up the energy in the language even more, aiming for maximum non-boringness…make something happen that’s of interest to you:

Ashby dragged his booze-sluggish ass from his Z2830. Halfway to the Galleria’s doors he turned back for the optic enhancers he’d left in the cupholder, then, remembering, turned back again, pausing to dry heave over the polished concrete in which he could see the pinkish smear of his reflection. His nausea crested again as he was forced to molest the black plastic barnacle of the card reader with his tongue. The glass doors sighed open. As he crossed the threshold into an entryway tiered with erect curling irons, a minty lozenge materialized in his mouth. It took all of Ashby’s strength not to launch it out onto the ice of the adjacent rink.  

What can I tell about the world from this passage? The physical cues/clues in the first sentence indicates our world. The second sentence is still our world, except for the “optic enhancers,” which I originally changed from “sunglasses”; this isn’t necessarily a concrete weirdness cue; it could just be that Ashby is the type who would refer to his sunglasses as “optic enhancers…”. In the context of the first revised passage, what it really means is that they (whoever the larger group Ashby’s apparently a part of) recently went from using “optic enhancers” technology to a different type–one less easily accessible/stealable, as it seems to be DNA-based, or something (the licking); the optic enhancers are removable and can be stolen (as indicated by their being left behind in a cupholder), but in the second revised version, it seems like you’d have to steal the whole person (or at least their tongue…) to be able to gain access to what is apparently something secret, if such high-tech means is required to get in. And yet, it’s the galleria, something that shouldn’t require special access, as it is usually publicly available, so this must be after hours? Also perhaps strange the concrete is “polished,” which seems to be a difference from the “normal” galleria parking garage (what does this difference stem from?). The card reader is a device from our world, though it might be unusual that the galleria has one, as again, it’s usually public access. We’re also getting that Ashby doesn’t seem particularly appreciative of his special-access status at this particular point (“forced to molest”; “doors sighed open”; plus, he’s been drunk (is he stressed out about something, perhaps related to his special access?)). Then things start to get a bit more interesting: there’s the entryway “tiered with erect curling irons,” almost like these curling irons are filling bleachers, spectators to whoever’s passing through this entryway–that is, we have a likening of inanimate objects to animate ones (i.e., people), hinting that perhaps, in this world, objects could be more than what they seem (note that this weird detail about the curling irons was generated from my trying to make the description of the generic galleria more interesting, as with Saunders and the Holiday Inn). Then, there’s the lozenge that materializes…this is the first overtly non-possible thing that’s happened, as opposed to things that seemed a little weird but perhaps within the realm of possibility, like accessing the galleria after hours via licking something, or entering the mall to find curling irons lined up watching you like a creepy valley of dolls–it’s literally possible, although certainly with some strange implications, for curling irons to exist in that particular physical arrangement. But it’s not possible for something to just physically materialize out of nowhere. This is freaky, but even freakier is that it does so inside the character’s body. The character himself seems freaked out by this as well (he wants to spit out the lozenge), though it would seem not to the extent that this is the very first time he’s experienced something like it (he does not spit out the lozenge). Why does he restrain himself? It’s as if he does think he’s being watched, likely by more than just the curling irons. It seems he’s under the impression that he should not spit out the lozenge, or else someone will know, and someone will get an impression of his feelings from his having done so that he does not want them to get–he is afraid of them, the “them” being, likely, whoever has granted him this special access that’s no longer seeming so desirable. In that fear is tension. There’s also attention called once again to saliva (spitting), which perhaps, in this world, is some sort of tool, possibly even a DNA-related weapon…(I’m foreseeing cloning possibilities). And finally we’re left with the ice rink, seeming to indicate our Ashby is on a slippery slope with whatever he is actually involved in here at this after-hours galleria rendezvous.   

It seems like I’ve given myself plenty to work with. Now I have to consider what the “internal rules of logic” are for what I’ve set up. The most interesting logic-bender will be that ability for things to materialize out of nowhere. If this is possible, it opens the door to a few, if not many, other possibilities. It seems some entity has gained control of the ability to rearrange molecules. No wonder Ashby seems so afraid of them–if he doesn’t stay in line, then they could use this ability against him. Where does this extreme ability originate? One possible answer to this question could be: aliens. What is the board going to do with this extreme ability? Likely, whatever Ashby’s come to the galleria for has something to do with plans they have related to it. So maybe I’m working with a rule that in this world things can’t actually materialize out of nothing, but are being transported into that space of seemingly nothing from somewhere else.

Saunders says he never starts to generate his worlds from a “diagnostic” impulse (i.e., trying to write a cautionary tale), but instead he does it through the language. That’s not the only way to do it. Jennifer Egan does it instead through “form” and “atmosphere.” Describing the genesis of her celebrated sci-fi story “Black Box,” she explains that she had wanted to write a story in tweets, leading her to wonder what story had to be told that way. The answer: discrete dispatches sent from a spy that would necessarily have to be brief. The scenario that arose from the atmosphere Egan was pulled to work with (the Mediterranean) led her to the future:

I had this female spy posing as a beauty. And I wanted her to be able to record things by camera and audio. And I knew that there was no way she could carry equipment because she was mostly just in a bikini or whatever, that just wasn’t feasible. And because I was writing about a character from “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” who could only be in her 30s if the story was happening in the 2030s, I knew I was in the future. That turned out to be very convenient, but I didn’t actually think of inserting any “futuristic” innovations until the moment I’m wondering, Oh, my God, how can she spy if she can’t carry any equipment? Oh wait, I get it, the equipment is inside her!

And it’s inside you as well…

The important element that Egan’s and Saunders’ world-building methods seem to have in common is starting with questions instead of answers.


One thought on ““Not A Monster”/”A Formal Handshake”: Rules and Tools for World-Building

  1. Pingback: How the Handmaid’s Threads Are Braided – the pva creative writing review

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