Writing stories requires us to build worlds. It’s a conjuring spell; a kind of alchemy.
For the spell to work, we have to make this other world feel real. Play tricks on our readers’ minds and immerse them in it, even just for a moment.
But first we need to understand how people actually see the real world around them. How we see it ourselves. Once we can do that, we can replicate this “way of seeing” in the way we write fictional worlds too. This is how we suspend disbelief.
Think about it: we’re myopic creatures. Our brains are short-sighted. While we’re capable of big ideas and long-term thinking, it’s the small thoughts and short-term matters that make up the vast majority of our lives.
We think of the world as a vast endless place. But in reality, it’s six feet across. The few feet around ourself. In reality, life is lived one moment at a time.
Our real world exists at arm’s length. It’s made up of what we can taste and feel, then reach, then smell, then hear, then see. Maybe a sixth sense too, if our tangible world gets too boring. Each sense detects the world a little further, but everything extends and returns to the centre. Our higher brain, then our primal brain, but most of all our gut feelings. We are, first and foremost, an elaborate digestive system in search of food. That’s the primary reason that we sense the world around us. Our world is whatever’s within reach – and whether we can eat or drink it to stay alive.
But how does this relate to storytelling? Well, the real world, the world within reach, also possesses a pervading sense of the mundane. Most of the things around us don’t shock or excite us. We aren’t thrilled by the novelty of a pen we’ve owned for years. We can use this mundane quality to make our fictional worlds feel real as well, and relax our readers into strange places that are still somehow familiar. We can weave in the boring and everyday with the spectacular, to strengthen that spell. A fantastical world, but one we can relate to through its sights, sounds, smells, and objects. We add clutter.
Most of the time, we don’t see the world as a vast landscape. It’s one room, then another, then maybe a wide open space. While we’re entirely capable of big ideas and huge achievements, most of the time we’re living from task to task. Chore to chore, and person to person. And, crucially, from object to object.
We don’t just “cook dinner”. That’s the wider process. In reality, we wash vegetables. We use a knife. We turn the gas on, and boil it up, and stare out the window, and wonder about our life for a while. Maybe see a small dead fly on the sill or something. Then the dust on the frame. Then decide the window’s due for a clean. Grumble at the ads on the radio. Wonder why gas flames are blue. Hope the meal’s going to taste alright when it’s done. Use a pinch of salt, or a spoon.
The point is, we move through a world of fragmented thoughts and objects. Life’s a constant string of microscopic events. A smell, a sound, a thought. One after one after one. It’s only by building up these tiny events over time that we have what we think of as “life” or “the world”. It’s not one monolithic entity, a single slab of stone, but layers and layers of experiential sediment. To make our stories feel more real, we can use words to build up this sensory sediment of its own.
The more you can focus a reader’s attention, the more you’ll suspend their disbelief. To build a convincing world, try to clutter it up with tons of tiny things that the reader, through the character, can interact with. A tool, or a passing bug; maybe an ornament over a fireplace. A cough, a scratch, a sneeze while someone’s talking. The feel of itchy robes. Tons and tons of tiny things.
Building a world isn’t just about vast landscapes. Paint the trees or buildings in the middle ground too. Make them feel real with cracks and weeds, as if we could walk up and touch them, and bring all that huge world into short focus too. The stuff we know, and see, and could touch up-close.
Our minds are hungry, and they came into your story to eat. Lay out the whole fantasy banquet, but also give us the reward of that first bite. Lay out the wider meal, then zoom us in on the main platter. Cut us a slice. Tell us about the slight steam on that glazed roasted meat. The homely smell of it, warm and welcoming while the snow falls outside. Tell us how it’s dripping with a rich gleaming sauce. Give our senses the payoff, for paying attention to your words.
As writers it’s our job to present meaning through story. That’s why people read, because it’s also why people think. But let’s not beat our readers over the head with just the big ideas; the big meanings. Present the huge landscapes in passing, then give people a closer look. Present the whole banquet of meanings, then give them a small single taste.
Walk with them slowly, right up close to the whole vast painting, and point out just one cherry in a bowl. That’s when we switch on their senses.
That’s when the fiction feels real.
I’ve been trying to achieve this with my own science fiction. If you need a new read, try it out here. Let me know if I’ve managed to do this, with the clutter in my stories – or what I should do to improve.