You’ve decided who your main character is, and whether or not this is going to be in first person or third point of view, you’ve done all the research. All the brainstorming! ALL the outlining! ALL THE PREPARING! All that’s left to do is the writing.
Today, I want to talk about worldbuilding. That is, how you introduce your world to the readers. There are several techniques for this, but today I want to talk about, probably, one of the easiest ones. The technique of the student/initiate/outsider.
The S/I/O technique is common with the first person point of view and third person limited point of view, where you’re following just one character. Even though I’m calling the student/initiate/outsider technique they don’t literally have to be these things. Though, in the case of Harry Potter, he is a student, in the case of Shadow and Bone, is an initiate, and in the case of The Dark Elf Trilogy, he is an outsider.
Let’s be honest here, “outsider” is a pretty broad term anyway.
The point is, the character that the story follows is introduced to your world at the same time the reader is, they are learning as the reader learns. This sets up a clear path of information: 1) something happens to the character that they can’t explain; 2) someone explains it to them; 3) the character and the reader now know more about the world they’re in. It takes the pressure off having to dump all the information on the reader from the start.
This technique is also great for ramping up tension in the story. For instance, when “something new” happens to the main character there’s no way for them to know how to deal with it, allowing you to show how brutal or forgiving you’re going to be. When the dog’s shadow tears itself off the wall to attack your character will they end up in a fight, left bleeding and for dead in the middle of the street, or after a harrowing game of cat and mouse does your character escape. Both scenes add tension and show how (un)forgiving your story is.
Another great tension starter is the scene of separation; which happens after the character happens upon their mentor(s). Two of these scenes stand out for me: 1) the unintentional split-up, and the 2) proving myself moment. The unintentional split-up happens when the character does what they’re told, but somehow gets separated from the group. Suddenly, they are stuck in a situation without a safety net or backup, through no fault of their own, but still they’re suffering due to the unpredictable nature of the world they’re in. The proving myself moment is much more pro-active on the part of the character. Being flush with new found knowledge/power/confidence, the character sneaks away to kick the ass of the (thing that must not be named), only to find out it’s laid a trap, or what they thought it was is wrong and it’s something they aren’t prepared to fight. Again, both scenes add a sense of tension, but also highlight just how much the characters need to learn.
Another benefit of the controlled aspect of information is the tension of mystery. If there’s no one around to tell the character what’s happening the mystery of it, the tension of the unknown, can drive the story. The fumbling through the world, the hands-on learning, can be the fuel for the story. The need to acquire knowledge to survive the overarching plot.
Be careful with this technique though, because it can backfire so easily. You have to make sure you’re providing enough information to keep the reader interested in learning more, and you have to time the chunks of information to maintain the interest and deepen the understanding to keep a reader wanting to be in your world.
Be yourself, be well. Write yourself, write well.
PS: It is time I admit to my hypocrisy. I have felt uncomfortable for some time in following my own advice that being ‘being myself.’ For years I have written under a pseudonym, that of “Samuel Eden”. From this point on, though, I wish to write as myself, and thus shall be continuing under my true name: Faust Samhain Amazing.
Stuart Danker said:
Ooo yeah I’ve noticed the S/I/O technique being used pretty often in fiction. One way where it can get unrealistic is when the explainer rambles on and on, as if they become the story’s narrator for a moment.
Loved this post. Thanks for sharing!