When you write in genre – especially Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Horror/Paranormal, it’s exciting because we get to create limitless worlds. The only limits are those in your own imagination, and you’re free to explore pretty much anything you want. As you build a world you need to keep something in mind – you’re creating a set of rules for the world, and you’re going to be bound by them or you’re going to lose your audience. Let’s dive deeper into the rules of a fantastic world.
Beyond Cliche and Convention – It’s All On You
Several times I’ve posted about the conventions in genres. You can check out Cliche to Convention for more information, but in a nutshell cliches are tired expressions that are overused. Most people think of cliches in terms of phrases, but they happen in fiction too (I’d say for illustration purposes, consider stereotypes a form of cliches). Conventions are things that are expected within a story – the things that you need to tell a good story within a genre. Think epic battles in over-the-top melodramas and sense of loss in horror.
The rules are a little different. These are specific to the world you’re creating. If you have a magic system, how does the magic work. In star-travel sci-fi, how do the characters travel between the stars. The rules dictate how your world works. It’s critical you have a strong sense of what the rules are. Why?
Glaring Inconsistencies Suck…
If you don’t carefully think through the rules of your world, and how everything fits together, you could wind up contradicting yourself. Pitching such a story to an editor will get you thrown into the slush pile. If you go indie and your editor doesn’t catch you – or hubris gets the better of you – you’re going to get dinged. Reviewers can be quite unkind and it’s going to sting if you get called on this.
…But Sometimes It Happens
However, this being said…are there times when you’re allowed to break your own rules? I can’t tell you every single time you write you’re going to exactly follow every rule you’ve set out for yourself, especially if you write any kind of series. I think every series I’ve ever read or watched has at some point bent or broken the rules they established earlier. Whether or not you can get away with this is going to depend on the nature of the offense and how often you do it. There’s no easy answer and there are No Absolutes.
Define Up Front or Discover As You Go
So how far do you need to go before you can start writing. I’ve read some writers get really anal about this and define everything before writing a word of the story, a process which can take months or years. I usually think about a world for a couple weeks before I start writing, making some notes to myself as I go and spend about half of the first draft figuring all this out. And I know some people who just write and then figure it all out in editing.
Is there a right approach? Yes, the right approach is the one that works for you. Despite what a lot of well-meaning instructors (or the occasional jerk in a class or writing group) tell you, there’s no right or wrong way to do this outside of a class. If you’re in a class and the instructor is forcing you to use a particular approach in order to learn the process (hopefully this is why they’d tie your hands), do what you need to do to pass the course.
There’s no magic number for how long you should spend trying to figure all this out. Don’t Think Too Much and just get going; once the work is out you can always revise it. If you don’t get it out you’ve got nothing.
For what it’s worth, remember the more work you do understanding this up front, the less work you’re going to have tweaking it during editing and revising. Depending on what you’re doing and who you have helping you revise your work, this could save you a considerable amount of time.