Building the foundation

Fast-moving plot: Check. High stakes: Check. But did you do enough to ground readers in your novel’s fictional world?

Building Blocks

It’s never easy to see the flaws in our own work. After toiling for years on a project, generating draft after draft, we’re so proud of ourselves when we finally reach the end. It is finished.

Or so we think.

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Enter the editor. When I sent my editor the final version of my thriller, The Veritas Deception, I waited expectantly for her congratulatory note on the originality and commercial viability of my book. Instead, she returned a 44-page letter with her suggested changes. I expected edits, of course, but less substantial ones, more akin to polishing – not excavating. But after reading through her suggestions a second time, I knew she was right.

It wasn’t finished yet.

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I needed to work on what she called “world building.” She explained that while my novel’s pace was break-neck and the tension high, I hadn’t done enough to ground my reader in the world I’d created.

First, we talked about each character’s backstory. I thought I had done my job by knowing where they’d gone to school, what their first jobs were, where they lived. I’d created a complex backstory about their relationships and resulting emotional baggage. But she asked: How did they get their jobs? What were their day-to-day lives like? How quickly did they move up through the ranks in their careers? One of my protagonists lived in New York. Where? She wanted to know. What kind of building? Did he have a doorman? I realized many of these concrete details were glaringly absent. Even if these bits of information would never make it into the final story, being fully versed in them would make all the difference in creating a believable cast for my novel.

I went back to the drawing board, did more research, and fleshed out their educational backgrounds, their job descriptions, their career trajectories, and how they had developed special skills in the years before appearing in my book. I thought about the specific encounters they had had as children that would affect their behavior as adults.

Next came the setting. It was great to say that my protagonist lived in an enormous estate. But what was the architectural design? What did the rooms look like? How was it perceived through the eyes of others? And while it was exciting that my characters escaped their pursuers through a crazy-cool getaway device in their garage, how exactly did that gadget work?

Another missing thread was showing my journalist protagonists actively involved in investigating. It was implied – they were on the run, trying to figure out who was behind a conspiracy – but the reader needed to see them actively searching online, figuring things out, and solving puzzles. This was another case of not simply telling the skills they had, but showing them in action.

The last part was changing the details from vague to specific: Other scene-setting things that were subtle, yet equally important. Instead of saying they were drinking wine, what kind of wine? When a character cooked an omelet, what was in it? Was someone reading a book? What book? These extra details added depth to the story and made it more realistic.

I’m a fiction author, and I can tend to sacrifice substance for form. We want those pages turned, the tension high, the read fast-paced. But I’ve learned fast is not always better. And if I want to engage my reader, I can’t overlook the details that turn the story world from far-fetched and fantastical to grounded and realistic. Still skeptical? Here’s a look at some of my “before world-building” and “after world-building” passages. Decide for yourself.

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 1. BEFORE

The sun was setting when he pulled into her driveway. He had never been to the house she shared with Malcolm Phillips. When he pulled up to the imposing stone estate, his eyes widened. Where was the moat? He could never live in a fortress like this, and he found it hard to believe that Taylor could. It had to be her husband’s doing.

AFTER

The sun was setting when he pulled up to the house. The massive black iron gates were closed, and he had to get out of the car to swipe the card reader. He had never been to the house Taylor shared with Malcolm, and when he pulled up to the enormous French colonial estate, his eyes widened. There were five stone arches illuminated by large round light fixtures above them. A second-story balcony ran across the entire front of the house. This house was over the top. He hadn’t realized senators made that much money. Had Taylor dipped into her trust fund, or did Malcolm have money of his own? He remembered reading something about it a while ago in Town and Country; it had its own basketball court, indoor pool, and home theater. Suited Malcolm perfectly, but Taylor? Maybe she had changed over the years.

2. BEFORE

He started the car and turned to Taylor. “Is there another way to get out of here?”

“Drive around to the back of the house.”

He pulled out and closed the garage door, hoping it couldn’t be heard on the street. He followed the curve of the driveway around to the back and then down a steep incline until they reached another set of gates.

“Do you have a key?”

She shook her head. “The gates will open as the car approaches.”

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Seconds later, they were on the road, and Jack was grateful for the blanket of darkness.

AFTER

Jack flew into action. “We have to leave. Now. Get in my car – it’s in the garage.” He pulled out his gun in case there were any surprises waiting for them in the garage.

“I have to get my stuff.”

He could hear something ramming against the door. They’d be in the house any second.

“No time. Let’s go.”

“But – ”

“Taylor, please!”

The dog started whining.

He started the car, not turning on the headlights. “I don’t know how we’re going to get past them.”

She pressed her index finger onto the fingerprint reader pad on the alarm panel, grabbed a key ring from the hook on the wall, and then got in the passenger seat. He watched in shock as the ground in front of the car opened into a black void that ultimately revealed a downward ramp.

“What the – ”

“It’s an underground tunnel. Installed by the previous owners.”

This was something new. He pressed on the gas and slid the car into the dark opening. It led them about a mile from the house – still her property, apparently – until they came to what looked like a solid concrete wall that was stained red from years of ground water rusting the concrete’s rebar.

“Now what?”

She took the key ring with a small LED flashlight attached and illuminated the wall until she found the embossed star on the face of the concrete. When she held the proximity sensor on the key chain against the star, the muted sound of mechanical movement commenced. The wall slowly opened as if it were a garage door.

Jack drove through and cast a sidelong view at Taylor. “Seriously? Was the previous owner regularly hunted by assassins or something?”

“She was a former head of state. It’s one of the things that drew Malcolm to the house. He thought it was cool. Like the bat cave or something.” She bit her lip. “I always thought it was ridiculous. Never thought I’d need to use it.”

Jack was relieved to see that theirs was the only car on the road.

 

Lynne Constantine is a coffee-drinking, Twitter-addicted fiction author always working on her next book. She likes to run her plots by Tucker, her golden retriever, who never criticizes them. Her next book, The Last Mrs. Parrish, will be released in 2017 by HarperCollins under the pen name Liv Constantine. She is the author of The Veritas Deception and the co-author of Circle Dance. Lynne is also a monthly contributor to Suspense Magazine where she shares her social media expertise. Web: lynneconstantine.com