Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Book Review: World-Building in Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Writers learn about writing from reading books. That’s why everyone tells us to read! And most writers who have read The Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor love it. Not only is the prose something remarkable, the whole story excels because of fantastic world-building. World-building in a piece of literature—especially when it’s a sci-fi or fantasy genre—is arguably the most important thing in storytelling.

The world-building (and pacing of the world) in DoSaB is so good because it reveals the world slowly in a way that both offers information to the readers and withholds it at the same time. How do you decide what to tell readers and what to hold back?

I don't really know the answer to that. But I do know four things that Laini Taylor did in DoSaB that helps her create this well paced, well built world. I could talk about them forever (and have! This post used to be 14 page paper!) but I'm going to pull out one example for each of these things and maybe, you'll figure out a way to use these techniques to build your own world.

1) Offer enough information

Taylor’s fictional world is layered, which basically means each minor detail is built and expounded upon as the novel progresses. This layering works extremely well because it provides enough information to build the world, tells the reader what’s happening, and moves the story forward without throwing all the cards on the table. Example:

“What was Brimstone up to this weekend?” asked Zuzana.
 “The usual,” said Karou. “Buying teeth from murderers. He got some Nile crocodile teeth yesterday from this awful Somali poacher, but the idiot tried to steal from him and got half strangled by his snake collar.”
 “How do you make up this stuff, maniac?” Zuzana asked, all jealous wonderment.
 “Who says I do? I keep telling you, it’s all real.”
“Uh-huh. And all your hair grows out of your head that color, too.”
 “What? It totally does,” said Karou, passing a long blue strand through her fingers.

I like this conversation because it introduces three of the minor elements that are relevant throughout the book. Really, I found six throughout: chimaera, hair, wishes/teeth, portals, angels, and tattoos. Each of these things are introduced in passing, but end up having more importance later. It’s a layered connection. In the opening pages she’s offering up just enough information—that there are wishes, that someone is a chimaera creature who collects teeth, that Karou has blue hair.

Summary: You can introduce the minor things happening from the beginning without revealing what the purpose truly is upfront.

2) Offer frequent reminders

I won't use all the ways Taylor presents frequent reminders of her minor elements, but trust me: there are many. Taylor implements this technique by not allowing more than a few pages to pass before mentioning some element of the story. These elements are the six listed above: chimaera, hair, wishes/teeth, portals, angels, and tattoos.

These reminders keep everything fresh in the reader’s mind, while adding layers to the story and the world she is building. This reminder technique helps the reader follow Taylor into the transition of the third technique where Taylor solves an old mystery before presenting a new one because she’s steadily been mentioning these questions contained in a single word: chimaera, hair, wishes/teeth, portals, angels, and tattoos.

Summary: Remind me again and again so I don't forget--but don't beat me over the head.

3) Solve an old mystery when presenting a new one

There are many examples of this technique in the book. The biggest component of this story is the tie between wishes and teeth. Taylor offers plenty of specifics about the power of wishes without actually explaining how wishes are traded—or what they’re really used for. The reader knows that Karou gets scuppies (a wish denomination) from Brimstone for helping with errands—and that tooth-traders come into the shop to trade teeth for gavriels (more powerful wishes), but the weight is not fully felt until we learn of the most powerful wish, a bruxis.
A bruxis. That was the one wish more powerful than a gavriel, and its trade value was singular: the only way to purchase one was with ones own teeth. All of them, self-extracted.
This minor mention of the ‘bruxis’ and the removal of teeth makes a parallel between wishes and teeth and shows the reader that wishes come with consequences, and that the more powerful the wish, the more dire the consequences. In three lines, the mystery of wishes has been solved. Then, very quickly, Taylor introduces a new mystery because Karou goes into the chimaera world and discovers the mark she bares on her hands covering the bodies of the dead. By giving the answer to one of the story’s mysteries, but then revealing a larger connected mystery, Taylor keeps the story moving and the reader invested in what is happening.

Summary: Don't give me too many unanswered threads. Instead, introduce something and solve something one at a time. Especially if your story is complex.

4) Repeat details even after they have been fully explained

You ever hear that saying about forgiving but not forgetting? Well, this is kind of like that. Just because you've forgiven someone doesn't mean you can forget. Likewise, just because something has been explained doesn't mean it's not worth remembering. In fact, chances are, it should be remembered. By repeating explained details, you can influence all the things the reader does not know, and help the reader grasp the details better by drawing parallels and providing reminders.

Taylor uses many subtle conversations by bringing them full circle to help build the world. Her use of seemingly innocuous foreshadowing occurs many times throughout the text. This technique allows the world-building mysteries throughout the four sections to be seen as one cohesive and intricate plot. Taylor’s techniques also allow her to introduce what seem like new ideas, but are additional details that build upon smaller crumbs left throughout the novel.

By presenting and answering all the mysteries she does, Taylor is creating the foundation for the larger plot of the story—which is the truth of Karou’s identity. Once the foundation (chimaera, hair, wishes/teeth, portals, angels, and tattoos) is laid, the truth of Karou’s identity makes complete sense because all the elements work together.

Summary: Don't let us forget what we already know, so you can wow us with how things work together.

Obviously there are hundreds of ways to build (and reveal) a world. This is just one example--and it definitely won't work for everyone. But I think there are elements that are very relevant and at the least, you can learn some new approach. Now, go read this book. I even wrote an actual book review here, if you need more convincing. It has a lot to offer writers--and readers.

1 comment:

  1. I like how you broke down Taylor's world-building strengths and explained how/why they worked. I was really impressed with her use of the first category: offer enough information. I'm still in awe how she seemed to know just when to introduce Akiva's POV and flesh out his story and world with Madrigal. I think Taylor is quite skilled with her pacing. It was a bit slow for me, but I know I'm in the minority and I have a great amount of respect for Taylor for writing this book.

    My most favorite part? The use of teeth as wishes. Genius. AND the setting in Prague.