Happy Friday everyone! I’ve got a guest post for you for a sci-fi adventure that’s coming out June second, Lost Helix. In the lead up to that the author, Scott Coon, has been so kind as to talk a little bit about his approach to world building. Enjoy!

Lost Helix cover

When a door opens at the back of a stage, if the audience sees darkness, it doesn’t build the same illusion that a wall and small table would create. However, if someone comes through that door with a tray of drinks, no one needs to say there’s a kitchen back there. The audience knows. By including the right amount of detail, we create the illusion of a complete house without describing it. This is the balancing act of world building—bringing the reader into your world without stopping the story to tell them about it. Achieving this balance requires proper planning and execution.

In planning, the author should know everything about their fictional world that might impact the story plus ten percent. Going far beyond that ten percent is called world builder’s syndrome. You plan every element of a city—sewers, mass transit, even the postal system—for a main character who flies off in a rocket where the real story happens. What purpose did that postal system serve? It’s fun to build worlds but it’s a matter of time management. If you want to write a story, your time is best spent writing the story. You do need to build the things that might impact that story, plus a little more beyond that to help you create the illusion of a complete world.

For our rocket man, if this is the Apollo program, you need to know about NASA and its relationship to the government that created it. You don’t need to imagine the American Revolution or Manifest Destiny, but you might need to imagine Congressional budget fights. You also need the Soviets, NASA’s competition. And you should know that the Soviets value party over people since that would affect your characters’ decisions or at least come up in conversation.

“Our budget is on the line. We have to get this rocket in the air.”

“But, Sir, the safety of the crew? I mean, we’re not the Soviets.”

“You’re right. Scrub the launch until we figure this out.”

If you’re about to outline the history of communism, ask yourself what that has to do with the story you’re telling. If the Soviets are merely the impetus for taking risks, probably nothing. If your rocket man is captured by the Soviets and brainwashed Manchurian Candidate style, probably something because you might want to reference that communist history during his forced indoctrination. The key is to know what kind of story you are writing, where it is going, and decide which planning you need.

In execution, the reader should learn everything about the world that does impact the story minus ten percent. Modern readers don’t like being told how things are; they enjoy figuring things out on their own. This is known as the “show, don’t tell” rule and it applies to everything—emotion, time of day, even system of government. You can show most of your world through setting, dialogue, and action. If your characters are frequently asked to show their papers, the reader knows the government is oppressive without being told.

Some exposition is needed but avoid telling your reader about your world in an information dump. Allow your world to come to light on a need to know basis, with exposition prompted by the moment. Here is an example of a small information dump disguised as dialogue:  “Though the Soviets have lost lives in their effort, they got a man into space before us. Now Washington says we have to stop playing it safe with monkeys and risk the lives of Americans so we can catch up.”

The characters hearing this would know about the Soviets, so the information dump sounds unnatural. But realistic dialogue would leave out key details. Adding a small amount world building exposition to fill the gap can create a satisfying experience for the reader. For example: “It’s official. We’re shutting down the petting zoo.” Around the table, he saw the expected mix of reactions. They finally had the green light to catch up by putting their own man in space. But they also knew the price the Soviets had paid in human lives while the U.S. played it safe, launching monkeys.

As the reader wonders what ‘the petting zoo’ refers to, the question is answered, the reader feels satisfied, and world building is achieved. The reader has enough to move forward in the plot. Later, you can add more about how the cosmonauts died, tying those details to other moments in the story to add emotion. If you start the story with a Wikipedia summary of the space race, listing the successes, failures, and casualties, you not only lose readers’ attention, you undermine the impact those details could have later in the plot. So, don’t tell us about your world. Tell the story and build your world around it.

Lost Helix is the key…

Stuck on an asteroid mining facility, DJ dreams of writing music. His dad is a corporate hacker and his best friend Paul intends to escape to become a settler in a planet-wide land rush, but neither interests DJ.

When his dad goes missing, DJ finds a file containing evidence of a secret war of industrial sabotage, a file encrypted by his dad using DJ’s song Lost Helix. Caught in a crossfire of lies, DJ must find his father and the mother he never knew.

When the mining company sends Agent Coreman after DJ and his guitar, DJ and Paul escape the facility and make a run for civilization. Will DJ discover the truth before Coreman catches him?

Scott Coon author pic

Scott Coon has enjoyed success as a science fiction short story writer, winning accolades and publishing over a dozen works in various magazines. Formally a U.S. Army Intelligence Analyst and currently a software developer, Scott brings his technical experience into his work, along with a sense of spectacle.

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