World-building in Fiction: Suspending Doors and Disbelief

1. Keep the world coherent in time.

First let’s talk about whiplash. Sharp-eyed fans caught the hydro flask and water-bottle behind Timothée Chalamet in Little Women, and the Starbucks cup in Game of Thrones. While those are just bloopers, leaving anachronisms in can take your reader out of the story faster than bad dialog.

2. In a high-tech world, any novel technological capacities must be at least as advanced as today’s technology.

I really like the TV show Humans starring Gemma Chan, Colin Morgan, Letitia Wright and others (including Carrie-Anne Moss!!). It’s well-written, with great acting that really makes you feel for every single one of the characters, human or synthetic. A real feat. But somewhere around the point that the action started building towards each season’s climax and people and synths tried to reach each other in time to prevent some horrible disaster, something nagged at my mind. In a futuristic world where human-like AI’s are conscious, where such consciousness can be granted via an online software update, why does everyone (including the AIs) still use brick-sized phones to text and locate each other? How come online connection and peer-to-peer location tracking (today’s technology) are not built into these AIs?

Synth “Flash” reaching for her phone to contact other synths.

3. Any new world-element must achieve its full potential in the world, for better or worse, at least by the end of the story.

Going back to the show Humans for a moment, you can’t have a gorgeous human-like robot built for domestic service, and not think that there won’t be people using these robots for sex. Fortunately, Humans immediately acknowledges this and works through it.

4. In a world where anything is possible, explicitly throw the rules out the door on Day 1.

I remember seeing the very first episode of Voltron Legendary Defender, thinking it was just another alien-war show, and going… LIONS??? There are sentient space LIONS???? And before I had processed that, we had faster than light-speed travel, magical fantasy worlds, and a 10,000-year-old princess awakening from cryostasis with a British accent, all in the very first episode.

5. Preview the incredible and the terrible early, or they become deus ex machina later.

Let’s talk about the twist. Every story’s got to have at least one. The reader’s expecting the evil clone, the unthinkable experiment, or the original monster to pop out close to the climax. As a writer, you probably think you need to play your cards super-close to the chest. As a result, you usually err on the side of not sharing information about the world that might lead the reader to guess the twist.

  • What is the most fantastic technological advancement in this world? (1 episode)
  • What are all the supernatural / superhuman elements in this world? (5 episodes)
  • What is the worst thing that can happen to a character in this world? (15 episodes)
  • What is the most powerful weapon in this world? (20 episodes)

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Anat Deracine

Anat Deracine

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Author of "Driving by Starlight" https://goo.gl/N35aS1 and “The Night Wolves” http://bit.ly/TheNightWolves I'm on Twitter at @anat_deracine