Touchstones – Resyncing Your Readers to Your World

When writing fictional worlds, it’s easy to throw in a lot of detail that loses readers… especially in epic fantasy and sci-fi, where you’re not only showing a new world, you also might have a large cast of characters. With today’s ebooks and kindle devices, I find that I’m even less inclined to flip back if the author confuses me. I forge ahead hoping the author will offer me touchstone breadcrumbs that will lead me back to clarity. The challenge, of course, is that when you build a new world, you have to educate your readers about it. And, most people don’t remember details from one sitting or one reading. And, readers don’t want to have to study your world to get into it. The key is continual education along the way, and repetition of key points in a way that’s not redundant. (Simple… not always easy.)

I don’t read fiction like I read nonfiction. For nonfiction, I’ll read slowly, trying to absorb every detail to understand what it is I’m trying to learn. If I have to go back and reread something I missed, I will. When I read for pleasure, I don’t do this. I enjoy books with details, and I admit I write a highly detailed and complex world (especially when it comes to magic and metaphysics) in The Ahmbren Chronicles.

When I’m going through a sci-fi or fantasy world, if I get confused I usually don’t go back. I will keep reading with the expectation that the information stream will eventually resync me back into understanding what’s going on. If I forget who’s who, I’ll eventually learn from context, or re-learn the characters. I did this a lot with Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books… lost and don’t know what’s going on? Keep reading… eventually it will make sense again.

What this means, though, is that authors who put in key details and only mention them once might end up confusing me. I don’t want to slow down and go back a few pages. I will on a paperback, but this is really annoying on an ebook or kindle book. I look for those little reminders along the way. I don’t want things re-explained ad nauseum, but with the right balance, breadcrumbs can keep the forward momentum even if you get lost for a moment.

I recognize that in my own books, Ahmbren is a detailed world with a lot of complexities in the metaphysics (especially when it comes to Dragons and their incarnations). It’s why I put in touchstones throughout the story, little reminders that resync the reader with who the person is. I especially use this for secondary characters. I might rattle off a list of a ship’s crew, for example, such as Rimli the ratling carpenter, who had sawdust perpetually sprinkled over her fur. I try to give the readers a detail and a race to latch on to. If Rimli is seen a lot, I’ll refer to her simply as Rimli. However, if I don’t mention her again for fifty pages, I’ll refer to her again as Rimli, the ship’s ratling carpenter. That way, the reader doesn’t have to memorize a plethora of names along the way, but the important ones will stick out and solidify.

As another example, I have a fairly complex relationship between sidhe elves and humans in my world, which is explained in Myth and Incarnation (work in progress). Between the ages of 100 and 500 years old, an elf runs the risk of falling madly in love with every human they meet, the first time they meet them (once this happens once, they don’t fall for anything else). I call it “fastening”, and it’s as compelling as any love-spell or love-potion you’ve read about in those sorts of stories (think Love Potion Number 9). When I first introduce this concept, I also explain that once an elf matures as an elder (at 500 years), they no longer run this risk.

Pages later, I might remind the reader through smaller thoughts. The elf might think to herself “Thank goodness I’m an elder now, and there’s no danger of fastening on these humans,”… or something to that effect. It’s a natural thought for the character at the time, which reinforces a relatively complex set of world rules for the reader in a way that doesn’t slow the story down and doesn’t rehash the full explanation.

I think it’s important that writers do this, especially in sci-fi/fantasy. If you’re world building, you have three simultaneous tasks: tell me an entertaining story, educate me about your world, and be a travel guide for your world’s locales. These are three distinct threads, and they need to be seamless. Educate me without slowing down the story, tell me a story without confusing me about your world, and bring me into your setting just as much as you bring your characters to me.


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