“It’s my own design. It’s my own remorse. Help me to decide. Help me make the most of freedom and of pleasure. Everybody wants to rule the world.”
Tears for Fears
Writers are world builders. Whether we build from materials already at hand or fashion our world from the mists of imagination, we create worlds in which our characters live out their story. At the risk of sounding heretical, it’s an almost god-like power. Yet, it is in keeping with our divine design as creative beings.
It’s exciting to let your imagination run wild and design a world and everything in it from thin air. I have only strayed from Earth once. I have, however, created cities and a Louisiana Parish. Like the people who inhabit them, they are real places to me.
As a writer, my job is to make those worlds real to the reader too. I want to show them what I see and leave a little room for their imagination to fill in the blanks. Those empty spaces are important. They are where the reader and writer meet and interact. If done successfully neither of us is aware, at the time, it’s even happening. We are lost in the story world walking inside the characters.
The writer must overcome the temptation to explain in detail what he has made, especially in the opening chapter. The world may be fully formed in his mind, but the object is to set the reader on a voyage of discovery, not plop them down in a history or geography lesson.
This imaginary world exists to serve the story. In medias res applies to the world the writer has made as much as it does for the characters. Your reader is there for the story. Begin with the story. It’s great to include a description of the setting, but as always show don’t tell.
Explain the world as the story unfolds. Just as the reader comes to know the characters as they move through the story, he will come to understand the world they inhabit. I find it adds to the story if, at the start, I’m uncertain about how things work. It creates a sense of wonder and makes me want to read more to find out. That’s what the first chapter is supposed to do.
If the backstory is so complex as to defy the reader’s imagination, either the writer has a low opinion of the reader or he’s starting in the wrong place.