With the proliferation of fantasy and paranormal on the market, I need a lot of clues when I start reading a manuscript about whether or not I’m in the real world or an augmented version. Most readers will not have the benefit of a query letter or synopsis when sitting down to read. They may also be picking up an ebook or library-bound version where the cover (often a reliable source of hints about paranormal content) isn’t going to be front and center. (Note: I’m using the terms “fantasy” and “paranormal” interchangeably here to mean “story elements that do not usually exist in realistic fiction.”)
For example, imagine that speaking dogs are the paranormal element. You’ve read advice (perhaps even mine) about introducing the fantasy aspects early on so that the reader knows they’re there. Excellent. So in the first chapter, you have a dog open up and say something in perfect English. Your work here is done, no?
Well, there’s a lot more to it than simply introducing the fantasy part of the story. Now that the reader’s antennae are up that there’s something odd afoot, you have an opportunity to worldbuild. Most writers miss this opportunity. The missing piece is often what happens immediately AFTER the introduction of the paranormal element. That’s what actually teaches us about what kind of world you’re creating.
The two most common types of world are: the kind where something strange is possible and happens all the time and the kind where something strange is possible but happens very rarely (which is often what launches the story). In HARRY POTTER, for example, the Muggle world is flooded by owls and everyone freaks out! It turns out that a world where the paranormal is pedestrian is finally meeting the world where nothing strange ever happens. All because of one boy.
In our dog example, here are two reactions that correspond with the types of worlds listed above. For a world where something strange is pedestrian, it’s:
Dog: You know, I would rather fancy some of that bacon you’re cooking.
Protagonist: Oh, shut it, Scraps. I’m sick of your begging.
For a world where something strange is an unexpected event:
Dog: You know, I actually detest belly rubs. That spot behind my ear, however…
Protagonist: (jumps back, looks around, looks back to dog) Scraps? Did you just…talk?
The reactions here are key to the reader’s understanding of how widespread your fantasy twist is. Once you’ve gone ahead and introduced the paranormal element, the reader’s next question is going to be, “Okay, so is this a big deal or just part of everyday life?” Go ahead and answer so that you can ease them into your world in a way that follows, naturally, what they want to know about it. Proper worldbuilding often means anticipating a reader’s questions and answering them so that they’re not stuck wondering something important and, as a result, pull themselves out of the narrative.
In unrelated news, my book was written up along with a slew of other writing guidebooks in the D.C./Virginia Mid-Atlantic SCBWI newsletter by Dionna L. Mann. SCBWI members who are logged into the SCBWI website can access the wonderful newsletter here.