Last Friday I traveled to Baltimore for the Book Festival, and participated in (among others) a panel on worldbuilding. This week I spent trying to put together some new proposals (I’m out of contract) and planning my daughter’s second birthday party. As I worked on these two seemingly disparate activities, I realized how much they actually have in common. So, how is Party Planning like Worldbuilding? Let me count the ways:
1. You have to pick a theme (or at least a scheme). I love theme parties. Last year, my daughter’s birthday was music-themed. All the invitations and cupcakes had notes on them, the piñata was shaped like a drum, and the piñata stuffing was all little horns or other noisemakers (this was a mistake, I now realize). This year, we’re arranging the theme around one of her favorite picture books. But even if you don’t have a concrete theme, you are making some choices — is it a birthday party, a retirement party, a Halloween party, a wedding? (Those of you who have planned a wedding know the number one question out of every vendors mouth is “What are your colors?”) Is it a fancy party or a backyard barbecue? Whether you’ve picked a color scheme, a theme, or just an event to celebrate, you need to decide what kind of party you are throwing.
The same thing happens in worldbuilding. Initial choices are going to inform everything that comes after. Have you set your fantasy novel our world or another? Is this world similar to your standard medieval Europe, or 1930s Germany, or imperial China? How do the magic or creatures of this world relate back to that? What is your magical system? You have to do the same things for a science fiction novel, a historical novel, and even a realistic novel. What is the science fictional element that makes this world different from our own. Where and when is it set? With a historical novel, you need to decide exactly when and where it takes place and what inventions and knowledge the characters possess. (And no, it’s not enough to say 1940s Europe. 1941 London is a vastly different place than 1945.) And with a contemporary, you need to worldbuild too, even if it means asking yourself what kind of place your story is set in — where is it and what’s the weather and how well do people know each other and what’s the general atmosphere?
2. All your details must support the theme. Once I decided on the musical theme for my daughter’s party, I related everything else I did back to that, from the decorations to the icing on the cupcakes. Yeah, there were cute Toy Story stickers at the party store, but my theme was music, so I passed them by. If you have decided to throw an elegant wedding, you’re probably going to put your invites on fine linen or pearlized paper, to indicate that to guests. If you’re throwing a backyard barbecue on the other hand, checkered plastic tablecloths are A-OK. A Halloween party might have hot mulled cider on tap, but a 4th of July bash would be an odd place for it.
Worldbuilding works the same way. Everything else you put in the book must hearken back to the big decision you made early on. On an obvious level, it means your regency characters can’t suddenly get their hands on smartphones. But it affects more subtle choices, too. Can magic do anything, or just specific things, and how? Is magic a known quantity to all of society, or is a secret kept by a select few? How sciency do you want your science fiction, or are you handwaving some “red matter” into the mix? Is your real place a REAL real place (Washington, DC, The Vatican, or the Titanic), or is it a based-on-a-real-place (like my “Eli University”) or is it a could-be-real place (like Robyn Carr’s Virgin River). If you’ve decided that the New York City you’re writing about is the real New York City, then you can’t suddenly populate the Village with Edwardian mansions, or make it easy to get across town on the subway, or have people watch the sun set over the ocean. These are only a few examples, but this is the most important part of your story. You can’t promise one kind of world to your readers and then deliver details that don’t match.
3. Don’t make your guests guess what you’re getting at. Obscurity is not your friend. If you are throwing a costume party, make sure you tell people to dress up, and what kind of dress to wear (remember poor Bridget Jones?) I was recently at a barbecue where one poor guest showed up in silk and high heels. A few years ago, I made the mistake of carting my husband along to a gathering I didn’t realize was meant to be a girls-only gabfest. Let your guests know what they’re in for, and that goes when they arrive, too. If you are having an “everyone wears white” party (like that time on Gossip Girl), guests are going to give the side-eye to your spaghetti entree.
The same thing works for worldbuilding. You have entered a contract with your reader for a particular experience, and now’s the time when you can have fun with them. Your Arabian-nights-tinged story shouldn’t be without a harem or a desert trek, your futuristic science fiction about a world where people stay young forever should actually explore the consequences of that situation, and your “this is Yale but not really” book (like anyone ever wrote that) should have people playing matching games, trying to decide which fictional person, place, or event corresponds to the truth (five years down the line, my favorite of these is the time one of my characters interned with a famous blonde conservative firebrand who was writing a book titled Why All Liberals Should Be Eaten By Wild Dogs — because truth isn’t necessarily that far from fiction). Not only do you want the things in your book to match the world you’ve built for them, but you want your readers to go, “Oh, how clever, of course it’s like that.”
I’m off to stuff blow up balloons… and decide on magical currency systems. I hope this had provided some cake and ice cream for thought.