However much we are affected by the things of the world, however deeply they may stir and stimulate us, they become human for us only when we can discuss them with our fellows. Whatever cannot become the object of discourse ─ the truly sublime, the truly horrible or the uncanny ─ may find human voice through which to sound into the world, but it is not exactly human. We humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human.
(A table of contents is available.This series will remain open for additional posts and the table of contents up-to-date as new posts are added.)
Part Four: Enriching the World Through Dialogue
We often think that world-building must be done through narration, that we only showcase our world and our world’s potential through the use of long paragraphs detailing the style of the carts and the architecture of the city, the clothing and hairstyles, and on and on with all the details our hearts desire. What we often forget is how tiring long paragraphs of these kinds of observations can be. Dialogue can be an extremely useful tool for introducing information about your world without feeling constrained to the narrative voice of the piece.
What’s normal and what’s not.
Have you ever been talking to someone and you mention a store you frequent or the flock of turkeys that forced you to stop on your way across town, and the other person gives you the blankest stare. Experiences across the world–even across town–are not the same (just to state the obvious for a minute). The variations found in everyone’s lives can become fantastic opportunities when you put two people from different places together because they will automatically be more likely to point out differences and ignore similarities.
Acknowledging things that are common vs. uncommon in a setting may not seem particularly important, but think of it this way: You’re writing a world entirely different than ours, which means that we can’t imagine all the things that are possible within this new world. How are we to know when something out of the ordinary presents itself to the characters unless the characters let us know? The way your characters talk about certain aspects of the world will help give the audience a better understanding of what normal life is like. To set up something scary and unnatural for the world, we need to know what the opposite looks like.
Remember that with movies, we can tell what the focus is and what the movie considers important by how much time is spent on/with it. Utilize the same concept to create the contrast of ordinary and extraordinary to help your audience easily make those distinctions. Of course, it’s not that you shouldn’t mention normal things at all, but that neither a full page conversation nor a full paragraph of description needs to be given to them. Draw attention to the extraordinary, coax it to the forefront.
Use dialogue to illustrate these little nuances. Have characters remark on things to each other and tell each other short stories that give the audience context. This is especially useful when you have a collection of character who aren’t from the same place. Regional variants on food, architecture, creatures, and customs give you great opportunities to build your world through quick moments between characters. “It’s strange to see all these grey horses. Most of ours are brown.” Even something as simple as this shows your audience that there’s more out there than what’s on-screen at the moment.
There are plenty of times when working these kinds of details into narration feel awkward. Remember that you have this other tool–dialogue–to utilize, too. Working it into conversation can work in a dynamic way not only building your world, but also your character. More on that another day.
Mechanics of the world.
When writing in worlds with some really complex systems like magic, or a very deeply developed set of cultures, religions, and all the rest that come with a whole new world, it can be very tempting to use our characters’ mouths to try to explain it to our readers. It’s a fantastic opportunity, especially when we’re able to put characters into a situation where they can ask, “Why? Why isn’t it working? Why did that happen? Why can’t we use that idea?” These platforms for information are so convenient, but without keeping a couple of things in mind when crafting these conversations, diary entries, letters, and other forms of communication, they can become info-dumps just as easily as narration can.
Keep voice in mind. Whether you’re trying to convey how something works through a written dialogue or a spoken one, your words are not actually yours. They belong to the character speaking them. Make sure you keep them in mind. You need to be using their vocabulary, their opinions, and most of all, their understanding of the world and how it functions. Just because we–as writers–know the very specific inner workings of why one magic works with another but doesn’t work with this other one doesn’t mean that your character does. Yes, it’s that very thing that enables us to set up these “why” scenarios, but it’s the same reason why answering those questions cannot and should not be a regurgitation of your planning notebook.
In a video game, we know the mechanics programmed into the server that allows for this or doesn’t allow for that, and we can explain it to each other, but our characters only know what they can see and observe through the technology available to them according to the time period of their story. Remember that. Remember that you can’t just have a character say, “I can’t cast that anymore today because I’m out of fifth level spells.” It needs to use words and an understanding of the world that are true to them, not true to us.
Lastly, with world mechanics and dialogue, keep it short, light, and in character. The more time you dwell on whatever it is you’re trying to explain, the more likely it will become uncharacteristic both for the speaking character and for the story’s tone. It’ll bog down a scene faster than a sinkhole in the road. Giving these kinds of world-building details are best done by showing the system in action rather than trying to explain it. Dialogue is the easy way out in this case. Challenge yourself to create scenarios that force your characters to use and showcase the abilities of the various systems in your world.