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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Oh, the Assumptions We Make!

I was going to start off talking about how we can work the culture of our worlds into our stories. But then I realized that I should probably start off with the WHY of it all.

I wasn’t really aware, as a reader, that there was such a thing as “culture”, or maybe another phrase could be “world building”. I knew some worlds worked better then others, were more believable...long before I understood what it was to Build a culture, literally from the ground up. Even certain writers have worlds they seem to understand, or maybe enjoy building, better then others.

For example. Anne McCaffery does an AMAZING job building Pern. Not so great with her Petabe world. It’s almost as though the writer herself doesn’t quite buy it. Or. Maybe it’s a different problem altogether. Maybe the writer just didn’t take the time to clue us in to the rules. She left us out in the cold. She assumed we understood what was going on, when in fact, we didn’t...and therefore, her world felt flat, one dimensional, and ultimately boring.

Jim Butcher is great at world building and revealing. He throws us in head first, tumbles us around for a bit, then just when we’re starting to wonder what the hell is going on here, brings us up for air and gives us a few rules and regulations. Then throws another monster at us. Good stuff.

This started because I read a very brief article months ago in Writer’s Digest (I believe) about the assumptions that a reader will bring to your story. It glanced briefly at how if, for example, you have a pregnant woman, the majority of your readers will assume that woman has a husband. Think about that. We are so ingrained to think that A) A woman MUST be married to get pregnant. B) A woman who is pregnant must have a Husband. (Which isn’t QUITE the same thing as A.) Interesting, don’t you think?

Another common assumption? All worlds are Male Dominated. Hmm. Really? Are they?  That’s what a reader assumes, unless otherwise informed. And not only that, if you want a female dominant world, good luck! For this one, you have to really drive the issue home. Apparently a female dominant world is a hard plot point for a reader to buy.

So to build a world you have to, as the writer, understand that the reader knows nothing about your world. Nothing. That’s a very intimidating word. They THINK they know stuff about your world. But do they? Are you ok letting the reader imagine, for themselves, what type of clothing your people wear? Is it important to the story? A savvy reader can glean information about clothing type by the type of story they’re reading, absolutely. But are you ok with this? If not, you have to work this into your story somehow.

A readers assumptions are nothing to take lightly. But don’t let them get in your head. It’s all about building your world from the ground up. It’s the details. Have you ever gone to visit another state, or country, and thought you were on another planet? That’s the feeling you want to hold on to. That’s how your readers SHOULD feel. You Don’t want them to know, for a little while anyway. You want to explain it to them. You want to control what they know and don’t know. You want them to wonder about every little detail and IS it important. Are the beads he just mentioned in that guy’s hair something that I have to keep track of? Or are they just a costume detail? It’s hard getting the balance right. Not doing the ‘info dump’ of old, yet keeping the reader from filling in the blanks on their own.


What are some assumptions that readers, cp’s, random people, have made about your writing/story? Did it change how you approached your craft? Your story? Were you surprised?

18 comments:

Laura Hughes, MittensMorgul said...

I was really surprised in a first page contest that someone thought my character was a young boy, when in fact she's a nearly 2,000 year old immortal woman. HAH! I rewrote the opening scenes after that shock.

I've had a lot of rude surprises along those lines, but it's driven me to find better ways of subtly introducing my characters and their world.

Patchi said...

I had that marriage problem in critiques. I even wrote a post about it a couple months ago:
http://mymiddleyears.blogspot.com/2012/07/biased-reader.html

My story's culture has no marriage, but I didn't think the prologue was the right place to mention that. Some people where very upset when I said the father was trying to hide his heir so the mother would not steal the baby. I don't think that would have happened if it was the other way around. In revision I tried to do a lot better with explaining his rationale.

Ellie Garratt said...

Now I know what to ask my beta-readers. Actually, I read a similar post a few days back and, like this one, it certainly made me realise just how important world-building is to my current WIP. What this post also did was make me consider the assumptions a reader might make. Made me think. Thanks!

Laura Stephenson said...

I've had many people assume my MC is a teenager instead of a woman. :( Part of the plot is that she's considered a spinster.

Ink in the Book said...

This is one of biggest problems in writing. ASSUMING the reader knows where I'm coming from and why my characters d the things they do in their world.

Such as assuming my character with a broken wing is an angel. Why didn't I take the time to explain that? Silly me...

Mel Chesley said...

Funny how so many things are ingrained into a reader. Yes, world building is extremely difficult. Some authors make it seem effortless, others complicated. On the note of McCaffery, I think she poured her whole being into Pern and when it came to making a new world, she just didn't have the time or the energy. I don't think I could go through building another world different from the one I have. The mere thought exhausts me.
As for assumptions, well... I had the mother of a friend read a story of mine once and then proceed to gush about how I had captured the essence of her daughter. -.- I was less than enthused about that one and scrapped the story for awhile.

Liz said...

I wonder if I say enough or too little. Unfortunately, I've not had a decent beta reader ever, so I didn't get that kind of feedback.

mshatch said...

Ursula LeGuin (The Left Hand of Darkness) and Sheri Tepper (The Gate to Woman's Country) are both excellent at throwing assumptions out the window. It's a hard balance making sure you have enough detail so that readers understand the world AND are never bored by the descriptions of it.

Alicia C. said...

Oi...But it's good when things like this make us better writers, yes.

Alicia C. said...

The marriage assumption frustrates me. Don't know why. *has rant inside head* ok...I'm better now. :)

Alicia C. said...

I'm glad I helped get the creative juices flowing!

Alicia C. said...

Oops! Hopefully rewrites have helped this...?

Alicia C. said...

Indeed. I find sometimes I'll be writing merrily along. Go back. Re-read. Then find I've left out some big hunk of something that I could have Sworn I wrote down. Not good. Almost as though I expect the reader to just, you know, Get It....I'll just short hand it.

Alicia C. said...

You're probably right about McCaffery. Sigh. I was just so bummed about Petabe. I read them all. Getting more and more frustrated the deeper I got.

Alicia C. said...

We'll find you one Liz! There's got to be one laying about here somewhere... ... :)

Alicia C. said...

Very hard balance. HOPEFULLY I'll be talking about some things to put in to help that balance the next couple of days. Without boring the pants off people. Cause that's a delicate balance too.. :)

Demitria said...

I haven't experienced it yet but I know assumptions always happen.


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DEZMOND said...

I wish somebody would make a film out of DRAGONS OF PERN, it was sold for adaptation last year, but no news on it :(