My debut novel, WIVES OF LUCIFER, has been through many incarnations since the first draft, almost as many as my young protagonist, but one aspect has remained stable: the setting. In this story, I invented alternate world concepts for what many would call Heaven and Hell and struggled mightily with taking the traditional concepts for both and turning them on their heads. I’m not a religious person, although somewhat schooled in the world’s religions, but have more of a cosmic and otherworldly view, heavily influenced by my background in astrology and the sciences. When I set out to create this new world, I discovered it was much more difficult than I ever imagined. Readers will suspend their beliefs somewhat, but only to the extent that they can accept what you are offering. There have been many times when I’ve read a story or seen a movie/TV show and declared, “Oh come on! Who would ever believe that could happen?”
Writing fantasy is pure delight. Dreaming up fantastical images and beings, or powers for your characters, can be enchanting and thrilling, and it’s easy to lose yourself in the incredible world of your own imaginings. As the architect, however, you must consider the structure carefully, building it brick by brick and avoiding the dreaded info-dump, something I easily fell prey to in my early writing.
Drafting the blueprint for my fantasy world, I discovered something called The Iceberg Principle, also known as The Theory of Omission, and attributed to the famed writer Ernest Hemingway. It essentially resulted from Mr. Hemingway beginning his writing career as a journalist, which required he write succinctly—just the important facts, sir—as word count dictated how much he could include when reporting a story. When he began to write fiction, he applied this habit by giving his readers only about 10% of what they really wanted. Hemingway believed the true meaning of a piece of writing should not be evident from the surface story, rather, the crux of the story lies below the surface and should be allowed to shine through. He claimed that good writing meant the reader should crave a conversation with him, asking for all the little details he wouldn’t share. Give them just enough so they understand what is going on, and to whet their appetite. And the more you as the writer know the easier it will be because you know the whole picture and you can narrow down just which details are essential for understanding. After that you can drop in others for fun or as added description.
When presenting any setting it’s necessary to avoid longwinded and isolated explanations. Instead mix them with action and dialogue. And remember the most important rule of all. Show your world to us, don’t tell it to us! I let my readers learn about the orphanage for the souls of dead babies by having my protagonist assigned to work there, hence it is discovered through her eyes and actions. I introduced my version of the Jinn by having her accidently bump into them where they unfortunately get stuck to her body and explode, covering her in slimy green goo.
Mr. Hemingway sums up like this: “A few things I have found to be true. If you leave out important things or events that you know about, the story is strengthened. If you leave or skip something because you do not know it, the story will be worthless. The test of any story is how very good the stuff that you, not your editors, omit.”* He claimed that only the tip of the iceberg should be visible in fiction—the reader should see only what is above the water—but the knowledge the author has about character and setting that never makes it into the story acts as the bulk of the iceberg. And that is what gives your story weight and gravity.
Well said, Mr. Hemingway. Your words are gold, just like always.
So craft your unique world carefully and painstakingly, then eke out little snippets as you go along, keeping your readers razzled and dazzled, just enough to draw them in…or perhaps…to dream about.